I’ve been obsessively curious about these small doors in the rock face that seem to be especially common around here. Some are very discreet, and when I once asked a neighbour he teased me by saying “It’s private”. “Secret?” I asked, “Yes, secret things” of course, came the answer.
From someone else I heard that all these little holes in walls were hiding spots for the tungsten that farmers dug from their land during the Second World War, to sell to the Germans. WW2? Now I was fully sucked in.
Despite Salazar’s Estado Novo having much in common with the 1930’s dictatorships of Italy and Germany, Portugal was bound by a 500 year old alliance with Britain and was somehow able (unified with fascist Spain) to remain neutral. Salazar apparently didn’t like Hitler anyway. This doesn’t mean Portugal missed the war, of course, but instead played a discreet double hand with both sides. During the war, Portugal was a place of intrigue: of espionage, of refuge for the rich and escape for the Jews, and of favours played out to keep both the Axis and the Allies appeased. And Salazar was paid in gold.
Whether or not the large deposits of wolframite ore that Portugal had had anything to do with the negotiations for neutrality can be debated. In any case, the Germans needed to secure a supply of tungsten (which comes from wolframite or scheelite ore) for use in the manufacture of weapons.
Tungsten, today most commonly used in the filament of light bulbs and halogen lighting, was then a vital component to strengthen alloys (metal combinations) and made armaments more heat resistant.
Salazar granted concessions to both the English and the Germans for several mines in the Alentejo, the Beira Alto and around Castelo Branco in the East. Thus began Portugal’s Black Gold rush. High unemployment and a depressed rural economy provoked thousands and thousands of young people, farmers and entrepreneurial types to leave their homes for the mines.
Firstly, the Germans and English provided fairly paid employment for miners, people (normally women) to wash the ore and in the processing factories. They were accommodated and fed. But perhaps more exciting was the widespread illegal mines run by freelance prospectors and by local landowners. The finds by these prospectors were sold to the Germans, or to the English, via intermediaries. There was also a side-industry of forgery.
And fortunes were being made! Even just having a job in the mines, a worker might earn the rough equivalent of €5 a day, and while not extravagant, it did have a lot more buying power in 1942 than it does today. It was highly preferable to the misery of ration tickets, and for some, a weeks’ wages was more money than they had ever seen. The bigger bucks was made by individual prospectors. Stories of men rolling cigarettes with 100$00 notes, using taxis and hired cars, illiterate men sporting parker pens in their breast pockets, of stays in luxury hotels with prostitutes, and fables of villagers trying to buy trains, or even whole railways emerged. The train story still circulates today, apparently much to the embarrassment of the current residents of the village.
In reality, a new sector of country people could afford to educate their children, build houses and see a doctor. The search for tungsten and the promise of riches lifted the spirits and gave hope to the disadvantaged rural communities of 1940’s Portugal.
As the war wore on, the price of tungsten began to drop and by 1944 Salazar had began to tire of German gold and to favour the Allies. The British motive had always been to deprive the Germans of as much tungsten as possible, and now they had began a more precise campaign to disrupt mining. On their side was that the towns had begun to fill with sick men and young widows in black. Frequent accidents and the ubiquitous health problems of the miners tinged the vibrant reputation of the mines. But there had been an environmental impact as well. Rivers full of dead fish and contaminated drinking water directly contributed to the local people’s resentment of the continued German presence. The British capitalised on this by encouraging dissent which even led to minor skirmishes at some mines. With the war turning in favour the Allies, Churchill finally convinced Salazar to kick the Germans out.
So today, all that remains are some strange little villages with ruins of large factories and company housing. In Arouce, one the main centres of tungsten mining, there is an unexpected aura of wealth in the town planning, but we saw no obvious sign of mansions, art deco style theatres or grand hotels. Only the stories live on. But they have nothing to do with the little doors in the walls.