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Sebastianism (Portuguese: sebastianismo) is a Portuguese messianic myth, based on the belief that King Sebastian of Portugal, disappeared in the battle of Alcácer Quibir, will return to save Portugal. The belief gained momentum after an interpretation by priest António Vieira of Daniel 2 and the Book of Revelation that foreshowed 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 in the mountain folk motif, typified by people waiting for a hero to return to save them. The Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote about such an hero in his epic Mensagem (The Message).
Sebastian, the Child King
King Sebastian of Portugal (January 20, 1554 - August 4, 1578), grandson of John III, who became heir to the throne due to the death of his father, João, Crown Prince of Portugal in 1554 two weeks before his birth, and who succeeded to the throne three years later. This period saw continued Portuguese colonial expansion in Africa, Asia and Brazil. The young King grew up under the guidance of the Jesuits. Luís de Camões dedicated the Lusiads to King Sebastian.
The birth of a hero and a myth
Almost immediately after coming of age, Sebastian began plans for a great crusade against the Moroccans of Fez. The Portuguese crossed into Morocco in 1578 and, against the advice of his commanders, Sebastian marched deep inland. At Ksar El Kebir (Field of the Three Kings) the Portuguese were routed by Ahmed Mohammed of Fez, and Sebastian was almost certainly killed in battle or subsequently executed. But for the Portuguese people, he had just disappeared and would return home one day, to such an extent that, in 1640, King John IV of Portugal had to swear to yield his throne to Sebastian, in case Sebastian (who would have been 86 years old) were to return.
After his death (or disappearance), Portuguese nobility saw its independence gone (1580). In the time of Habsburg rule (1580-1640), impostors claimed to be King Sebastian in 1584, 1585, 1595 and 1598. Because of these events, Sebastian passed into legend as a great Portuguese patriot and hero — the "sleeping king", who would return to help Portugal in its darkest hour.
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.
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.
- deBoer, Jelle and Sanders, Donald, Earthquakes in Human History, Princeton University Press, 2005, page 100