How Portugal silenced ‘centuries of violence and trauma’

Ana Naomi de Sousa: 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.

That the memorial’s artist comes from Angola, the country that suffered the most catastrophic loss of lives during the trade in enslaved people at the hands of the Portuguese, is poignant. By the 19th century, Angola had become the largest source of enslaved people taken to the Americas. “For me, it is about building a bridge to the past as a way of establishing a dialogue about these historical cycles of violence,” says Kia Henda.

“The modern world would not exist if it was not for enslavement,” he says. “The modernity you see here was built on the backs of Black people. It’s important that there is awareness about that.” More here.

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