News that Portugal is planning to build a museum in Lisbon dedicated to the country’s colonial past has been met with criticism from many activists.
The museum intends to highlight aspects of the Age of Discovery when Portugal started making claims on countries across the world including Africa, and on which the bedrock of Portuguese national identity is based.
The plans to set up the Museum was floated early this year and was aimed at showing “most and least positive aspects” of the Age of the Discovery and “include an area dedicated to the topic of slavery”, according to reports.
The move has come under scrutiny with many activists stating that it is not only obsolete but also full of the wrong meaning. One hundred black activists signed an open letter in Expresso Weekly against the construction of the museum.
Of the project, Joacine Katar-Moreira, a researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon and co-author of the open letter said, “It would only reinforce Portuguese colonial ideology, which portrays that period as heroic and simply glosses over the glaring issues of slavery, mass killings and other abuses. There are already so many statues and monuments paying homage to that moment in history. We don’t need another one, which, like the others, would be an instrument for stroking national self-esteem.”
Most of these activists would rather see the money channelled to a monument honouring victims of slavery. Lisbon residents voted for a plan to built such a monument in December 2017, but nothing has been done so far.
Portugal was a leader in slavery and colonisation, transporting nearly half the estimated number of enslaved people in their galleons and colonising countries across Africa, South America and Asia. Many of these slave ships docked at the Ribeira das Naus, the proposed site for the monument.
The activists believe such a monument would be useful in the racism debate in the country today.
“We want this monument to bring life to the debate around racism today. Portugal needs to recognise that slavery is not something that was cleared up in the past. There is a clear line between slavery, the forced labour that continued afterwards, and the racism that is now going through society,” Beatriz Gomes Dias, whose association of African descendants, Djass, is promoting the monument, said to the BBC.
Dias hopes the construction of the monument and the eventual discussion about Portugal’s colonial past would challenge the national identity as portrayed in mainstream channels.
For the longest time, black people in Portugal were not fully considered as Portuguese citizens because of a 1981 law that was passed before their parent’s immigration status was regularised. Most of the people affected by this law were either born in or are children of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies in Africa.
“I didn’t really notice it until I started school, and then I realised that my ID card was blue whilst the other kids had a yellow one. Even my teachers at school didn’t understand why, if I was born in Portugal, I couldn’t get Portuguese nationality,” Nuno Dias, who was born in Lisbon in 1983, said to Al Jazeera.
It is against such a background that the notion of Portugal celebrating their ‘discovery’ of the world in the 1400s a huge contention in the country at the moment. Although the debate is currently ongoing, the fate of the museum is still unknown, if the silence of local authorities is anything to go by.