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Flower power: Portugal’s Carnation Revolution

by Bernard O'Shea

April 25 is the anniversary of Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution“, which took place in 1974. Portugal might be a small country but the revolution had implications far beyond its borders, most notably in its colonies in Africa. Portugal could no longer afford to keep fighting to retain its colonies, and after it pulled out of them in haste, civil wars broke out in Mozambique and Angola as various factions (some backed by the Communist countries, others backed by the West – this was the era of the Cold War) tried to get control. These civil wars dragged on for ages, as did the guerrilla/liberation wars in other parts of southern Africa, where I was growing up at the time. It was an ugly period and there was a huge cost to bear in terms of human life.

In contrast, the events in Portugal were relatively peaceful. The story how the revolution got its nickname is interesting: much of the troop movement in Lisbon took place near the flower market, carnations were in bloom at the time, and the flowers were put in the rifles of the soldiers (who, thankfully, did not have to use them in what was largely a bloodless coup) and in the gun barrels of the tanks.

Below is the trailer to a film made in 2000, Capitães de Abril (The Captains of April), about the event. One of the most famous “faces” of the revolution is that of Salgueiro Maia (pictured at top), who was one of the captains involved and played a crucial part in its success.

Secret signals

The revolutionaries chose two songs as secret code to get things going. The first was Portugal’s 1974 Eurovision Song Contest entry, E Depois do Adeus, by Paulo de Carvalho. The contest was held in Brighton, England, a couple of weeks earlier. I would have thought that it might have been dangerous to pick this song, in case some disc jockey played it at random and thus unwittingly started the revolution process, but since the song (typical of the big-band smoochy ballads made popular at the time by the likes of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck) came joint last at Eurovision (ABBA won with Waterloo) perhaps it had sunk without trace on the Portuguese airwaves come 10.55pm on April 24, when it was played once more with significant ulterior motives.

The title would be translated as And After the Goodbye or Farewell, although the English title given it at the time was And After Love. Here is the Eurovision contest footage.

The second signal, José Afonso’s Grândola, Vila Morena,  followed 85 minutes later. José Afonso (popularly referred to as Zeca or Zeca Afonso) was one of the poets/minstrels of his generation, and a champion of the poor and oppressed at a time when, in the days of the Salazar dictatorship, it was dangerous to be one. He lived from 1929 to 1987.

The song is about a town called Grândola in the Alentejo. I like the line em cada esquina um amigo…  on every corner (there’s) a friend. It is played in the background to the film clip of Capitães de Abril above, but here’s another  photographs of the events of the time.

Relive the drama

If you have almost three hours to spare, and want to be transported back to the time of the revolution, below is a TV series A Hora da Liberdade (The hour of liberty) reliving the event. It is full of appropriately tense, nail-biting music. I cannot find a subtitled version of it, but three hours of Portuguese will be really good for your brain. The scene where they play Paulo’s song on the radio comes at 9 minutes and 35 seconds. The second musical signal is played at 12 minutes and 15 seconds.

In recent years, a couple of films with global releases have also examined this period of Portuguese history, both in terms of events in Portugal itself (Night Train to Lisbon) or in Africa (Tabu).

More on the Carnation Revolution

  • From the BBC News’ archives here is a flashback to that day in history.
  • If you speak Portuguese, you might find this site interesting – it gives all the details of the revolutionary broadcasts and the lyrics to the chosen songs.

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