European country with longest involvement in the slave trade is coming under pressure to give ‘a real sorry’ for its role
One morning towards the end of June, the monolithic hulk of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which has loomed over the Tagus River for six decades, its stony prow forever poised to cast off from the Lisbon quayside in search of power, glory and riches, woke, once again, to find itself altered.
“The nation that killed Africa,” read the graffiti scrawled on the monument to Portugal’s pioneering role in the age of discovery. Then came a contemporary afterthought: “Wakanda forever.”
A similar, if more poetic, sentiment was expressed in the blue and red spray-paint applied to the side of the landmark two years ago. “Blindly sailing for money, humanity is drowning in a scarlet sea,” it said.
The terseness of the latest message reflects the anger and frustration many people feel as Portugal considers the difficult task of confronting its colonial and slave-trading past.
Almost six months ago, Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, suggested the time had come for the country to “assume responsibility” for its past and apologise for its actions.
If Rebelo de Sousa’s words were tentative, they nonetheless appeared to represent a shift from the views he expressed six years ago during a visit to the island of Gorée off Senegal, which was, for centuries, one of the key slave-trading centres on the African coast.
When he visited in 1992, Pope John Paul II implored “forgiveness from heaven” for what he termed “this African sanctuary of black pain”. In a speech on the island in 2005 Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, apologised for what his country “did to black people”.
In 2017, though, the Portuguese president chose to focus on the fact that his country had set about abolishing slavery in the 1760s after recognising its “injustice”. He did not mention that Portugal was the European country with the longest historical involvement in the slave trade, kidnapping and forcibly transporting about 6 million African men, women and children across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries. Nor did he mention that his country had only abolished slavery to the Portuguese mainland in 1761 – the trade to Brazil continued and slavery was not completely abolished across all the territories Portugal controlled until 1869.
“[What the president said in 2017] was a lie – and he knew it was a lie,” says Evalina Dias, a project manager at Djass, Portugal’s Association of African Descendants. “He’s a very intelligent man but he still said it because it was a way not to acknowledge what happened. He was saying: ‘Yes, we did it, but we were the first to abolish it.’ I think they didn’t want to talk about it back then.”
Dias says people find it hard to admit that the racism fostered by slavery and colonialism still exists – let alone acknowledge how thoroughly it has come to permeate Portuguese society.
“The problem here is the structural racism that doesn’t allow black people or Africans to do a lot of things like having the same rights as other people,” she says. “Even if it’s written [in law], they try to avoid it. If you go to a health centre and you’re not legalised, you’re still entitled to be treated. But when you get there, they’ll tell you that you’re not – even if you have documents. I’ve lived here all my life and it’s happened to me. It’s a way of frustrating people every day when it comes to employment and health and education and housing.”
What does she think may have changed Rebelo de Sousa’s mind? “I don’t know – that was the first time he’d talked about confronting the past,” says Dias. “But it’s just been words; there’s been no action.”
For Djass and for many others, there are few better examples of that inaction than the delays in creating a memorial intended to stand in stark contrast to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
Plantação (Plantation), a permanent piece conceived by the Angolan conceptual artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, should long since have appeared on the quayside a few miles from the discovery monument. But bureaucratic delays, feasibility studies and arguments over where it should be located have dogged the project’s progress since it began in 2017.
According to Kia Henda, its 540 blackened metal sugarcanes are intended to evoke a burned plantation as a way of honouring enslaved people while also reminding visitors that the system that relied on slavery is still ubiquitous and all powerful.
While remembering the millions of victims, he adds, it is also important to recall those who rose up, set fire to the plantations and established the quilombos – the settlements where escaped enslaved people lived.
Kia Henda says: “Sugarcane plantations are the matrix of the capitalist system, the main economic pillar that has sustained transatlantic trafficking since its beginnings, so this act of rebellion not only takes us back to the past, but also speaks of the need to fight against it and the various types of oppression that still exist today.”
Lisbon city council says the €185,000 (£159,000) work is intended to help ensure the tragedy of the slave trade never fades from memory, buts adds that the project has been “a lengthy, demanding, and intensive process, which has been a highly challenging endeavour for the municipality” – not least because of the Covid pandemic.
Kia Henda is not the only one struggling to get Portugal thinking about its past. In May, two Brazilian artists had their work removed from the Porto Photography Biennial because it highlighted the slave-trading past of the philanthropist whose money funded the exhibition space.
A room displaying the installation Adoçar a Alma para o Inferno III (“Sweeten the Soul for Hell III”) by Dori Nigro and Paulo Pinto was closed off on its opening night on 19 May by administrators of Porto’s Conde de Ferreira hospital centre, a psychiatric unit whose disused 19th-century panopticon hosted an exhibition at this year’s photography biennial in Portugal’s second city.
The room had contained a table carrying a small sugar bowl bearing the image of Joaquim Ferreira dos Santos, 1st Count de Ferreira, a 19th-century Portuguese slave trader who bequeathed his fortune to the religious charity that built the hospital, as well as several primary schools.
Writing on two mirrors in the room spelled out previously known facts about Ferreira’s life, including his role in trafficking about 10,000 slaves from Luanda and Mozambique to Brazil. A third mirror was inscribed with three questions: “How many enslaved people does it take to build a psychiatric hospital? How many enslaved people does it take to build 120 primary schools? How many enslaved people does it take to gain the titles ‘noble’ and ‘benefactor’?”
The hospital reopened the room a week later – after removing the three inscribed mirrors that directly referenced its founding patron.
In a statement, the hospital’s administrative board said it had censored the artwork because it had caused discomfort to its patients and health workers through “offensive references to [Ferreira’s] memory”, while insisting it remained committed to engaging its history “in an adequate way.”
Nigro and Pinto are both from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, one of the centres of the trade in enslaved people used by Ferreira. Nigro says that while the count’s philanthropy is amply commemorated in Portugal through statues, street names, squares, schools and hospitals, the sources of his wealth are altogether less celebrated.
“It would be fair if Portugal changed the name of the statues, the streets, the squares, the schools, and hospitals to pay homage to the 10,000 people dehumanised and commercialised by Count Ferreira to build the country,” he says.
His partner points out that their work has been informed by their own experiences as Portugal-based Brazilians.
“When we arrived in Porto for our studies in 2012, we discovered a denial of Portugal’s colonial past everywhere we looked,” says Pinto. “Even today there is still a widespread assumption that the slave trade was an exclusively Brazilian problem, a legacy that modern-day Brazilians have overcome. But colonial Portugal exploited the slave trade for almost 400 years. The consequences of slavery and racism in Brazil is a Portuguese legacy.”
Kia Henda believes much of Portugal’s inability to face the past lies in the incomplete image it presents to the world – and to itself. Just as the UK thrives on its castles, kings and queens, he says, “Portugal today lives essentially from tourism” and on a “romanticised” and sanitised interpretation of its past.
Isabel Almeida Rodrigues, secretary of state for equality and migration in Portugal’s socialist government, argues that the Salazar dictatorship of 1933-74 – during which the Padrão dos Descobrimentos was built – had a profound and enduring effect on the country’s self-image.
“To understand our role and our past, we must first understand that we lived in a nationalistic-conservative dictatorship for around 40 years,” she says.
“Abolishing the dictatorship meant throwing off the yoke of colonialism, which is why the revolution can be seen as a movement against racism. However, throughout that 40-year period, not only did our education system unfortunately transmit an excessively nationalistic perspective regarding our history but the dictatorship, as a whole, also instilled several prejudices in people regarding our former dependencies.”
Almeida Rodrigues insists education is now at the forefront of the government’s efforts to tackle racism and combat the colonial myths that help underpin it.
“The curriculum nowadays includes works by authors not only from Portugal but from the wider Portuguese-speaking world and, since 2017, pupils from the age of 10 have been learning about colonialism, slavery, historical memory and the importance of interculturality,” she says.
She also points to the national plan to combat racism, approved in 2021, which “fully recognises that there is systemic and structural racism in Portugal, which is a legacy of colonialism and slavery”. As well as setting up an official observatory on racism and xenophobia to improve the collection and analysis of data and help develop anti-discrimination policies, the government has invested in diversity and awareness training for police officers and regulated the use of bodycams to bring more scrutiny and transparency to law enforcement.
“I think there’s a direct link between education and tackling not only present-day racism, but also future-day racism – in Portugal and everywhere in the world,” says Almeida Rodrigues.
The sentiment is shared by Dino D’Santiago, one of Portugal’s best-known musicians. D’Santiago, who is of Cape Verdean descent and who sings in Creole and Portuguese, says education, a proper explanation of the past, and a full and meaningful apology from Rebelo de Sousa are all desperately needed.
“A real sorry from the president of the country for what we did would be the first affirmation and a way of humanising the victims,” he says. “People don’t know what was done. Instead of talking about the discovery of Brazil, we need to talk about the genocide of millions of people … They weren’t clapping us when we arrived. But if you look at the drawing in the books, people are smiling. We need to tell people everything about what we did; about how many people died in the boats.”
Such efforts are not always easy – as D’Santiago discovered for himself in January when he suggested that Portugal could rethink the words of its national anthem, arguing that all the talk of cannons in verses written during a 19th-century colonial showdown in Africa between Portugal and the UK may not be wholly relevant to the country today.
“When I said that, the reaction was: ‘Go and do the Cape Verdean anthem,’ or :‘Go do the Guinean or Mozambican anthem, because you don’t have the right to touch our history.’ And I was like: ‘I was born here in Portugal and I feel 100% Portuguese and 100% Cape Verdean. I’m 200% of a person.’”
Although the backlash and threats led the singer to head to Brazil for a while – “even on the way to the airport, I was wondering whether someone would try to do something” – he views the episode as further proof of the need to confront the past. But he also takes heart in Portugal’s postcolonial diversity and in the open minds of its young people.
“All my investment is in the new generation and not in trying to change the minds of older people,” he says. “Children are so fertile when it comes to knowledge and we now have something that we never had in the past: pride. My niece, who’s 10 years old, wants to be the president of Portugal. There’s a big difference between her ambitions and mine. She sees her uncle on TV and getting prizes, which is now normal for her. That wasn’t normal for me when I was her age.”
The question now is what form an apology could take – and where it could lead.
Paul Gardullo, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, was part of a delegation that travelled to Lisbon at the beginning of the year to take part in an international symposium on slavery, museums and racism. He says that while each country’s approach to its own history is different, there are some similarities between Portugal’s situation and that of the Netherlands.
“I think the way the broader official memory in Portugal operates is similar to the way memory around ‘the golden age’ existed, until pretty recently, in the Netherlands – this sense of an era that was a golden age of discovery,” he says. “In Portugal, it’s the ‘age of discovery’; in the Netherlands, it has a different terminology but there’s such a longstanding and fierce desire to protect that – without fully understanding it and without acknowledging the pain that comes along with that for a lot of people. Why? Because it’s caught up in national identity.”
At the end of last year, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, offered a formal apology for the Netherlands’ historical role in the slave trade, saying that while the past “cannot be erased, only faced up to”, he firmly acknowledged that his country had “enabled, encouraged and profited from slavery”. Rutte’s remarks followed Denmark’s 2018 apology to Ghana, which it colonised from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, and King Philippe of Belgium’s “deepest regrets” for abuses in Congo, expressed in June last year.
In April, the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, refused to apologise for the UK’s role in the slave trade or to countenance reparations, saying: “Trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward, and it’s not something that we will focus our energies on.”
Gardullo says he was disturbed to hear that some people of African descent who were born in Portugal feel they are not recognised as Portuguese. Such feelings, he adds, show work needs to be done to embrace a more complex understanding of Portugal’s history and of how the African presence has contributed to the country’s identity.
“Portugal should not be narrowly and falsely focused on looking toward a mythical past from 500 years ago as some golden age,” says Gardullo. “It should be thinking about itself now and about its role in the world and how a more full past, inclusive of slavery and colonialism, has made it what it is today. How do you make it a place that is reflective of its full history but which also embraces all the people who live there and are citizens?”
But first, inevitably, there needs to be an apology that acknowledges a wound that is old and deep. A few genuine and well-chosen words, says D’Santiago, could provide a vital first step.
“Pain follows you,” says the singer. “If you’re hurt as a child and you don’t get that damage repaired, it will be with you until you die … If you say sorry about the millions of people who died, you’re showing respect for their memories and for the people who are the descendants of that tragedy. I’m one of those descendants, but I’m a descendant with a lot of hope.”