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Watching Europe Deal With Colonialism


One thing that I find fascinating is that for all the talk about western Europe being supposedly more progressive than the U.S., as the Americans get serious about reckoning with their racist past, Europe really, really, really doesn’t want to have these conversations. Macron running for reelection by attacking critical race theory as a threat to the French state is the most ridiculous but also serious example of this. Another nation that doesn’t want to have these conversations is Portugal.

The national school curriculum, museums and tourism infrastructure all amount to a grandiose rendering of the country’s 15th to 17th-century “discoveries” in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and a selective recollection of its 20th-century colonial exploits in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé & Principe, Goa, Macau and East Timor.

There are monuments and statues up and down the country dedicated to navigators, missionary priests responsible for the conversion of Africans and Indigenous people to Catholicism, or soldiers who fought against African independence in the colonial wars. Meanwhile, it is often said that “Portugal is not a racist country”, despite enormous structural inequalities and decades of documented discrimination. “There has been a silencing here of centuries of violence and trauma,” says Kia Henda.

However, a burgeoning movement here – the Movimento Negro – along with global calls to “decolonise history”, have begun to challenge the way Portugal views itself, from past to present. The Movimento Negro has been around in various forms in Portugal since the start of the last century; the latest resurgence of it is now in its second generation. Most of the sizeable Black population in Portugal today are immigrants and their descendants from the former Portuguese African colonies, who emigrated here from the 1960s and hold in their memories and histories a very different version of Portugal’s past. Kia Henda’s memorial is seen as part of this process; erupting on the national landscape and expected to stay.

Significantly, the memorial is not an initiative of the Portuguese government, but came about in 2017, when the Djass Afro-descendent Association, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by the Portuguese MP, Beatriz Gomes Dias, won a popular vote for public funds.

The article goes on to provide a lot of important details about Portuguese slavery and colonization. Most Portuguese are only vaguely aware of any of this history. The point of this is to force the nation to have those conversations.

In making these connections, however, Roldão is touching upon one of the most contentious issues in Portugal today. The 16th century is the period Portugal is most proud of, an era known as “the age of the discoveries” that saw the country’s ascension as a global imperial power of fabulous wealth and a certain kind of cosmopolitanism. The epic, almost mythological way this history has been commemorated has made it a cornerstone of Portuguese national identity, as well as an important element in how it is marketed as a tourist destination – “Historical Lisbon, Global City”, as its application for UNESCO heritage status reads. And, in 2017 – the same year that the slavery memorial was first proposed by activists – Lisbon’s local council revealed its own plans for a “Museum of the Discoveries” along the same riverside.

Seeming to amplify the contested representations of this particular period – at a time when many are calling for them to be revised – the idea of a new Museum of the Discoveries, and in particular its name, has generated a national controversy that has divided historians and public opinion.

Critics say the way this history is still remembered in terms of “discoveries” and “encounters” with other cultures occludes the violence and brutality that the Portuguese inflicted to achieve the domination of their trading posts and colonies. “What you can tell from the case of the Museum of the Discoveries, is that the national narrative is still all about the influence that Portugal once had in the world,” says Marcos Cardão, a historian of Portuguese popular culture and identity.

These well-established renderings of Portuguese history are perhaps best encapsulated by the cluster of tourist attractions located just a few kilometres down-river from Campo das Cebolas, in Belém, which hark back to the 16th century. There is the Torre de Belem fortress; the Jerónimos monastery, which contains the tomb of Vasco da Gama – the celebrated navigator who charted the maritime route around Africa to India; and, perhaps most recognisable of all, the Monument to the Discoveries statue, and its panoply of oversized explorers, bards and missionary priests.

Unbeknownst to the tens of thousands of sightseers who come here every year, however, and carefully disguised in the wording of its visitors’ centre exhibits, this memorial is the product of a much later period in Portugal’s history, an invention of the nationalist dictatorship that ruled Portugal and its colonies from 1926 to 1974.

These conversations are extremely important in every country. In a nation such as Portugal, with a very long ago period of international power combined with a significant history of colonization and now a large African population in the nation from those colonies, these conversations are likely to be extra contentious as they develop.

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