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Sebastianism (Portuguese: Sebastianismo) is a Portuguese messianic myth, based on the belief that King Sebastian of Portugal, who disappeared in the battle of Alcácer Quibir, would reappear and return to Portugal at some point in the future. The belief gained momentum after an interpretation by priest António Vieira of Daniel 2 and the Book of Revelation that foreshadowed a Portuguese Fifth Empire. In Brazil the most important manifestation of Sebastianism took place in the context of the Proclamation of the Republic, when movements emerged that defended a return to the monarchy. It is categorised as an example of the King asleep in mountain folk motif, typified by people waiting for a hero. The Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote about such a hero in his epic Mensagem (The Message).

Sebastian the King

King Sebastian of Portugal
King Sebastian of Portugal

King Sebastian of Portugal (January 20, 1554 - August 4, 1578) was the grandson of John III, and became heir to the throne due to the death of his father, João, Crown Prince of Portugal, two weeks before his birth. This period had seen continued Portuguese colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and Brazil. The young King was educated under the guidance of the Jesuits. Luís de Camões dedicated the Lusiads to King Sebastian.

Almost immediately after coming of age, Sebastian began plans for the conquest of Morocco. The Portuguese landed in Asilah in 1578, and at the Ksar El Kebir the Portuguese, along with mercenaries from various parts of Christendom, were routed along with their ally the deposed Moroccan Sultan Abu Abdallah Mohammed II. After the disastrous defeat against the Saadians of Morocco, Sebastian was almost certainly killed in battle. Many Portuguese doubted the reports of his death however, and some still expected the king to return eventually based on other accounts of the outcome of the battle, and those who opposed the pretensions of King Phillip to the throne of Portugal tended to support such a version of events, and backed the rule of King Henry or the claims of António, Prior of Crato. To such an extent that, in 1640, King John IV of Portugal had to swear to yield his throne to Sebastian (who would have been 86 years old), in case he were to return.

In 1752, a Sebastianist predicted that a terrible earthquake would destroy Lisbon on All Saints' Day. After the Lisbon earthquake struck on All Saints' Day three years later (November 1, 1755), there was a surge of converts to Sebastianism.[1]

Appearance of Imposter Pretenders

Two years upon his death (or disappearance), Portugal fell under Habsburg rule. Since Sebastian's body was never definitively identified after his death, during this time, various impostors claimed to be King Sebastian in 1584, 1585, 1595 and 1598.

The first appeared in 1584; he was a commoner of Alcobaça, quickly apprehended and spared execution by a sentence to work in the galleys.

A second imposter was a son of a stone-cutter from the Azores, who had retired to a hermitage. Because of his frequent self-inflicted deprivations and penitences, those in nearby communities proclaimed him to be the King, atoning for the misfortune of his subjects. Despite his initial denials, he finally consented to the acclamation of local peasants. Traveling to Lisbon, he was paraded through the streets on an ass, exposed to the jeers of the populace, and publicly hanged.

A third Sebastian arose in Spain: an Augustinian monk, by the name Miguel dos Santos, who once had been a chaplain of Sebastian and confessor to Dom Antonio, and was ultimately confessor to the nunnery of Madrigal. His appearance recalled the person of Sebastian. In this setting, he met with Gabriel de Spinosa of Toledo, who persuaded him to impersonate Sebastian. He and Spinosa were both captured, forced to confess, and hanged.

A fourth impostor arose in Naples, but was transferred to a prison in Spain. His claims were undermined by his inability to speak Portuguese.[2]

Late Sebastianism in Brazil

With the proclamation of Brazil as a Republic in 1889 the Brazilian state became a secular state, in contrast to the former Brazilian Empire, where Catholicism had been the official religion. In imperial administration, the church had very important roles: functioning as registrar for births, deaths, weddings, and even for the recording of property.

The coup d'état against the régime of Emperor Pedro II and the republican reforms brought few changes in most people's lifestyle — for example, universal enfranchisement was not enacted —, the greatest change for Brazilians really was the "godless" government. Catholicism and the monarchy had been closely tied and strongly affected Brazilian people. Most of the opposition movements to the republic in the 1890s, 1900s and early 1910s had religious motivations. The character of D. Sebastião returned to people's imagination: he would come back to defend the divine right of the Brazilian Monarchy, who were directly descended from the Portuguese monarchs, to rule in Brazil and to defend Catholicism, which had been removed from government by the Republic.

In the state of Maranhão, there is a belief, especially on the Lençóis Island, on the coast of the state, that King D. Sebastião would live on this island, having many legends around his figure, how to become an enchanted black bull with a star on the forehead. The leather of the bull of Bumba-meu-Boi, especially those of sotaques of zabumba and the tambourines played with the back of the hand, from the regions of Cururupu and Guimarães, usually have the tip of the horns in gold metal and, embroidered on the forehead, of gold and jewels, in allusion to the legend. Afro-brazilian religions in the state, such as Tambor de Mina and terecô, also have a special connection with King Sebastião, who is believed to be an "encantado" (an entity with special powers).[3]

See also


  1. ^ deBoer, Jelle and Sanders, Donald, Earthquakes in Human History, Princeton University Press, 2005, page 100
  2. ^ A Historians' History of the World: Spain and Portugal, edited by Henry Smith Williams, Hooper and Jackson publishers (1908); pages 503-504.
  3. ^ "Na Ilha dos Lençóis, o Rei Sebastião é um pai para os nativos, que o veem". (in Brazilian Portuguese). Retrieved 2018-12-02.