Portugal Explores The Dark Side Of Its Colonial Past

Oct 11, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 11:14 am
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Portugal has a rich history of exploring once uncharted lands, like Brazil and Africa. But with that history comes the shame of the slave trade. In Lisbon, two separate public projects - a slavery memorial and a museum celebrating Portuguese exploration - have become lightning rods for debate about the country's colonial past. Jake Cigainero reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: These gentle, rolling waves once carried African slaves from Lisbon to the New World. A memorial recognizing Portugal's role in the colonial slave trade will be erected in a grassy square steps away. The memorial was approved in a public vote. But controversy about the country's history of colonization and slavery still continues.

Descendants from former colonies like Angola and Mozambique say up until now, they have been denied a place in Portugal's history. Beatriz Gomes Dias is the president of Djass, the anti-racism association that proposed the slavery memorial.

BEATRIZ GOMES DIAS: Sometimes I remember me being a child and living in Lisbon and having no references, looking at majority of Portuguese people and not being like them and not having a place for me and for people like me.

CIGAINERO: Her group wants to honor slaves she says are often portrayed in Portuguese history as no more than goods for trade. Politicians here often claim Portugal is one of the least racist countries in Europe. But Dias says many black Portuguese don't agree.

DIAS: Black Portuguese are not recognized as Portuguese because they're always relating black Portuguese to the countries in Africa that were occupied by Portugal.

CIGAINERO: Dias is also a critic of the other historic project planned for Lisbon, the tentatively named Museum of Discoveries, which would tell the story of the amazing voyages of exploration carried out by Portuguese navigators who first charted routes around Africa, India and South America. Dias and other critics say the museum's theme would whitewash the violence of Portugal's colonial history. But in turn, the supporters of the museum accuse their detractors of denying the triumphs of Portuguese explorers.

RENATO EPIFANIO: All other issues, like scientific discoveries, culture relationships, they do not exist - only the question of slavery. For us, it is profoundly wrong.

CIGAINERO: That's Renato Epifanio, the president of the International Lusophone Movement, which promotes Portuguese language and culture around the world. Epifanio says the Portuguese didn't invent slavery, but it was part of their history. He says the slavery memorial and the Museum of Discoveries would complement each other in the right context. But that context doesn't exist in Portugal, according to anthropologist Bruno Sena Martins.

BRUNO SENA MARTINS: Portugal has a self-representation in which the violent history of colonialism is not part of it.

CIGAINERO: Martins lectures at Portuguese high schools about slavery and colonial violence. He says there's a clear resistance to talking about slavery and the official history curriculum downplays the subject.

MARTINS: Ignoring racism or colonial history is to accept the continuing violence of racism in our society.

CIGAINERO: Fernando?

FERNANDO ROSAS: Yes.

CIGAINERO: Hi.

ROSAS: How are you?

CIGAINERO: This is not a new debate for Portugal. Fernando Rosas, a historian and former parliamentarian says the difference today is that researchers of African descent are changing how Portugal talks about its past. That's why, he says, the museum will need a different name.

ROSAS: Discovery Museum - we didn't discover anything because people was there. And the people that was there discovered also the Portuguese. The right name is Museum of Colonialism because it is about that that you are speaking.

CIGAINERO: When the slavery memorial is unveiled next year, Rosas says it will be a milestone in the fight between Portugal's past and its future. For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Lisbon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.