The withdrawal of the coat of arms of the former colonies of Portugal from the so-called Praça do Império, planned by the city council (equivalent to the prefecture) of Lisbon, generated a heated discussion about the colonial heritage of the country.
The disgruntled wing of the measure tried to say that Portugal need not be ashamed of its past and accused the municipality, led by socialist Fernando Medina, of trying to rewrite history.
Several politicians have decided to enter the debate publicly, and two former Presidents of the Republic, Aníbal Cavaco Silva (2006-2016) and António Ramalho Eanes (1976-1986) have declared themselves opposed to the exit of the coat of arms.
The official justification is the restoration of the original architectural design of the square, where the coat of arms (made with an expensive gardening technique now in disuse) did not exist.
The subject took on even greater proportions after, in an article, the deputy Ascenso Sim ,es, of the Socialist Party (which governs the country) also defended the demolition of one of the main postcards of the city: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos .
Idealized in 1940 for an exhibition that glorified the Portuguese conquests, the work brings together sculptures of the main figures of the navigation era, including Pedro Álvares Cabral, Vasco da Gama and Fernão de Magalhães.
MP Joacine Katar Moreira (non-party), born in Guinea-Bissau (a former Portuguese colony), sparked even more controversy when she posted on Twitter an image in which the monument seems to take off, carried by rockets.
The repercussions of the death of a veteran of the Colonial War, Lieutenant-Colonel Marcelino da Mata, the most decorated military officer in the history of the Portuguese army, also helped to spark discussion.
One of the main activists of the anti-racist movement in the country, Mamadou Ba criticized the Parliament for a vote of condolence for the “bloodthirsty Marcelino da Mata” and called the soldier a war criminal.
An online petition began circulating, which obtained more than 15,000 signatures, demanding the expulsion of the activist, born in Senegal but of Portuguese nationality.
In 2020, Ba was the target of several threats, even receiving an ultimatum to leave Portugal signed by a far-right group.
Although Brazil’s independence is about to turn 199, the separation of the Portuguese colonies in Africa did not take place until the 1970s, with a direct link to the movement that ended the dictatorship of the Estado Novo created by António Salazar (1889-1970).
The glorification of Portugal’s conquests abroad was precisely one of the main pillars of the Salazar regime’s propaganda, which appealed to the glories of the past to create a sense of patriotic pride.
In the assessment of historian Raquel Varela, professor at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, the controversies surrounding the symbols of colonialism reflect the lack of knowledge of the Portuguese, in addition to the absence of a broad debate on the role of the Portugal in the conflict and in the exploitation of other countries.
“The country and the Portuguese state have never laid down on the sofa to reflect on their colonial history. It creates a series of myths surrounding this colonial past and makes people assume that they have knowledge of the past that they don’t really have, ”he says.
“Many Portuguese are aware of the UPA massacre [União das Populações de Angola, em 15 de março de 1961], which is a massacre of blacks against barbarian whites, but they forget that it was a response to another massacre, of forced workers who were on strike, in January 1961, in northern Angola, in a company in name of Cotonang ”, illustrates the historian.
In the opinion of political scientist João Pereira Coutinho, professor at the Catholic University of Portugal and columnist for Folha, knowledge of the colonial past is not something the Portuguese lack.
“I admit that I am amazed at the controversies about the past that I have seen, because I do not know anyone who has a minimal knowledge of the history of Portugal and who does not already know that part of this history has been done with violence and barbarism. Nobody, with the minimum of information, is unaware of it, evaluates it.
In an interview with the Público newspaper last week, Prime Minister António Costa said he was very concerned about cultural wars linked to racism and historical memory.
The prime minister criticized attempts to “demonize” Portugal’s past.
“A country which, over the centuries, due to the lack of population, has been able to transform itself in the world and which has developed a great capacity for intercultural and interreligious dialogue, which is not worth being deified because having been safe from the barbarities which all colonialism does, but it is not worth being demonized as I have seen, even by my comrades who think the Monument to the Discoveries must be destroyed. I believe that a dangerous divide is artificially opening up for our national identity, for our relationship with the world, ”he added.
The talks in Portugal are part of a larger scenario, in which old European cities are forced to face the scars of colonial heritage.
So far, the responses have been of different shades. Belgium removed statues and renamed the streets that paid homage to King Leopoldo II, famous for his bloodthirsty government in the Belgian Congo.
French President Emmanuel Macron received in January a special report on his country’s role in the history of the Algerian war. Although the head of state refused to apologize for the conflict, he made a symbolic gesture this week: he officially admitted that the independence activist Ali Boumendjel had been tortured and killed by the French army in 1957. The official version so far has been suicide.
In the opinion of João Pereira Coutinho, the effervescence of discussions about race and colonization in other countries is one of the reasons for the growth of these debates in Portugal.
“Academic fashions, so to speak, are always late in Portugal. I think there is some scope to the discussions of the American academy and the English academy. It is a mimetic mechanism, so to speak.
Speaking in favor of a society “discussing everything, without taboos”, the professor warns against the dangers of reducing countries to a simple aspect of their past.
“Is it, for example, that we can say, looking at Germany, that it can be defined by calls for the Holocaust? History is a complex process, made up of lights and shadows. Can we look at the history of Portugal and say that it is only slavery? And the rest? What about Camões, Saramago and Pessoa? What about techniques, scientific processes, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? He adds.
The opening of a memorial to the transatlantic slave trade, scheduled for the coming months, is expected to further spark debate over colonization and race in the country.
Signed by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, the work “Plantação – Prosperidade e Pesadelo”, a huge installation of 540 black aluminum sugar canes, is being assembled in one of the most touristic areas of Lisbon. . We are a family business.