Portugal, colonialism and racial justice – From denial to reparation
With the growth of the anti-racist movement in Portugal, our entire national narrative is being challenged, confronting us with the possibility of racism as a structural reality in Portugal. Are we a racist country?
The most racist country is the one that is not aware of its own racism.
A dissonant identity
The slogan: "Portugal is a country of gentle manners" was crafted by Portugal's former authoritarian regime, which was overthrown in the famous Carnation Revolution of 1974. Through censorship and mass propaganda, the state had inculcated the belief that in Portugal, unlike in other countries, things generally take place in a nonviolent manner, in a climate of kindness and respect for others.
Through enforcing this narrative, state propaganda attempted to hide the repressive character of the dictatorship, whose police persecuted, tortured and murdered members of the opposition, while keeping large parts of the population in misery and ignorance.
In a similar way, the disturbing romanticization of Portugal’s colonial history has shielded us from a confrontation with the reality of colonialism and how it still lingers on today.
Yes, we can be a welcoming and warm-hearted people. But if we are to achieve profound societal change, we need to shed light on our history and arrive at a deeper understanding of what could be described as the psychological make-up of modern-day Portugal.
Our colonial legacy
Portuguese ranks as the fifth most spoken language in the world. Can we imagine what lies behind such a fact? How can it be that up until this day, we’ve settled for a narrative of having been benevolent colonizers, raising monuments to the “discoveries” and paying tribute to its protagonists?
Portugal was the initiator of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 15th century, subjugating native Black populations from West Africa and shipping them as slaves to Brazil. From the 16th to the late 19th century, we became one of the most prolific slave traders globally, kidnapping, enslaving and deporting approximately 5.8 million people overseas, more than any other colonizing nation.
Despite Portugal’s withdrawal from slave trade activities in the wake of the abolitionist movement, little more than 200 years ago, its colonial endeavor was far from over. Portugal’s colonial empire, one of the longest-lived empires in world history, existed for almost six centuries — crushing Indigenous cultures of Brazil, of the West and East coasts of Africa, and imposing its rule in parts of India, Malacca (Malaysia), the Maluku Islands (formerly known as “the Spice Islands”), Macao (China) and Nagasaki (Japan).
Little more than 40 years ago, Portugal was still fighting a colonial war, repressing emerging independence movements in its African colonies – Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.
What is written in history books and taught in school is the continuation of a narrative that served as the foundation for colonialism: the idea of the racial and cultural superiority of White Christian Europeans over “primitive” Indigenous and Black populations, coupled with the romanticized image of the Portuguese colonial empire as a somewhat peaceful form of entrepreneurship and intercultural exchange.
In reality, colonialism was nothing more than the atrocious enslavement and genocide of other peoples for resource extraction and cheap labor, or in other words, greedy economic self-interest. There can be little doubt today that the White Western world owes its unparalleled wealth and “proud legacy” of civilizational “progress” largely to the violent coercion of colonialism.
Throughout history, we have witnessed several attempts to justify the “colonial project” and dissociate ourselves from the consistent and unspeakable cruelties behind it.
In the 1930s, with the slogan “Portugal is not a small country,” Portugal’s ruling dictatorship cultivated a sense of national pride derived from the dimensions of Portugal’s colonial empire. However, in the 1950s, at a time when colonial empires were collapsing all over the world, the regime faced the need to justify its colonial presence in Africa. Therefore, it amplified a narrative of “luso-tropicalism” – an imaginary sense of Portugal as a multi-racial, pluri-continental nation with an innate capacity for friendly and nonviolent colonization and a liberal attitude towards interracial sexual relations and marriage. Suppressing the realities of racism and colonialism, state propaganda became concretized in statues, monuments and history books, ensuring that a perfectly alienated version of history was set in stone.
The racial hierarchy behind colonialism
Colonialism goes hand in hand with a felt sense of racial hierarchy and with the ongoing dehumanization of the oppressed. This serves to perpetuate a power relation between different races which continues to steer our social behavior to the extent that it remains unacknowledged.
"We’re not past denial yet. Racism has to do with a psychological process that goes from denial to guilt, from guilt to shame, from shame to recognition and from recognition to reparation."
In 1444, when the Portuguese Prince, Henry the Navigator, became the first European to sail to sub-Saharan Africa, seizing captives directly, rather than buying slaves from North-African middlemen, the King of Portugal hired Gomes Eanes de Zurara, Chief Chronicler of the Kingdom of Portugal, to write a biography on Prince Henry.
As John Biewen, in the podcast How Race was Made, explains, “[Zurara] claimed that Prince Henry’s main motive was to bring [sub-saharans] to Christianity. So Zurara portrayed slavery as an improvement over freedom in Africa, where, he wrote, ‘They lived like beasts.’ They ‘had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in bestial sloth.’ Zurara’s writings were widely circulated among the elite in Portugal. In the coming years, the Portuguese, and their ideas about Africans, led the way as the African slave trade expanded among countries like Spain, Holland, France and England.”
Ideas of White Supremacy and “development” came in handy when colonizing nations were looking for ideologies that would justify this kind of ruthless subjugation; as the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” In other words, “race” as we know it today — with no reference to modern biology or anthropology — was manufactured by the early ideologues of colonialism to justify the unjustifiable.
Referring to Portugal’s confrontation with the true face of colonialism, Grada Kilomba, Portuguese writer, artist and psychologist, states, “we continue to feed on a romantic past, without associating it with guilt, shame, genocide, exclusion, marginalisation, exploitation, [or] dehumanisation.” Her analysis continues: "We’re not past denial yet. [Racism] has to do with a psychological process that goes from denial to guilt, from guilt to shame, from shame to recognition and from recognition to reparation. […] I feel that we are completely in denial."
Broadening our understanding of racism
With the growth of the anti-racist movement in Portugal, our entire national narrative is being challenged, confronting us with the possibility of racism as a structural reality in Portugal. “Are we a racist country?” – the question strikes us as shocking.
Rui Rio, leader of Portugal’s leading center-right opposition party (PSD), says that “there’s no racism in Portuguese society”. Similarly, Jerónimo de Sousa, secretary-general of the Communist Party (PCP) says that “the overwhelming majority of the Portuguese people aren’t racist.”
Here, we’re dealing with two different definitions of racism.
One is based on the stereotype of a racist as an individual, intentionally carrying out acts of meanness motivated by racial hatred. Another definition describes racism as “a system that encompasses economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that institutionalize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between White people and people of Color” (Asa G. Hilliard) – a system into which we’re all socialized and that trickles down to every level of society, from the functioning of institutions to a concealed mindset of racial hierarchy, right up to explicit acts of racism.
Confronting White people with the historical system of White superiority and with their own internalized racism can be extremely challenging, triggering numerous evasion and defense mechanisms often described as “White fragility” (Robin diAngelo). In the words of Layla F. Saad, “You will assume that what is being criticised is your skin color and your individual goodness, rather than your complicity in a system of oppression that is designed to benefit you at the expense of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] in ways that you are not even aware of.”
National identity and islamophobia
In this article, I’m mainly focusing on Portugal’s historical oppression of and subsequent systemic racism towards African populations. However, addressing other long-standing power relations could also explain much of what is currently normalized in terms of ethnic and racial tensions.
A key piece is Portugal’s erasure of its Islamic influences, ever since the gradual reconquest of Moorish territory carried out by Christian rulers of the Iberian Peninsula, concluded in the 13th century.
Marta Vidal, journalist, writes, “Since then, Portuguese identity has been constructed in opposition to the Moors, historically depicted as enemies”. These times were shaped by the construction of a European identity that defined itself “in opposition to Muslims, and a crusading mentality that depicted Christian-Muslim relations in conflictive terms.”
During Portugal’s dictatorship, these cultural and religious divisions were reignited and amplified, as Vidal affirms, “With Catholicism at the core of nationalist narratives, the ultraconservative dictatorship depicted Muslims as invaders and ‘enemies of the Christian nation’”.
Currently in Portugal
In 2018, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a human rights monitoring body of the Council of Europe, issued warnings about the infiltration of far-right and neo-Nazi groups inside Portuguese police forces and the political sphere. Manuel Morais, vice-president of the largest police trade union (Associação Sindical de Profissionais de Polícia), was forced to resign, after condemning the presence of racist and xenophobic elements inside the police forces, accusing the monitoring organs of turning a blind eye to it. In the national elections of 2019, André Ventura, head of the newly formed far-right political party “Chega” won a seat in the Portuguese national parliament. In August, the brutal killing of Bruno Candé, a 39-year-old Portuguese Black man murdered in broad daylight by a White 76-year-old veteran from the Portuguese Colonial War showed the reluctance of several political figures and parts of the general population to accept the blatant racism motivating the crime.
What was our role in the systematic destabilization of the economy and livelihoods of these former colonies, so that people needed to leave behind everything they’ve known and set off to a new and uncertain start?
But beyond straightforward signs of a churning atmosphere of racism, where all alarms are sounding, Black, Indigenous and People of Color and other ethnicities, are generally at a loss at every level of society – from access to housing and healthcare, to poor prospects in education and employment.
The majority of Afro-Portuguese citizens have immigrated or are descendants of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies which still use Portuguese as their official language (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Equatorial Guinea). Many of them have come seeking a dignified life and end up settling in cheap peripheral areas which they can afford. Many of these are highly segregated neighborhoods with a high concentration of both Afro-descendants and other marginalized populations, such as Roma people, who share similar socio-economic difficulties. In these areas, there’s little investment of public money in the improvement of public services such as education, healthcare, or culture.
As a result of the historical oppression these populations have been subject to, it's much more likely that they will suffer from poverty and experience severe limitations to both their educational and professional prospects.
It’s clear that socio-economic constraints are at work here, and we can witness the pull of a vicious cycle that binds generations to the lower end of society – race is surely not the single conditioning factor.
But we could also ask – why did Africans need to leave their homelands in search of a dignified life abroad in the first place? What was our role in the systematic destabilization of the economy and livelihoods of these former colonies, so that people needed to leave behind everything they’ve known and set off to a new and uncertain start?
Cristina Roldão, sociologist, states that “to speak of racism is not to hide other forms of inequality – gender, class, among others. These power relations are articulated.” At every level of society, there’s a convergence of different systems of oppression that interlink to shape our daily life – be it through racism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, anthropocentrism – structurally benefiting Whites over Black, Indigenous and People of Color, men over women, rich over poor, cisgender heterosexuals over LGBTQ, and humans over animals, plants and the Earth.
Just as the present system still upholds the ideological and psychosocial conditions that produced and sustained the colonial reality, we might also find in us that which allowed this land to embrace diversity and enable the coexistence of different cultures and religions.
Repairing the historical legacy of White Supremacy and colonialism involves moving from denial to recognition in order to collectively transform the systemic forms in which it still lingers on – ideologically, institutionally and psychosocially.
For this reason, this work points to a fundamental process of societal renewal – ultimately, toward the creation of a society which is free of oppression and is truly capable of peaceful coexistence, not only between different cultures and ethnicities, but perhaps also with the wondrous and deeply interconnected community of living beings that inhabits this Earth.
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