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  • Louis Venters

Seeing is believing: Understanding Empire and Early Abolitionism in Portuguese History

It was the map, overlaying the enormous countries of Angola and Mozambique on Europe, that initially intrigued me. Sometimes you really do know something better when you can see it:

Titled "Portugal Is Not a Small Country," it was the first image in this article from Al Jazeera about the politics of memory in Portugal and its former colonies. As a scholar whose work is related but focused mostly on the United States, I found it to be a welcome primer.

I especially enjoyed reading about the evidence emerging from the work of José Lingna Nafafé, a Guinean anthropologist and historian at the University of Bristol in the UK, of an abolitionist movement in Europe a century before the emergence of abolitionism in Britain. Led by Lourenço da Silva Mendonça, a nobleman from Ndongo who was exiled to Brazil and then to Portugal itself for leading resistance to Portuguese military expansion in Angola, the movement operated through Black Catholic brotherhoods in the Iberian Peninsula and focused on pressuring the Pope to outlaw slavery. From the article:

"It has never previously been established by historians that Mendonça was an African, which is really incredible--that in the 1600s you had this African man who travelled all over Europe to mobilise an activist movement for the liberation not only of Black Africans, but also of Indigenous people in the Americas,” says Nafafé.

In 1684, Mendonça went to the Vatican, where he accused the nations involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of crimes against humanity. “What I’ve discovered is that this wasn’t just a petition, it was actually a court case, undertaken by Black Africans and supported through highly organized international solidarity,” explains Nafafé. “People always think that the legal abolitionist movement started in Britain, in the late 18th century, but Mendonça really forces us to review our positions on this.”

Say what now? I'm definitely looking forward to learning more about Dr. Lingna Nafafé's work.

I also appreciated the discussion of "lusotropicalism," the 20th century ideology that held up Portugal not as a brutal imperialist power but as a harmonious, multiracial nation stretching across continents, as a product of the fascist authoritarian regime of by António de Oliveira Salazar. It was anticolonial struggles in Portuguese Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique that led directly to the toppling of the Salazar dictatorship and the establishment of democracy in Portugal, much as it was the Black freedom struggle that made the United States a full democracy for the first time. Likewise, just as Americans struggle today with public memory and memorials to a mythical racial past, so are contemporary Portuguese faced with a similar crisis of identity.

If, like me, you're constantly trying to see more clearly the ocean of white supremacy in which we all swim, this piece introduces some important historical and contemporary currents that may be less familiar.


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