“My ancestors were not only slave traders, but they were one of the biggest slave traders in Angola. My family’s coat of arms is still in the slavery museum in Luanda, ”admits, without euphemism, Portuguese journalist Catarina Demony, 28.
Although Portugal and many Portuguese families played an important role in the trade and exploitation of Africans, direct reports like his remain the exception in the country, and the admission of family experiences with slavery remains taboo.
Recently, however, young Portuguese have used different strategies to break the silence. Between newsletters, conferences, lives on social networks and documentaries, they discuss a past that is often uncomfortable for their families.
“What I think is that slavery was one of the roots of the problems of racism that we have today in Portuguese society. If we don’t speak directly and get to the root of the problem, things won’t change, ”says Catarina, who has taken from the family’s experiences to make a documentary.
According to her, the discovery that her maternal ancestors played an important role in the slave trade came during conversations with her grandmother about four years ago.
“I always knew that they [família materna] they had a rich life in Angola, they lived well, they had employees, drivers, cooks. And one of the questions I always asked was:
where does this money come from?
The idea of turning the family experience into a documentary, according to the journalist, aims to encourage discussion in other families and promote debate between young people and students.
“One of the reasons families don’t talk about this issue is because people are ashamed. So I’m not making the documentary out of shame, but by learning, by opening a conversation to talk about the subject, ”he says.
Dubbed “The Old Us,” the film is slated for release in December. In addition to reports from activists and historians, it collects testimonies from other young people confronted with family histories linked to slavery.
The person in charge of the documentary says that she found something in common among the interviewees: “All the people I spoke to have always had good financial conditions and access to good universities. Many have studied abroad ”.
“People live on a cushion of privilege because of slavery. Not directly, for the money that is now did not come from slavery. But they live indirectly, because money has given opportunities from generation to generation, until today, ”she says.
It is precisely a reflection on privileges that prompted Nuno Viegas, 22, to want to investigate the family past. “I was born in the Azores and 87% of Azoreans have never set foot in a university.
It is the region of the country with the worst rate of access to higher education, but all of my family members have degrees. I grew up surrounded by doctors and nurses, ”he says.
When he brings up the subject of slavery in his family, he says he has always heard negative responses. Unconvinced, he decided to investigate on his own. “I got suspicious and went to do some research. I thought maybe I should look in the Torre do Tombo, where the historical archives are kept in Portugal, but no, everything is online. It was incredibly easy, ”he says.
In public records, the young man identified the family’s involvement in the slave trade. In addition to documents referring to the Azores archipelago, it also proved that ancestors exploited slaves in Brazil, mainly in the state of São Paulo.
The result of the investigation was shared with relatives not at a family lunch, but in a public bulletin with the provocative title: “I still live at the expense of those who are enslaved by my family”.
The opinion piece was published on the Fumaça portal, a reference in independent media in Portugal. The success with readers, however, did not avoid the family climate. “I must say that they did not appreciate”, he laughs, who emphasizes that it is fundamental to talk about the subject.
Viegas, who claims to be right-wing, regrets that the fight against racism and the discussion of the country’s slavery past are concentrated in the left-wing parties.
Also in favor of an open dialogue on the slavery past of relatives, Professor Ana Esteves, 30, regrets not having spoken to her grandparents, already deceased, on the subject.
“I discovered that my family had many slaves by accident. In my family’s village, there is a street named after my great-great-grandfather. I never cared much about it, but one day I was curious to find out more about him and the time he lived in Africa. It wasn’t a shock, but it wasn’t easy either, ”he says.
Although she says she is unwilling to talk to family members about the topic, Ana says she intends to discuss it with her children, now 4 and 6, at the to come up. In the meantime, he shared his experiences on a show on the Clubhouse app.
In addition to personal relationships, there are other signs of greater openness in society to talk about the subject. In Lisbon, the inhabitants chose, within the framework of the participatory budget of the municipality, to build a memorial on slavery.
The installation, signed by the Angolan Kiluanji Kia Henda, will be in one of the most touristic areas of the city. The question now is when will this happen? Initially scheduled for the first quarter, the works are delayed.
Historian Arlindo Manuel Caldeira, researcher at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, points out that, despite Portugal’s central role in the slave trade, the subject still has a certain distance for Portuguese society, as if it were something restricted to the colonies.
The country’s long dictatorship (between 1926 and 1974) also tried to avoid critical views on slavery.
“It was a dictatorship which attached great importance to the colonies, which had censorship, which controlled education. This prompted the regime to try to hide anything that seemed to obscure its colonial destiny. So much so that the idea that Portuguese slavery was not the same as in other countries was still widespread, that it was much gentler, that relations were much friendlier, ”he says.
Officially, Portugal banned slavery by a law of the Marquis de Pombal in 1761, being one of the pioneers in the world. The decision determined the release of the slaves after their arrival on Portuguese territory. The laws did not apply to the colonies, however. .
“The Marquis de Pombal, at the same time as he prohibited slavery here, created slave transport companies in Brazil, to introduce slaves into areas deemed insufficient by trade. There is no intention in these laws to end slavery, ”Caldeira says.
In the historian’s opinion, the discussion of the family past can have positive repercussions. “At the end of the day, we are all descendants of slaves or slave traders, and sometimes both.”
In recent years, tensions over the colonial past have intensified, including proposals to remove symbols and monuments linked to colonization. Complaints of racial and ethnic discrimination have also increased, and the 2021 census has been criticized for not asking the race of residents of the country.