Well, here I am on the third leg of this, my first Afro-Sonic Mapping journey. Currently, I find myself in a city that I am familiar with, but am now forced to view from a completely different prism. This is the result of having recently spent time in Luanda, Angola and Salvador, Bahia, Brazil – two of the eight countries once held captive in the net of Portugal’s colonial empire. Lisbon, the city of seven hills, is indeed a beautiful city. Though I’ve already got a long relationship with the city, visiting many times since 1996, I fell in love with it all over again last week. Lisbon, adorned with all its heraldry, is strewn with bronze statues singing praises to doers of despicable deeds. The ghosts of its colonial past float over the buried debris of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which erased most of the architecture from its Age of Discovery. The ensuing tsunami, still the largest to hit European shores to date, left a devastating death toll of 30-40,000 people and destroyed 85% of the city’s buildings. The history books inform us that Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquês de Pombal – then prime minister and prime player in the country’s colonial expansionist pursuits – gave the order to bury the dead and heal the living. The city was rebuilt in the architectural style termed Pombaline after the Marquês.
Marquês de Pombal statue, at Marquês de Pombal square, Lisbon, Portugal.
A huge, towering statue of the Marquês, posed and resplendent with an African lion by his side, is situated at the centre of the city’s largest crossroads and is circumnavigated daily by thousands of cars. But alas, amongst all of the statues scattered around the city, there is not a single monument erected that acknowledges the outstanding deeds performed by Africans. Surely the 17th century Angolan Queen Nzinga (baptized Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande), a military tactician extraordinaire, deserves to be hoisted high on a plinth for all of her heroic deeds in one of Portugal’s provinces – yes, Portugal referred to their colonies as provinces. To date, there is not one memorial to the African victims of slavery. Why is that? Is it because the Portuguese insist on perpetrating the fallacy that theirs was a soft, benevolent colonial model? This is what comes up time and time again when one opens up conversations on the subject. But let’s face it – every form of colonialism is oppressive. No one volunteered for a slave ship cruise in order to work on a plantation for nothing.
Deep within the Portuguese psyche there is something quite melancholic, slightly broken – call it Saudade, if you will. Even the Portuguese dialect is somewhat whiny and depressed, very unlike the sing-song, melodic Brazilian version. Unconsciously, there is a weight imbued in every syllable delivered, which by the way, is extremely prevalent in Fado music (more on that subject later). All of those centuries of trade, conflict and flag-planting abuse do reap national karma/trauma. When I lived in Paris conversations about the Portuguese categorized them as the one-time great discoverers relegated to the concierge and chauffeur level. This is a country that was colonized by the Moors from 711 to 1249 and in turn colonized no less than six African countries – namely Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe. Portugal’s colonial African empire was the world’s longest, from 1483 to the mid 1970s, subjugating an estimated 5.8 million Africans to slavery. So how do they justify such a small handful of token black people on TV and in ads on billboards? The absence of black people in power positions is mind-boggling; in case you didn’t know, Helder Amaral is the sole black member of the 230-seat parliament. I would argue that the lack of black people in business managerial positions and elsewhere speaks volumes to the so-called benevolent coloniser fallacy. The greater percentage of the Portuguese black community is disenfranchised and lives in social housing projects. The constant barrage of racial profiling and police brutality is at long last receiving media coverage due to a brutal assault in Cova da Moura, a black suburban neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. In February 2015, Rap artist and sociologist LBC Soljah and three associates were forced to endure six hours of what has been described as torture in a police station. The case is still pending a verdict.
At the risk of chronological confusion, please note that in 1555, ten percent of Lisbon’s residents were black – some slaves, some free. They were enterprising, working as market vendors in many different sectors, and some held positions of great trust in the royal courts. Paintings from the renaissance period depict black nobility cutting a figure on horseback (For current images of the genre, see Kehinde Wiley paintings). Fast-forward to today, race relations in Portugal are sorely lagging behind its European neighbours, especially those that contain large ex-colonial black communities. But let me interject: unfortunately, many countries that participated in the slave trade throughout the European continent and elsewhere have been slow to offer apologies for their colonial pursuits. Notable is the UK’s recent Windrush scandal, which scores very high in shame points.