Elaine Sanceau, of French origin, was born in Croydon in 1896. After studying in Montreux, Switzerland, she left with her family for Brazil, where she remained until 1931. While in Brazil she began to learn about the colonial history of Portugal, particularly that of the 16th century, and began to carry out research into the period.
After leaving Brazil she settled in Porto, apparently with the intention of deepening her historical research. She later moved to Leça do Balio, in Porto’s northern suburbs. In 1939, her first major study was published: Indies Adventure; the Amazing Career of Afonso De Albuquerque, Captain-general and Governor of India (1509-1515), published in Portuguese as Afonso de Albuquerque - O Sonho da Índia. This book was recently described by a Brazilian reviewer as achieving in prose what Camões achieved in poetry.
Sanceau would eventually produce 38 books, of which 28 were on the 16th century. Among her other works was the British Factory at Oporto, a brief but enjoyable and idiosyncratic look at the Factory’s history. All of her books were written in English and then translated but her excellent knowledge of Portuguese made her a severe critic of the translators’ work. She was a diligent researcher and spent innumerable hours in the archives of Torre de Tombo and the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino. In October 1953, she was awarded a scholarship to visit the old Portuguese fortresses of Ceuta, Arzila and Tangier.
Not all of her books appear to have been published in English but those that did attracted favourable comment, such as one reviewer who wrote that “she writes with the ease and confidence of the seasoned professional, who not only knows her factual data but has also mastered the art of historical synthesis and interpretation”. Apart from those already mentioned, her books published in English included Reign of the Fortunate King: Manuel I of Portugal; The Land of Prester John; Knight of the Renaissance: D. Joao De Castro: Soldier, Sailor, Scientist and Viceroy of India, 1500-1548; Henry The Navigator: The Story of a Great Prince & His Times; and Captains of Brazil. In addition to her books, Sanceau contributed newspaper articles, including to the Anglo-Portuguese News.
Sanceau was awarded the "Camões Prize" in 1944 for Em Demanda do Preste João. She was also made an officer of the Order of Santiago de Espada in 1953 and the Order of Infante D. Henrique in 1961. She was elected as a member of the Institute of Coimbra, the International Academy of Portuguese Culture and the Centre for Overseas Studies. She was awarded the Gold Medal of the city of Porto in 1968. After her death, two days before Christmas in 1978, a road in the Seixo area of Porto was named after her. Her final work, Mulheres Portuguesas no Ultramar, was published posthumously.
British Factory at Oporto is available from the Society’s library, as are D. Henrique o Navegador and A Corte Multi-Racial do Rei D. Manuel, both in Portuguese.
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