Growing up in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, Beatriz Gomes Dias says she couldn’t identify with the people she saw on TV, in ads or in museums. Her parents were immigrants from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. There were other black Portuguese, but Gomes Dias says she felt invisible.
“I remember being a child, looking at the majority of Portuguese people and not being like them, and not having a place for me and people like me,” she says.
So, the 47-year-old high school biology teacher and her anti-racism association Djass proposed to erect a memorial to colonial slaves in a grassy square along Lisbon’s port, where ships once unloaded their human cargo.
Gomes Dias says Portuguese history often portrays slaves as no more than goods for sale. Her Afro-descendant group Djass wants to honor their ancestors who were enslaved and trafficked by the Portuguese.
The memorial would be the first of its kind in Portugal to acknowledge the country’s role in the colonial slave trade, according to Gomes Dias, who envisions the monument in the form of a statue or sculpture.
The project was approved in a public vote and won funding from the city last year.
Meanwhile, Afro-Portuguese advocates like Gomes Dias are critical of another historical project planned in Lisbon. The tentatively named Museum of Discoveries, which would tell the story of heroic Portuguese navigators who first charted routes around Africa, India and South America. But the dark side of that rich history entials colonialism and slave trade.
The proposed slavery memorial and the unbuilt museum have become lightning rods for public debate about Portugal’s colonial past.
Critics say the museum’s theme would whitewash the violence of Portugal’s colonial rule. But, in turn, the supporters of the museum accuse their detractors of denying the triumphs of Portuguese explorers.
Renato Epifanio, an academic and the president of the International Lusophone Movement, a group that promotes Portuguese language and culture around the world, says some people make it sound like Portugal invented slavery.
“All other issues, like scientific discoveries, cultural relationships, do not exist. Only the question of slavery,” Epifanio said at his office in Lisbon’s Palace of Independence. “For us that is profoundly wrong.”
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.
“Portugal has a self-representation in which the violent history of colonialism is not part of it,” Martins says.
Portugal proudly claims to be one of the first countries to abolish slavery following a 1761 decree. But that was only in the homeland. Portuguese slave traders just diverted traffic to the colonies in Brazil, and full abolition didn’t come until more than a century later.
Portugal does not collect or publish data on its citizens’ race and ethnicity, so it is difficult to establish the size of its current Afro-descendant population, what portion are descendants of those forcibly brought to the country centuries ago or are more recent arrivals.
But descendants from former colonies, such as Angola and Mozambique, say they have been denied a place in Portugal’s history.
“The black Portuguese are not recognized as Portuguese, because they are always relating black Portuguese to the countries in Africa that were occupied by Portugal,” Gomes Dias says.
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.
“The argument is that if you go back to this colonial past and this racist history, we are only hurting Portugal,” Martins says. “But ignoring racism or colonial history is to accept the continuing violence of racism in our society.”
This isn’t a new debate for Portugal. Portuguese historians have often claimed the country exercised a “softer” colonial rule compared with its European neighbors. However, Portugal was one of the last European powers to decolonize in Africa in 1975 after colonies resisted for over a decade of bloody war.
Fernando Rosas, a retired Portuguese historian and former parliamentarian, says the difference today is a new generation of historians and researchers of African descent, like Martins, is changing the way Portugal talks about its past. That’s why he thinks the Museum of Discoveries will need a different name.
“Museum of Discoveries… of course the Portuguese discovered the world,” Rosas says laughing. “We didn’t discover anything because people were there, and the people that were there also discovered the Portuguese. The right name is Museum of Colonialism because it is about that we are speaking.”
Gomes Dias and her group are still looking for an Afro-descendant artist to design the slavery memorial. But when the monument is unveiled next year, Rosas says it will be a milestone in the fight between Portugal’s past and its future.