Three graphics that explain Portuguese colonialismGlobal Voices
Ther article by Ruth Correia was first published on The Interruptor in Portuguese on May 28, 2021. An English translation has been reposted here as part of a content partnership agreement and has been edited for length and of clarity.
Colonialism and imperialism are complex political structures which presuppose domination over other peoples and territories. In the case of European colonialism, which naturally includes the Portuguese, the belief in cultural supremacy over the indigenous population was also explicit.
The Portuguese occupation of the overseas territories, as well as their exploration, were not homogeneous events. Colonial exploitation went through periods of varying degrees of intensity, but the constant throughout history has been that it has been a major driver of the Portuguese economy since the early 1400s.
Until the end of the 19th century, Portugal mainly occupied portions of the coastal strip in territories which today correspond to the countries of Angola and Mozambique, with little control over the interior. It was not until 1885, during the Berlin Conference, that the European colonial powers defined the borders of each territory, dividing between them a continent that did not belong to them.
Arrival, occupation and disengagement of territories
Led by Infante D. Henrique, Portuguese maritime exploration began in the 15th century. This enterprise was justified by the missionary character of Catholicism, which would also guide the incursions into North Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. His goal was to see how far Muslim rule extended. The conquest of Ceuta, one of the Spanish port cities on the northern shore of Africa, in 1415, marked the official start of hostilities.
Although the Portuguese discovered multiple territories during their expeditions, a distinction should be made between discovery and scope. Beyond Cape Bojador, the “discovery” was fundamentally cartographic, since the existence of land beyond this point was already known. The fact that a significant part of the colonized territories was inhabited when the sailors arrived there indicates that this idea of discoveries is a Europeanized narrative – someone already knew that these lands existed, the Europeans had not yet arrived there. In this sense, for example, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan (1542-1543).
In a way, what has really been discovered are new avenues.
Portugal took a long time to get out of the colonized territories. With the exception of the territories conquered by other colonial powers over the centuries, such as parts of Sri Lanka and Malaysia, this outing began in 1822 with the independence of Brazil and did not end until 1999, when Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty – about 450 years after the Portuguese arrived in the peninsula. While countries like France and the United Kingdom still maintain the administration of small overseas territories spread across the globe, of all European countries, Portugal has taken the longest time to recognize the independence of the occupied territories.
Human trafficking, slavery and forced labor
It is true that slavery already existed both in Portugal and in Africa long before maritime expansion. Two characteristics distinguish the Portuguese operation from other countries: 1) the industrialization of the process through transatlantic trade and 2) the introduction of a biological factor in the selection of people who would be transformed into commodities. The color of the skin came to dictate who was free and who was a slave.
Human trafficking during the period of expansion officially began in 1444, when 235 people were captured in West Africa, brought to Portugal and sold as slaves in Lagos. Of the colonial powers that emerged during centuries of European colonialism, Portugal trafficked the most enslaved.
The idea that Portugal was the first European country to abolish slavery is false, starting with the fact that this abolition was a process rather than an event. The decree of the Marquis de Pombal published in 1761 only prohibited the importation of slaves into the metropolis. The vision of the statesman was, however, advanced in the European context of the time. Two years later, by introducing the Lei do Ventre Livre, which dictated that the children of slaves be freed at birth, the end of slavery in Portugal was within a generation, at least on paper. Confined to the metropolis, these regulations had little or no effect in the context of the colonial empire, as the route of most of the abductees was from Africa to the Americas.
A major legislative upheaval would not occur until a century later with an initiative by Bernardo de Sá Nogueira de Figueiredo, better known as Sá da Bandeira. In 1836 he approved the abolition of the slave trade “in the Portuguese colonies south of the equator”. The real slowdown in the massacre only occurred in the second half of the 19th century: between 1750 and 1850, Portugal and Brazil trafficked nearly four million people.
Despite the obvious advances of the laws of Sá da Bandeira, the disarticulation of the abolition of slavery with any kind of social support meant that the newly freed kept their deeply fragile socio-economic condition, as they did not own property, income or, often, not even personal support networks. Likewise, the introduction of the Lei do Ventre Livre in all the territories of the Portuguese monarchy in 1856 led to the forced separation of children from their mothers, who were still considered property. Children of slaves could remain in their mother’s care until the age of seven, but after that they were left to fend for themselves.
Despite these laws, the forced labor regime lasted until the 20th century in the territories colonized by Portugal. The regime was provided by the indigenous populations and legitimized successively by the Portuguese State. In 1897, the Native Labor Regulations required that slaves “seek to acquire work” and, in the event that this did not happen, it was up to the state to “enforce them.” Republic, in 1914, with the General Regulations for Indigenous Labor in the Portuguese Colonies. Within this framework, the moral obligation to work could be divided into three types:
- volunteer: when the person has acquired a job on their own without state intervention
- constrained: when the person, by chance of not being “subordinated” to work, is constrained (read forced) by the State to accept a certain function
- correctional: when forced labor is used as a measure of a criminal conviction.
In 1929, the Civil and Penal Political Statute of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colonies of Mozambique and Angola legitimized the differentiation between settlers and indigenous peoples, explaining that “indigenous peoples could not be granted rights linked to constitutional institutions”. This segregation will be reinforced by multiple decrees, throughout the period of the Estado Novo.
In 1953, the organic law of Ultramar abolished the term “colonial empire”, but maintained forced labor. This document specifies that “the State cannot force the natives to work in public works of general interest for the community, in occupations whose results belong to them, to the execution of judicial decisions of a criminal nature or to comply to tax obligations ”.
In the last centuries of its empire, the Portuguese state imposed itself as a benevolent protagonist of colonialism on the African peoples, but it was in the exploitation of labor that the greatest tool of its “civilizing mission” resided. In 1962, after observations in the field, researcher Perry Anderson declared that “the most notorious aspect of Portuguese colonization in Africa is the systematic use of forced labor”.
Estado Novo, colonialism and war
The exaltation of colonialism as national glory was one of the ideological hallmarks of the Estado Novo. Anchored in the Luso-tropicalism of Gilberto Freyre, a theory which, in the words of the historian Cláudia Castelo, granted “to the Portuguese a particular capacity of adaptation to the tropics, because of their desire for interbreeding, interpenetration of cultures. and ecumenism. . “In addition, he saw in Portuguese colonialism a natural benevolence, derived from its“ fraternal Christianity ”, and attributed to the Portuguese peoples and other colonies (including Brazil) a spirit of cultural unity.
In 1961, an MPLA-claimed attack on the Luanda prison sparked a series of events that sparked the colonial war, or war of liberation, for African libertarian movements. The war will last until April 25, 1974, and its end was the main motivation for the military revolt that would overthrow the dictatorship, culminating in the Carnation Revolution.. But the Portuguese did not fight alone: between 1961 and 1973, the Portuguese Armed Forces recruited thousands of African soldiers, integrating them into its contingents, and working hard in the fight against subversion.
The war effort for Portugal had an impact on several levels: around 90 percent of the young male population was mobilized for the war, intensifying a wave of emigration that will only slow down after the implementation of the democracy. In the occupied territories, the massacres lasted until the end of the war. After the withdrawal of Portuguese troops, several countries plunged into civil wars, but it is important to stress that the liberation struggle of the African peoples against Portuguese colonialism was the greatest catalyst for the end of fascism in Portugal.
The colonial war left some 10,000 dead and 20,000 disabled among Portuguese soldiers and over 100,000 casualties among African civilians. The trauma lasts until today for thousands of Portuguese, Africans and their descendants. Thus, the space of common memory of the colonial war is put forward by certain specialists, such as Miguel Cardina or Fátima da Cruz Rodrigues, as a field of reconciliation between peoples.