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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Controversial Zé Povinho and the 1910 Portuguese Revolution

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

The Sovereign! - Zé Povinho. Signed: Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro. "Album das Glórias", Volume I, Nº 32, Lisbon, September 1882.


Before the October 5, 1910 revolution and the military overthrow of the centuries-old monarchy, the dream of ridding the country of kings and queens had lived for some time in the hearts of Portuguese republicans, including Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro.

Known for his illustrations, caricatures, sculpture and ceramics designs, Bordalo Pinheiro made caricatures of the monarchy . . . and every other institution and public person. Born into an artistic family in Lisbon in 1846, he died five years before the birth of the republic.

“Fiercely republican, fiercely anti-clerical, patriotically anti-British, all 35 of the convulsed years at the end of the 19th century in Portugal can be traced through his pioneering satirical caricatures. . . . As fearless as he was feared, as provocative as he was affectionate, he was a comedian who knew how to laugh at others – as well as at himself,” reported Visão (August 28, 2016).

His most popular figure was Zé Povinho (is short for José, and povinho is the diminutive of people). Bordalo Pinheiro drew Zé Povinho as a symbol of the people.

The ubiquitous Zé Povinho elicits strong feelings. Some jeer with him at injustice, especially when he holds his arms in manguito (an obscene gesture that consists of bending one arm with a closed fist and holding the inner bend of the elbow of that arm with the other hand), while others deplore his figure as representative of resigned passivity.

Birth of Zé Povinho

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro was published in several satirical periodicals, including his A Lanterna Magica. On June 12, 1875, the newspaper introduced Zé Povinho to Portugal in a cartoon alluding to Saint Anthony, whose feast day is celebrated the following day, reported RTP Ensina.


The birth of Zé Povinho


“The drawing depicts a collection for the saint, with an altar and a boy who asks for money from anyone passing by: but the boy has the face of António Serpa Pimentel, Minister of Finance, and Saint Anthony is, in fact, Fontes Pereira de Melo, the head of the government, who holds a boy with the face of King Dom Luís on his lap.

“Sitting next to him, looking stern and holding a whip, is the commander of the municipal guard. As for the person who passes by and is approached to give money, he is a character with a beard, who scratches his head with a disconcerted look, while paying. Written on his trousers is ‘Seu (Your) Zé Povinho’.

“And so, an emblematic figure of the national imagination was born, a kind of symbol of the Portuguese people, with one of its characteristic features: the payment of taxes, the fiscal burden, the plunder by politicians. It was the most important creation of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, whose name is forever associated with this figure.”

Later, in 1883, the Lisbon native invested all his energy, enthusiasm, creativity and savings into ceramics in the founding of a factory in the city of Caldas da Rainha, Leiria District, with the help of his brother, according to Visão.

“Wherever Rafael Bordelo was, fantasy happened,” João Paulo Cotrim (1965-2021), the writer who promoted illustrations and cartoons, told Visão. The ceramicist created vegetables, such as cabbage bowls and plates, and flowers, all with minute detail. He displayed his taste, already demonstrated in caricature, for animals transfigured as humans, which inspired the national treasure, artist Paula Rego (1935-2022), who knew his drawings from seeing them in newspapers at the house of her grandparents, who raised her.


A mapa cor-de-rosa (the Pink Map) of 1886 shows Portugal’s claim of a land corridor connecting Angola, on the east coast, and Mozambique, on the west coast. The area included most of what is present-day Zimbabwe and large parts of Zambia and Malawi.


John Bull Chamber Pot

In addition to household items, the ceramicist also worked on figures of Zé Povinho and Maria da Paciência, who was an old woman wearing a black cloak. In retribution to the 1890 British Ultimatum, along with many other pieces, he created a chamber pot with the features of the stout, top-hatted John Bull, a personification of Britain. Most historians cite the ultimatum and King Carlos I’s capitulation as a main factor in the fall of the monarchy 20 years later.

Under pressure from Cecil Rhodes, co-founder of De Beers Consolidated Mines (1888) and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (present-day South Africa) (1890-1896), the British government demanded withdrawal of Portuguese troops from Mashonaland and Matabeleland (both in present-day Zimbabwe) and the Shire-Nyasa region (present-day Malawi), where Portuguese and British interests overlapped, according to Lord Salisbury’s 1890 Ultimatum to Portugal and Anglo-Portuguese Relations (2006).

Britain was claiming sovereignty over land, which had been claimed by Portugal for centuries. It demanded that Portugal refrain from colonizing land between its colonies of Angola, on the west coast, and Mozambique, on the east coast.

Despite the popular uproar, Portugal acquiesced to British demands. The British Ultimatum was considered to be a breach of the Portuguese-British Alliance (1372) and a national humiliation by republications, who denounced the government and King Carlos I as responsible for it, according to The Politics of Non-Translation: A Case Study in Anglo-Portuguese Relations in Ideology and Translation (2000). The government of Prime Minister José Luciano de Castro fell, and it was succeeded by that of António de Serpa Pimentel.

The night after the ultimatum was accepted, Alfredo Keil composed the melody for A Portuguesa, which became the country’s national anthem in 1911 after the establishment of the First Republic. The music and lyrics of the previous anthem, Hymno da Carta (1834) had been composed by King Pedro IV of Portugal (who was also Emperor Pedro I of Brazil). Carta refers to the Constitutional Charter, which the king had granted to Portugal.

The British Ultimatum soured Portuguese-British relations for some time. However, in the late 1890s, Portugal suffered a severe economic crisis and acquired a British loan. Also, with the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Britain sought support from Portugal. Both countries signed a declaration on October 14, 1899, which reaffirmed former treaties of the alliance.

Last year, Portugal and Britain celebrated the 650th anniversary of the world’s oldest diplomatic alliance.

Kind . . . Skeptical . . . Cowardly

Bordallo Pinheiro, the ceramics company that today makes and sells replicas of Zé Povinho, among other pieces, characterized the bearded man as “the symbol of the modest Portuguese people, who pay for everything and laugh at everything, naïve, sensitive and distrustful” of institutions.

The Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro Museum in Lisbon is dedicated to the artist’s life and works.

At the Municipal Museum of Coimbra in the excellent exposition, Construir a República (Constructing the Republic), at the Chiado Building, much of his work is displayed as part of a 52-piece collection, including a John Bull spittoon and a porcelain jewelry box, labeled Portugal, with the talons of a bird, labeled Inglaterra (England), clamped onto it. The free exhibition, (September 16-November 5), comprises the pieces of the Collection of Aires Henriques (b.1947). Aires Barata Henriques, born in Troviscais Cimeiros, in the Municipality of Pedrógão Grande, Leiria District, is a respected researcher and writer of the historical and cultural heritage of Leiria and of the country.

José Leite de Vasconcelos (1858-1941), considered by many to be the founder of Portuguese ethnography, briefly references Zé Povinho, highlighting his kindness, typical of the Portuguese, according to O Gesto do Zé Povinho: Da Figa ao Manguito, Revista da Faculdade de Ciências Socias e Humanas de Universidade de Lisboa (March 26, 1991).

On the other hand, O Gesto do Zé Povinho says that the "self-caricature" is one that “many will find repulsive, humiliating or degrading”.

The manguito may have appeared only after the death of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, according to O Gesto do Zé Povinho:

“It was only in 1906 that we came across the first gesture of Zé displayed, as would later become almost proverbial, on the occasion of the 1906 elections. ‘DO YOU WANT A VOTE?”, asks Zé, in a drawing in Os Ridiculos, explaining himself in verses mocking the politician in question.

“In the 1910 elections (the last of the monarchy), Zé repeated the gesture now for all other politicians, even the Republicans, putting them all in the same bag. . . He disbelieves in everything and everyone and gives them the same gesture that tells them:

May the devil carry them

There is no ballot box that blinds me,

Because hunger cannot be tamed.

I have a pocket without anything.

I have an empty stomach.

Shove it! Shove it! Shove it!

At the appearance of a 2-meter-high replica of Zé Povinho in a public place, Expresso columnist Miguel Sousa Tavares said that, historically, social media and newspaper comment boxes are full of Zé Povinhos. He wrote in Expresso (April 14):

“It is extraordinary . . . that, after almost 150 years, the national imagination still continues to see the figure of Zé Povinho and his gesture of defiance against power and the powerful as a symbol of patriotic virtues and subtle resistance against abuse. However, Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro himself had characterized Zé Povinho as follows: ‘Resigned to corruption and injustice, kneeling under the burden of taxes and ignorant of the big issues, Zé Povinho looks from one side to the other and remains as always . . . the same.’

“In other words, the 150 years of glorification are nothing more than a hoax: Zé Povinho is not a hero, he is a coward. His manguito is not made in the faces of the powerful, but behind their backs, when they are not watching; he does not rebel, he conforms; he is lazy and idle; ignorant but conceited; envious and not a fighter; accommodating, disingenuous, slanderous.”

Moody’s Gets Manguito

However, there was one instance where Zé Povinho’s manguito seemed to reflect the indignation of most.

The European debt crisis took place in the European Union from 2009 until the late 2010s. Several eurozone states (Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus) were unable to repay or refinance their debt without the assistance of third parties such as the International Monetary Fund.

It was a difficult time.

In July 2011, Moody’s, one of three major credit rating agencies, downgraded Portugal’s debt rating to junk status, or noninvestment grade.

In response, a chain email with the representation of Zé Povinho’s manguito was forwarded automatically to Moody’s by the Bordallo Pinheiro ceramics firm with the press of a button, reported Lusa news agency, according to the Portuguese American Journal (July 20, 2011).

This email preceded the sale of the first ceramics copies of Zé Povinho’s manguito with the message, Toma, Moody’s!, (Shove It, Moody’s) inscribed on the base, reported Expresso (July 20, 2011).

Each piece was presented in its own box, with a postcard already addressed to the financial rating agency, which could be sent with a personalized message.

Two weeks later, the first run of manufactured replicas had been sold out, reported SAPO (August 3). Bordallo Pinheiro confirmed that “there are many people making reservations and even paying a deposit for the reservation at the Vista Alegre Atlantis stores and the Bordallo Pinheiro Factory Store.”

“I Don’t Belong”

Disillusioned with politics and, especially, with the lack of solidarity among fellow journalists, Rafael Bordelo Pinheiro dedicated himself to ceramics, according to Visão (August 28, 2016):

“I don’t belong to the gathering of journalists, that’s why I’m alone and there are no gatherings of one person; I don’t belong to the monarchist group because it calls me revolutionary; I don’t belong to the Republican Party because it calls me a sellout.”

He knew how to laugh, but there also was a deep sadness behind some of his work, according to Visão.


Proclamation of the Republic of Portugal on October 5, 1910, in Lisbon

(Photo by Joshua Benoliel)


Legacy of the First Republic

Many helped, supported or simply cheered the Republic, including Beatriz Ângelo, who in 1911 became the first woman to vote in Portugal. After attending the opening of the Constituent Assembly in June 1911, the country’s first woman surgeon wrote to a friend:

“I can tell you that I have never felt so much emotion in my life. I cried and cried and, when ashamed, furtively wiping away tears, I noticed that everyone, men and women, was the same.”

Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro, Beatriz Ângelo and so many others hoped that the new political situation would repair the monarchy’s flaws (government instability, financial crisis, economic backwardness and civic anomie), but the conclusion to be drawn in the 1920s was that the remedy for national maladies called for much more than the simple removal of a king, according to The Memory of the Portuguese First Republic throughout the Twentieth Century (Summer 2011), Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island).

The First Republic (1910-1926) experienced widespread terrorist attacks and political assassinations. There were nine presidencies (including Teofilo Braga, president of the provisional government) and 44 cabinet reorganizations. Between 1920 and 1925, 325 bombs exploded in the streets of Lisbon. Meanwhile, the cost of living increased 25-fold.

It was a turbulent time.

The First Republic ended with the May 28, 1926 coup d’etat, which initiated 48 years of corporatist and nationalist rule. A military dictatorship was established followed by the Estado Novo of António de Oliveira Salazar, which would end with the Carnation Revolution of 1974.

“Despite its overall failure, the First Republic endowed twentieth-century Portugal with an unsurpassable and enduring legacy – a renewed civil law, the basis for an educational revolution, the principle of separation between State and Church, the overseas empire (only brought to an end in 1975), and a strong symbolic culture whose materializations (the national flag, the national anthem and the naming of streets) nobody has dared to alter and which still define the present-day collective identity in the Portuguese. The Republic’s prime legacy was indeed that of memory.”

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Oct 11, 2023

Fascinating insight connecting iconic figure of Ze Povinho with Portuguese history, politics and culture

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