There has been little acknowledgment of Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade – until now.
As a wet winter gives way to spring, Lisbon’s Campo das Cebolas square is empty and quiet.
From the nearby ferry terminal, commuters from neighbourhoods on the other side of the Tagus river go back and forth. Between the empty, pedestrianised square and the river bank runs the Infante Dom Henrique highway, named after the discoverer, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). A few hundred metres away, a soaring, empty cruise ship, the Vasco da Gama, evoking the great 15th-century explorer, is moored to the dock.
References to Portugal’s epic, seafaring past like these litter this city – there is even a Vasco da Gama shopping mall. But until now, there has never been a single explicit reference, memorial or monument in Portugal’s public space to its pioneering role in the transatlantic slave trade, nor any acknowledgement of the millions of lives that were stolen between the 15th and 19th centuries.
This is the task that has brought Kiluanji Kia Henda, Angola’s most successful contemporary artist, here from his hometown of Luanda. The forthcoming Memorial-Homage to the Victims of Slavery that he has designed will be the first memorial of its kind in Portugal and, he says, “the greatest challenge I’ve faced as an artist”.
The installation, due to be unveiled in Lisbon this spring, features a field of three-metre-high sugar canes, forged in aluminium, alluding to the cold economic rationale that drove the transatlantic-slave trade. It is also a challenge for Portugal. For a country that both established the transatlantic slave trade and was one of the last to continue reaping its profits (it was still using de-facto slave labour in its colonies in the 1960s), Portugal has been slow to reckon with its past.
The national school curriculum, museums and tourism infrastructure all amount to a grandiose rendering of the country’s 15th to 17th-century “discoveries” in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and a selective recollection of its 20th-century colonial exploits in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé & Principe, Goa, Macau and East Timor.
There are monuments and statues up and down the country dedicated to navigators, missionary priests responsible for the conversion of Africans and Indigenous people to Catholicism, or soldiers who fought against African independence in the colonial wars. Meanwhile, it is often said that “Portugal is not a racist country”, despite enormous structural inequalities and decades of documented discrimination. “There has been a silencing here of centuries of violence and trauma,” says Kia Henda.
However, a burgeoning movement here – the Movimento Negro – along with global calls to “decolonise history”, have begun to challenge the way Portugal views itself, from past to present. The Movimento Negro has been around in various forms in Portugal since the start of the last century; the latest resurgence of it is now in its second generation. Most of the sizeable Black population in Portugal today are immigrants and their descendants from the former Portuguese African colonies, who emigrated here from the 1960s and hold in their memories and histories a very different version of Portugal’s past. Kia Henda’s memorial is seen as part of this process; erupting on the national landscape and expected to stay.
Significantly, the memorial is not an initiative of the Portuguese government, but came about in 2017, when the Djass Afro-descendent Association, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by the Portuguese MP, Beatriz Gomes Dias, won a popular vote for public funds.
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