A Brief History of Tagus Estuary Boats: illustrated postcards

A Brief History of Tagus Estuary Boats

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We’re happy to publish another article by Luís Bayó Veiga in the getLISBON invites series. This time the collector takes us through a vivid and captivating history of Tagus estuary boats, electing the Fragata as its Queen.

For a long time, the term “barca” was generically used in Tagus river boats to designate any kind of boat for traffic or for fishing.

Throughout the various phases of the 15th century maritime expansion, there were several transformations in the vessels used by the Portuguese.

According to the records of the time, in 1552 there were 1490 riverboats – barcas and batéis – serving the city of Lisbon. At the same time, about 1500 naus and other vessels from all parts of Christendom entered the port of Lisbon every year. They, anchored offshore, were supplied by different types of boats.

It can be seen that from the beginning of the 16th century, the barcas began to differ, due not only to the functions they were destined for, but also to the navigation routes used along Tagus.

To go up the river, to enter its shallow waters, to transport different types of merchandise, to exercise different fishing activities in the river and in the sea, required the construction of boats which differed by having a keel, a half keel or shallow bottom, curved or straight bows, as well as all kinds of masts and sails.

Particularly on Tagus river, fluvial traffic played an important role from long ago until mid-20th century, in the connection between the two banks, between the coast and the interior, between the river mouth and Riba-Tejo, both in the transport of merchandise and people, and also in fishing in the river or in the bordering coastal areas.

Aspects of the History of Tagus Estuary Boats

Shipyards and Typologies

Depending on their specific use and the inventive and creative capacity of fishermen, sailors, naval carpenters and caulkers, the several types of traditional Tagus river boats were all built in wood, in naval shipyards that proliferated mainly in the riverside villages.

Namely, on the south bank of the estuary, a few with some dimension in shipbuilding: Aldeagalega (Montijo), Alcochete Sarilhos Pequenos, Barreiro, Seixal, Amora and Arrentela; others with a handcraft nature, like the ones in Caramujo, Margueiras, Ginjal and Porto Brandão.

Upstream from Tejo, there were also shipyards in Valada, Punhete (Constância) and Rossio ao Sul do Tejo.

Thus, the traditional Tagus boats varied in shape, dimension and colour, according to their functions, the navigability of the routes they used and the particular style of each shipyard or village.

To know more we suggest the reading of Traditional Tagus Boats and Its Colourful Decorative Paintings.

The plurality of types of boats and their capabilities made their nomenclature extensive.

However, as they played a significant role in the Tagus riverside activity, some of them became better known and became part of the iconography and memory of those who lived with them, observed them or left records in various written works.

Among the most well-known, the following types of boats are referred to:

  • Transport of passengers: catraio, caíque, bote, batel, canoa, falua and the bote cacilheiro.
  • Transport of merchandise: barcos dos moinhos, barcos de Riba-Tejo, cargueiros, bateiras, faluas, canoa cacilheira, varinos and fragatas.
  • For fishing: caíques, saveiros and muletas.

Of all the boats, the varinos and the fragatas as cargo vessels, were the most representative and emblematic of the Tagus river.

Comparable for their wingspan, size and sail, they presented, however, significant differences in the structure of the hull, stern and bow.

A Brief History of Tagus Estuary Boats: pictures of varinos

Its name seems to have come from the “ovarinos“, boats from Ovar, it was an extremely elegant and beautifully decorated boat. It had the appearance of a large bateira (a traditional fishing boat from Avieiras do Tejo) with two bows, with the front one very sharp. It had a jib on a mast that leaned very steeply backwards.

Like the fragata, it also had a bulging hull, but more elegant and without a keel.

A Brief History of Tagus Estuary Boats: postcard illustrating fragatas

It was certainly the most emblematic in the history of Tagus estuary boats. Very solid, with an open mouth and flat stern, with a single mast with a pronounced inclination to the aft that carried a large sail and one or two headsails.

It was used for loading and unloading ships at the port of Lisbon, and also used for loading and unloading goods at the wharves on both banks.

It transported from 10 to 100 tons, so its dimensions were variable and it could measure between 20 and 25 metres long. With a mouth of 6.10m and a 2.60m head, it had two chambers, one fore and one aft. Its hull had a keel.

Its crew was small, consisting of only three to five men.

When there was no favourable wind, the fragata was towed by a small bote with oars.

The generic term fragata was also applied in a common way to different types of boats that fulfilled similar functions in the Tagus river, as was the case of the faluas, a kind of medium size between the bote and the large fragata.

Disappearance and Recovery of Old Boats

In truth, as far as the history of Tagus estuary boats is concerned, its scenery was, for centuries, quite different from the one we can see today!

All kinds of boats that then gave life, movement, colour, wealth, joys but also sufferings and tragedies, disappeared for good.

With the appearance of steamers, from the 1960’s, first with wheels with paddles and then propeller driven, designed to transport passengers between the two banks of the river, the small boats with the same purpose gradually disappeared.

In 1951, with the inauguration of the bridge at Vila Franca de Xira, which allowed a greater and quicker fluidity in the transport of merchandise between the two banks of the river, the navigation in the river upwards also lost its impact, and was no longer profitable for its owners.

Only the fragatas and varinos resisted until almost our days, having practically disappeared from the waters of the Tagus due to the appearance of new means of naval transport, such as the ferries, and by the myriad of road cargo transports, mainly from 1966 onwards when the Salazar Bridge, nowadays 25 de Abril Bridge, was inaugurated.

However, some botes and canoas still survive in Sarilhos Pequenos and Moita, thanks to the commitment and passion of some people, or with the support of the local authorities, respecting the memory and the patrimonial values and icons of a place or region.

Thanks to the contribution and commitment of the Seixal City Council, a few old boats of local traffic between wharves and ports of the Tagus estuary have been recovered for tourism purposes. They served until the early seventies of the last century.

Bote and Varino at the Seixal pier (nowadays)
Bote and Varino at the Seixal pier (nowadays)

This is the case of the botes-de-fragataBaía do Seixal” (1914) and “Gaivotas” (1934) and of the varinoAmoroso” (1921), which are part of the collection of the Municipal Eco Museum of Seixal as recreational boats. Other examples that have been commissioned to be recovered and preserved by other riverside municipalities such as Moita, Alcochete, Vila Franca de Xira and Azambuja should also be mentioned.

Iconography and Memory – The Fragata “Queen of Tagus”

Postcard illustrating fragatas on the Tagus, where a Bote Cacilheiro can be seen in the foreground
Fragatas on the Tagus, where a Bote Cacilheiro can be seen in the foreground

Throughout the history of Tagus’s boats, the most well-known were the fragatas, the varinos and the canoas. Today we still have oral memories, iconographic registers (engravings, drawings, paintings, photographs, illustrated postcards), literary pages in prose and verse, models and miniatures existing in several municipal museums of the Tagus riverside localities.

But, in spite of it total disappearance, it’s the fragata that by its dimension, its sails unfurled to the wind, its constant shuttling between the two banks of the Tagus river and the unmistakable life of its crew by the wharf that deserves the nickname of “Queen of the Tagus Estuary”…

Being part of Lisbon’s history and iconography, it was, and still is, the source of inspiration for Portuguese vaudeville and of an endless repertoire of verses, which in the form of lyrics are sung in fados and unforgettable songs, transmitting us a feeling of nostalgia and, why not, of longing.

Also read The Area of Cais do Sodré, Origin and Experiences by this author.

AA VV – Navegando no Tejo. Lisboa: Comissão de Coordenação da Região de Lisboa eVale do Tejo, Lisboa 1995.
BRANCO, D. Manuel Castello – Embarcações e artes de pesca – Lisnave, Lisboa, 1981.
BRITO ARANHA, A gravura de Madeira em Portugal por João Pedrozo, Lisboa, 1872.
CHAVES, Luis – Os barcos do Tejo – Fragatas e Varinos, – Revista Municipal Lisboa, Nº 10, 1941.
LEITÃO, Joaquim – Lisboa e o Tejo – Separata da Revista Municipal, Lisboa, 1949.
NABAIS, António – Barcos. Seixal: Câmara Municipal do Seixal – Seixal, 1982.
NABAIS, António – Barcos. In Dicionário da História de Lisboa. Sacavém: Carlos Quintas e Associados – Consultores, Lda -1994.
SOUZA, João – Caderno de todos os barcos do Tejo, tanto de carga e transporte como d’pesca – Lisboa, 1875.

Images: Personal archive of Luís Bayó Veiga

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