Over five centuries after it launched the Atlantic slave trade, Portugal is preparing to build a memorial to the millions of Africans its ships carried into bondage.
Citizens of Lisbon voted in December for the monument to be built on a quayside where slave ships once unloaded.
Yet although the memorial has broad support, a divisive debate has ignited over how Portugal faces up to its colonial past and multiracial present.
“Doing this will be really good for our city,” said Beatriz Gomes Dias, president of Djass, an association of Afro-Portuguese citizens that launched the memorial plan.
“People really got behind the project, there was a recognition that something like this is needed,” said Gomes Dias.
“Many people told us this is important to bring justice to Portugal’s history here in Lisbon, which is a cosmopolitan and diverse capital with such a strong African presence.”
Portuguese vessels carried an estimated 5.8 million Africans into slavery.
However, some fear that history risks being hijacked by politics.
“I think it’s a good idea, but those behind this monument want to perpetuate a particular vision which, up to a certain point, is a myth,” said historian João Pedro Marques.
Slavery was a “barbarity,” said Marques, who has written several books on the subject. However, by the time it reached its height, he said, Lisbon played only a marginal role in a trade conducted directly between merchants in Angola and Brazil.
“The idea that Lisbon was the capital of the slave trade is a complete lie,” he said. “This is part of a political strategy … the far-left in Portugal is stirring this up. They are putting this on the political agenda.”
The Atlantic slave trade started in 1444, when 235 people snatched from the newly-discovered coast of West Africa were put up for sale in Lagos, now a laidback Portuguese beach resort on Europe’s southwestern tip.
Chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zurara was on hand. “Children, seeing themselves removed from their parents, ran hastily towards them,” he wrote. “Mothers clasped their children in their arms, and holding them, cast themselves upon the ground, covering them with their bodies, without heeding the blows which they were given.”
Over the next four centuries, Portuguese vessels would carry an estimated 5.8 million Africans into slavery. Most went to Brazil — a Portuguese colony until 1822.
A ‘whitewashed vision’?
Controversy over how Portugal should mark its role in the slave trade flared up last spring when President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid a state visit to Senegal.
Touring Gorée Island, an infamous departure point for slave ships, he said Portugal had recognized the “injustice of slavery” when it introduced limited abolitionist laws in 1760s. He did not follow leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Brazilian President Lula da Silva who issued apologies there.
A group of over 50 outraged intellectuals wrote to complain. “The president’s words have revived the whitewashed vision of colonial oppression that’s still very popular among the most retrograde sectors of Portuguese society,” they said in an open letter.
Others raced to Rebelo de Sousa’s defense, triggering a battle on opinion pages and social media that’s been ignited again with the debate over the slavery memorial.
“Building a memorial on the banks of the River Tagus is an excellent idea,” António Barreto, a political commentator and former Socialist Party lawmaker, wrote in the Diário de Notícias newspaper.
“So long as it’s not a monument to self-flagellation which, for reasons of historical opportunism and political demagogy, aims to show that Portuguese colonialism was crueler than the others,” he wrote.
Slavery casts a shadow over what Portuguese history portrays as a golden age when brave men in small boats set out to forge the first maritime routes linking Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America in the 15th and 16th centuries.
See also | The Psychology of Soft Slavery
The Age of Discoveries made this small country on Europe’s margins a global power and the exploits of those early explorers remain at the heart of national identity.
A belief lingers among Portuguese that their country’s colonialism was gentler than other European empires.
Portugal’s “heroes of the sea” are celebrated in the opening words of the national anthem. A navigational sphere decorates the flag. Statues of brawny seafarers dot the landscape. A statue of Prince Henry the Navigator, who instigated the discovery program, sits by the site of that first slave market in Lagos. A small museum also opened there in 2016.
Portugal’s African empire was Europe’s longest. It limped on until the mid-1970s, when junior army officers, sickened by colonial war, toppled the ruling dictatorship, opening the way for democracy at home and independence for the “overseas territories.”
Country of tolerance
Few Portuguese miss their imperial regime. Four decades on, no political force clings to colonial nostalgia. Yet a belief lingers that Portuguese colonialism was gentler than other European empires, marked by a tolerant interaction with other peoples and widespread racial mixing.
That tolerance, the narrative goes, is reflected in today’s Portugal.
Unlike just about everywhere else in Europe, there’s no significant far-right party spouting xenophobic populism; during Europe’s refugee crisis, a parliamentary consensus backed doubling the country’s refugee quota; in 2015, Portugal quietly voted in António Costa, whose father was Indian, as prime minister.
“Anyone who knows anything about Europe has to agree that Portugal is probably … the least racist country in Europe,” Renato Epifânio, president of the International Lusophone Movement, which promotes cultural ties between Portuguese-speaking countries. “This can, and should, be one of our greatest causes of pride.”
Supporters of that line have accused the far left of exaggerating problems of racism to push a U.S.-style political correctness inappropriate in a Portuguese context.
As an example, they point to accusations of racism hurled at former center-right leader Pedro Passos Coelho after he criticized recent legislation introduced by the Socialist government to liberalize immigration. Although Passos Coelho’s wife is black, official statistics suggest most migrants heading to Portugal are not.
Among the almost 47,000 new arrivals registered by the immigration service in 2016, over 21,000 came from elsewhere in the EU, led by French, Italians and Brits. Brazilians were the largest single nationality with 7,000. Just over 6,100 immigrants came from sub-Saharan Africa.
Among foreigners already living in the country there are 88,000 Africans, mostly from Cape Verde and Angola.
They are almost certainly outnumbered by Portuguese citizens of African descent, although the numbers are unknown since the country keeps no statistics based on race or ethnicity. Informal estimates suggest black people make up around 12 percent of those living and working in central Lisbon, with another 6 percent or so of Asian descent.
The rosy picture of racial integration has been clouded by studies suggesting discrimination in areas ranging from education to housing, employment to the justice system. Campaigners lament a shortage of black faces in politics, business and the media.
“You still hear the idea that Portuguese colonialism was different, benevolent, gentle. The idea is still common, but it’s far from the reality” — Fernando Rosas, historian
“There is a marginalization of blacks in Portugal … racism is deep-rooted, is systemic and it’s structural,” said Gomes Dias. “We have to admit that Portugal is as racist as other European countries.”
She hopes the slavery monument will help combat racism today. There are signs of change: Justice Minister Francisca Van Dunem is the first black woman to hold Cabinet office; Black and Asian actors are showing up increasingly in telenovelas; the image of a tolerant colonial past has been challenged by high-profile media productions.
Among them was series of documentaries presented by historian Fernando Rosas on the RTP2 TV network that highlighted historical horrors from a 16th century “breeding center” for slaves in rural Portugal to forced-labor regimes that continued in Angolan diamond mines and cocoa plantations on São Tomé long after slavery was officially abolished.
“All forms of colonialism were like that; the difference is that in Portugal it’s not talked about. It’s like it never happened,” Rosas said in an interview. “From people in authority and from the man in the street, you still hear the idea that Portuguese colonialism was different, benevolent, gentle. The idea is still common, but it’s far from the reality.”
Rosas was a founder of the Left Bloc, a radical party that is the most vocal political force in highlighting racial issues. The party stands accused, however, of not practicing what it preaches. Like other left-of-center parties, it has no black lawmakers.
The sole black member in the 230-seat parliament is Hélder Amaral, of the conservative CDS–People’s Party.
“In a country that has 500 years of links to Africa, there is just one black lawmaker,” Amaral said. “That’s odd, given that this is a country that likes to boast about being inter-racial and very open to relations with other peoples.”
Amaral agrees that there’s less overt racism in Portugal than many places, but says not enough is done to promote integration and opportunity.
“There are countries where the expression of racism and xenophobia is worse, but they have more capacity to integrate their communities,” he said. “We have a serious problem of inequality of opportunity, we have a serious problem with a society that is not fair in the treatment of its minorities.”
He welcomes the debate over the slavery memorial.
“Portugal is a fantastic country full of good things, but it has its faults and one of them is difficulty handling the bad periods in its history,” Amaral said. “The monument could be a step in the right direction.”
However, he warns against turning the memorial into “an ideological statement” that exacerbates divisions.
“I don’t want us to head towards a settling of scores with ourselves. I want people to understand what happened and why it happened and I want people to see this is the time to ensure that everybody has equal opportunities,” Amaral said. “This is not the moment to judge history, it’s the moment to understand history.”