Portuguese Tower of Newport

Excerpted from Dr. Manuel Luciano da Silva's Portuguese Pilgrims and Dighton Rock.  Bristol, R. I: [s. n.], 1971,  74-78


The Newport Tower, located in Touro Park (Newport, Rhode Island), is considered the single most enigmatic and puzzling structure to be found in the United States. Many scholars here and abroad have written extensively about its probable builders. They all agree that it was not erected by the American Indians. Its architectural characteristics indicate a style from Europe or the Near East.  



The tower is situated at 41° 27 minutes north latitude on the highest point of the peninsula which forms the City of Newport. It was built about a half mile from both the East and West shore lines of the city. Its panoramic view dominates all water entrances of the Narragansett Delta.  



The tower is a cylindrical structure with an outside diameter of 23 feet, and 24 1/2 feet in height. It has eight round columns or pillars, 7 1/2 feet high. 


Columns 1 and 5 are situated in a true North-South line oriented by the North Star. Each column rests on a base with a circumference of 12 feet. The columns are connected by 8 round arches, forming an inverted U and suggesting a Romanesque style. 


Above the arches are three principal windows. The first window, at 70' east northeast looks toward Easton Point and the mouth of the Sakonnet River. The second window is situated due south facing the Atlantic Ocean. The third window points west facing Newport Harbor and the entrance to Narragansett Bay. 


Inside, the Tower has 7 small niches and a so-called "fireplace" built into the wall. At the top of each column on the inner side, and between the arches, there are triangular sockets which served to insert wooden beams. 


The Tower is composed of laminated slate, sea-worn stones and mortar. The mortar is composed of sand, fine gravel and lime derived from sea shells or limestone. All these materials were native and could be found within the region nearby. The seashore is only one-half mile away.  



The round arch as an architectural form, first appeared in the Near East. Byzantine architects (IVth Century, A.D.) began constructing four-sided towers, gradually evolving into an octagonal shape, and finally building round towers on which to rest the domes of their churches. 


Since then, both the round and octagonal forms have been used interchangeably as serving the same architectural function. Both styles were adopted throughout Christendom. The church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (built 330 A.D.) containing the tomb of Christ, has around altar. The Templars worshipped at the main altar of the Holy Sepulcher Church. Upon returning from the Crusades (XIIth Century) they introduced round and octagonal churches throughout most of Europe. 


Initially, the round towers were used to support domes which symbolized the stars or heaven. But soon the same style was used in building the watchtowers of the medieval castles. There are many round and octagonal churches in Europe but most are to be found in Southern Europe. The secret of the Newport Tower lies in one of these round European structures erected by the Templars. 



There are two major theories concerning the on gin of Newport Tower: 1) the Arnold or Yankee theory, 2) The Norse, Viking, or Scandinavian theory.  



The Arnold theory is based on two assumptions: 1) Benedict Arnold, Governor of Newport, R. I. refers to the Tower in his will (November 24, 1677) as "my stonebuilt-windmilln." 2) The architectural form of the Tower resembles a windmill standing in Chesterton, England, where Arnold was born. Robert Philip Means in his book, Newport Tower (1942) disproved conclusively the Arnold theory. 


First, Means shows that Arnold was born far from the Town of Chesterton and what the Arnoldists refer to as a "mill" was actually an observatory of six arches and six columns. He also observes that in the year 1675 - when Arnold was supposed to have built the Tower - the colonists were engaged in a bloody Indian war known as ''King Philip's War." The year 1675 marked the peak of the war between colonists and Indians. How could Arnold mobilize the manpower to move tons of material to build such a fancy "windmilln" and not erect instead a fort to protect the whites from the rampaging red men? "Building from the ground up so amazing a windmill under these circumstances is inconceivable" Means asserted. 


And he finally proposed that, if Governor Arnold built the Newport Tower he should be credited with "the first and only tower windmill in the English-speaking world." 


If the Arnoldists insist on supporting their theory with a pair of hyphenated words ("stonebuilt-windmilln") they will be propping their view only with sentimentality and prejudice.  



The Viking theory is based on three assertions: 

1) According to the "Vinland Sagas", the Norsemen (Norwegians chiefly, Danes and Swedes) made voyages to North America from the Xth to the XIIth Centuries: 

     a) Leif Ericsson c. 1010 A.D. 

     b) Thorfinn Karlsefni c. 1010 A.D. 

     c) Bishop Eric Grunpfson c. 1121 A.D. 

2) The Norsemen, during that period, made the inscriptions on Dighton Rock. 

3) The Norsemen also built the Newport Tower as a Catholic Scandinavian church.  



1) The "Vinland Sagas" cannot be considered reliable historical references. The scholars that have studied "the Sagas" are the first to admit that they are a collection of legends carried down through generations of hearsay. Until more concrete evidence is found, no historical value can be attributed to the tales described in the voyages of the Norsemen to North America, and more specifically to Narragansett Bay. 


2) It has been demonstrated conclusively (Chap. 7) that the theory proposed by Charles Rafn in 1836, namely that Thorfinn Karlsefni was the author of the Dighton Rock inscriptions, has no foundation and is totally erroneous. 


3) The Scandinavians were the last to accept the Catholic religion. They also have the smallest number of round or octagonal churches in Europe. Denmark has one octagonal and three round churches. Sweden has two round ones and Norway none. 


Robert Means, after doing such excellent work in killing the Arnold theory, went specially to the Scandinavian countries hoping to find an abundance of round churches to uphold the Norse theory. He was heartbroken, when in Norway, the country chiefly associated with the Norse voyages, he could not find even one round or octagonal church standing. 


If we assume that Ericsson and Karlsefni came to America in the XIth Century, it is obvious they could not have built the Newport Tower inspired by the style of the Holy Sepul chre rotunda, because the first crusade to the Holy Land took place a century later. 


Bishop Eric Grunpfson also could not have built the round tower of Newport because there were, before his supposed departure, no round or octagonal churches in any of the Scandinavian countries. It is impossible to believe that with the tempting offer of heaven to those who would participate in the crusades, some Bishop would choose to venture into the unknown Atlantic to christianize the natives, when Christian Europe was actively fighting the Arab and Turkish infidels. If the Norsemen made so many trips to North America, as noted in the "Sagas", why did they not build any other church, round or square, elsewhere in America? 


If the Norsemen did come to North America, it is because they drifted into the Greenland Current which runs from Europe to Greenland. With their type of sailing vessel, the Norsemen could not navigate below the tip of Cape Cod, against the strong opposing winds and currents of the Gulf Stream. Centuries later, this same current forced the Pilgrims to navigate above Cape Cod, and away from their original destination of Virginia. 


The Norsemen also did not have the jib sail, which was necessary in order to navigate against the wind or in a zigzag fashion. This technique was later developed by the Portuguese. It is absurd to claim that the Norsemen navigated the rough North Atlantic, from Iceland or Greenland, directly to Narragansett Bay before the discovery of the caravel. 


The arguments in favor of the Norse theory are much weaker than those backing the Arnold theory. They are so vague and unspecific, that the Nordists can hardly support their theory on ethnic sentimentality and prejudice. 


Means confessed to be "bothered" by the evidence of Dighton Rock inscriptions in favor of Corte Real and also by the cannon and sword found near Ninigret Fort. He also states that "he saw in the old Portuguese fort of Tangier cannons like this one (at Ninigret)."


Disillusioned, Means, who painstakingly gathered material for the Norse theory, in the last chapter of his book nevertheless assigns a meager "five per cent" probability to the Portuguese theory of Newport Tower.  



The Portuguese theory begins in Tomar, a city in central Portugal. It is not a legend nor a saga. It is there today, gallant and beautiful, as the main rotunda or charola of the Castle of Tomar. It was erected in 1160 by the Portuguese Order of Templars, which later in 1320 was named Order of Christ. This Order furnished the financial resources, the manpower, and religious training for the navigators and missionaries of the Portuguese discoveries. The Portuguese Templars, inspired by the round and octagonal churches they saw in the Near East, especially the Holy Sepulcher, built five castles (Almoural, Idanha, Monsanto, Pombal, Tomar and Zezere) , in the same style.  


Newport Tower with 8 arches.
Charola, or main altar, with 8 round arches, in the Castle of Tomar.


The Castle of Tomar is the prototype of the Portuguese octagonal rotundas with eight arches. It has an outside wall which is round and terminates in a watch tower. Herbert Pell, former United States Ambassador to Portugal, was the first (1948) to make the direct connection between Newport Tower and the main tower of the Castle of Tomar. 


He pointed out that the Portuguese have always been good masons: "Even today their favorite way of construction is to use small stones thickly embedded in cement" which was the method used in Newport Tower. Pell should have noted that the Portuguese, during the time of the discoveries, used the same method to build more than 150 castles and churches in North, West, and East Africa, the Far East (Ceylon, Japan, India) and Brazil. 


No European country has built more churches and castles with round and octagonal towers than Portugal in so many distant lands. In fact, the Portuguese flag is the only one in the world in which there are castles. The arches of these castles resemble those of the Newport Tower. 


It does not matter for which purpose the Newport Tower was built: (a) windmill, (b) Catholic church rotunda, or (c) watchtower. The evidence in favor of the Portuguese theory by far outweighs that of the Yankee or Norse theories. 


The round windmills, which had their origin in Persia, were introduced into Europe by the Moors via the Iberian Peninsula. Advanced knowledge of the windmills was acquired by the Portuguese Navigators on their voyages to the Persian Gulf. 


In the United States, it is thought that Holland is the country that has the largest number of windmills. In actual fact, the Dutch have five-hundred windmills and Portugal has three thousand. We have seen that the Portuguese had the practice of building a combined church and fortress. Starting with the main rotunda (octagonal or round) , the church terminated in the watchtower. 


The construction of Newport Tower was a gigantic enterprise, considering the availability of material and manpower. Only a very strong motive could have inspired its builders. There are many octagonal and round churches in Portugal which could serve as prototypes to the Newport Tower. 


However, evidence strongly indicates that Miguel Corte-Real and his crew built the Newport Tower to use as a church-watchtower in anticipation that Miguel's oldest brother, Vasqueances, would come searching for him, as Miguel had done for Gaspar. 


As stated before, Dighton Rock is the primary evidence for the Corte-Real discovery of Narragansett Bay. Together with the anthropological and linguistic evidence, the Newport Tower constitutes another strong link in the Portuguese theory. One further link in the Portuguese chain of facts brings us to the archeological findings at Ninigret Fort. 


This chapter is reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Manuel Luciano da Silva.