I am just back from a delightful one week sojourn in Portugal. The weather, food, and landscape were gorgeous. But this post isn’t about that; it is about African slavery. For, alongside all the fun vacation/tourist activities, I was paying attention to what I saw and what was said about Portugal and African slavery. Now a caveat: what follows is from a teeny tiny slice of time in Portugal, in a few parts, and listening to a very few people (all white). I would like to think that if I had dug further into this topic, if I had gone to Portugal to learn about this explicitly, that there would be many people and exhibits that were more reflective, more honest, and more contrite than what I heard and saw.
A few snapshots:
- A guide who acknowledged our interest (I’d asked about this early on), but then said slavery had gone on throughout history everywhere and, as for Portugal, those involved had done so because they’d married African leaders who were slave traders. That is, it was the Africans who got the Portuguese into it. How else am I to interpret that statement?
- A lecturer who gave us two talks on different days. I asked about slavery and he acknowledged it, but barely said anything about it.
- A guide who proudly stated that Portugal was the first European country to end slavery. Perhaps she didn’t know that it was because of mercenary reasons (being no longer profitable) and empire-building reasons (better ways to exploit than through slave trade). Here’s a chronology: Who banned slavery when? (Portugal was not the first by any stretch)
- Also, what about Brazil? They spoke about it in terms of the monarchy relocated there for a while, but ….er…what about the workers there? Africans in bondage were brought to Brazil by Portuguese in droves.
- While one guide consciously spoke of “explorations” rather than “discoveries” others did not. And so there was the celebration again and again of the various men who crossed oceans to “discover” or “explore” or whatever in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Witness The Monument of the Discoveries.
- When given some free time in Belem I visited the Maritime Museum and was sadly unsurprised to see the exhibits featuring discovery and nothing about those “discovered.” Looking at their website here is a worksheet for students. It is in Portuguese but it doesn’t appear to consider the topic at all. (If I’m wrong please let me know and I’ll correct this.)
Now home I poked around a bit to see what I could find:
- Portugal confronts its slave past This is an excellent article. It covers the history, how Portuegese are considering it today, and racism in the country today. “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.”
- Slavery memorial highlights Portugal’s racism taboo Another great article.
- Uncovering Lisbon’s Forgotten History of Slavery. Excellent as well.
- Iberian Slave Trade
- Iberian Roots of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1640
- Europeans Come to West Africa
This is just a start but I encourage anyone visiting Portugal to be aware of this aspect of the country’s history and ask your guides about it. As I responded to a friend on Facebook, I would hope my very narrow window into the Portuguese and their awareness of this was not typical. And if it was, hopefully, that will change soon.