Despite having been a colonial power for about half of its history, starting in the 15th century, Portugal’s public and international image has successfully distanced itself from the darker aspects of its past. Tourists in the country will most likely be reminded of Portugal as the leading country during the Age of Discoveries and Portuguese sailors will be described as heroic and intrepid explorers who accelerated globalization and promoted cultural exchanges, ignoring the role they played in establishing the transatlantic slave trade and the dehumanization of Africans which continued for centuries.
However, there is a growing generation of activists and academics calling on Portugal to come to terms with its colonial past and acknowledge how it still influences the lives of Black Portuguese people and immigrants in the country.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests and the conversations they generated in Portuguese society have led anti-racist and anti-colonialist activist groups to become more vocal and attract media attention. On the dawn of June 11, a statue of Jesuit priest and author António Vieira was vandalized in Lisbon, leading to a heated public debate about the limitations of anti-racist activism and Portugal’s erasure of colonialism.
The significance of this statue
The statue of Father António Vieira was erected three years ago. Already at that time, there was a lot of criticism surrounding the imagery and the homage paid to Vieira. The Father stands holding a cross with three indigenous children around him. This is supposed to illustrate how Vieira was critical of the treatment of indigenous people at the hands of Portuguese colonizers in Brazil and also of slavery as an institution.
Because of his work defending indigenous communities at a time when almost no one else would, Vieira is often considered to be one of the precursors of the abolitionist movement. However, this is an anachronism. Although Vieira criticized the actions of colonizers, he still viewed slavery of Africans as necessary. Some activists and academics accuse him of being a selective anti-slavery campaigner, who still perpetuated the dynamics of exploitation and dehumanization of Africans despite being critical of the enslavement of indigenous people.
Anti-colonialist activists saw the decision of the Lisbon Municipality to erect a statue celebrating Father António Vieira in 2017 as another example of Portuguese colonial revisionism. When the statue was inaugurated, it led to clashes between anti-colonialist activists and far-right groups. Although the clashes were not violent, it was probably the first time that a statue celebrating Portugal’s past was so heatedly debated in the public sphere.
Influence of Black Lives Matter
On June 11, 2020, the statue of Father António Vieira was splattered with red ink imitating blood with the words “decolonize” written on it. The Lisbon Municipality harshly criticized the action and cleaned it immediately, but photos of the vandalized statue spread like wildfire in social media.
Although this kind of vandalizing is unusual in Portugal, it seems to follow the trend inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Several other statues have been targeted in Europe, including in Brussels and Bristol. As Europe is faced with its colonial history, European society is forced to examine the significance of certain statues and the people and actions they value.
As Brazilian historian Ana Lucia Araujo stated to Euronews, “[The statues] “They are about memory, they are about the particular moments when the monuments were created, usually to sustain, to support a particular agenda of a particular group. The ghost of the past, the colonial past, is still haunting these spaces”.
However, in most European countries, the statues that are being vandalized date back to the colonial period, such as that of British slave trader Robert Milligan in London and those of King Leopold II in Belgium.
The Portuguese case is particular because the statue, despite its strong colonialist imagery, is extremely recent. While other countries seemed to have move forward and are now debating whether to keep statues that glorify colonialists, Portugal is still wondering whether it should erect new statues about its colonial history – albeit through a revisionist perspective that downplays the violence and exploitation at the heart of Portuguese colonialism across the world.
Alternatives to grapple with colonial past
Portuguese society is still very influenced by the myths of Portugal as “the good colonizer”, which never succumbed to the brutality of its Spanish or British counterparts. Although this narrative has been debunked several times, many generations were taught history through these lenses during the dictatorship period in the 20th century, and school history books were not updated with the Carnations Revolution in 1974. Instead, Portugal’s rapid and clumsy exit from the former colonies in Africa led to thousands of returnees, refugees and led to extremely violent civil wars in the newly independent African states.
But post colonialist debates taking place in academic circles all over the world have inspired scholars to dig deeper, and encouraged a new generation of Portuguese-African activists and artists to come forward with their unique experiences. Slowly, criticism of Portuguese colonialism seems to be penetrating mainstream consciousness and discourse.
One such example is the decision by the Lisbon Municipality to build a Slavery Memorial following a call through the Participatory Budget of Lisbon in 2017. There was a public consultation in which citizens could vote for the best project for the Memorial and the proposal “Plantation – Prosperity and Nightmare” of Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda was chosen as the winner. The monument is supposed to pay homage to all the Africans enslaved between the 15th and the 19th century, which mostly worked in the sugar cane plantations in Brazil.
The construction of this monument seems to be a step in the right direction, as it encourages Portuguese people to reflect on the impact of Portugal in the transatlantic slave trade. Yet, the construction of this Memorial may also be seen as a concession to vocal anti-racist activists, considering that the Municipality is simultaneously debating the construction of a Museum of the Discoveries to celebrate Portuguese history. It seems like Portugal is still struggling to move beyond a pleasant version of its past and face it head on.