Spain and Portugal confront their dark history of slavery

Campaigners call for reforms to citizenship - which is not granted to those born on Portuguese soil (DJASS)

Black activists in two of the largest countries on Europe’s Iberian peninsula are looking for ways to confront their nation’s colonial pasts — and not everyone is happy with their new efforts.

Activist organizations in both Spain and Portugal have declared that their nations should examine their former roles as colonial administrators in the Americas. In particular, Spain and Portugal need to examine their roles as perpetrators of the Maafa, or the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which from 1441 to 1888 shipped some 50 to 75 million Africans to the Western Hemisphere to be enslaved.

In December of 2017, Portugal’s citizens voted in favor of erecting a monument to the victims of the Maafa, but debates about the design of the proposed memorial and what it should depict have become a contentious issue.

The monument is supposed to be placed along the Ribeira das Naus, a waterfront promenade along the Tagus River in the nation’s capital of Lisbon.  The Ribeira das Naus is where Portuguese ships carrying enslaved Africans would dock and then force their chained captives to march out toward the Lisbon Slave House, the Casa dos Escravos de Lisboa, where they would await their fate.

Beatriz Gomes Dias, president of the Afro-Portuguese group, Djass, a Lisbon-based non-profit, has been promoting conversations to help Portugal confront its central role in the enslavement of Africans.  Portugal prides itself on having been integral in the “Discoveries” of the Americas – the national narrative states that Portuguese explorers and adventurers helped pioneer globalization and later fostered a melding of races and cultures…even if there was that unfortunate side effect of African slavery.

Djass first proposed the creation of the slavery memorial in 2017 as part of an effort to help Portugal round out the understanding of its national history.  “It is not a matter of promoting national self-flagellation, or of exhuming the ghosts of the past to atone for our historical sins,” Gomes Dias wrote in Pú “It is, rather, a collective act of recognition and redress as a community.

“….This memorial will help us rescue our history, its evocation will awaken the collective memory of the country and take to task those narratives that have always tried to silence it. We want to occupy the public space with our memory, right in the center of the city of Lisbon, the ‘capital of the Empire’ which oppressed so many of our ancestors. We want a monument that stimulates, envelops, intervenes, conveys, excites, teaches. Which represents a call to reflection on who we were, who we are and who we want to be….”

Although there is currently funding for the Portuguese memorial, it has not yet been commissioned for design.

In Spain, the left-wing Unidos Podemos party believes that because there is no education about African contributions to the creation of modern-day Spain or about Afrodescendent contributions throughout the Americas, Spanish society has little regard for Afro-Spaniards.

In a proposal released to the public this past July, Unidos Podemos suggests that Spain implement a 12-point plan of action that would help truly integrate its Black citizens. Among the points, the plan involves promoting the inclusion of nation-wide public school education about the economic, political, and social living conditions faced by Africans and Afrodescendants; creating a federal-level Secretary of Equality who would propose and examine all policy programs aimed at Afro-Spaniards; the creation of a memorial to the victims of slavery in Latin America and to those who suffered Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea; and the implementation of a fast-track method to allow Afro-Spaniards who want to get rid of European-based last names that they feel evoke a colonial or slavery-based past.

Unidos Podemos’ proposed plan of action is designed to help recognize Afro-Spaniards, a population that is largely discounted in Spain. The African and Afrodescendant population in Spain has not been viewed as part of the nation’s culture for centuries, the political party points out:  “The official history which is taught in educational programs – and subsequently throughout our political culture – continually negates the importance of non-European communities in Spain’s history, this helps perpetuate the stereotype that non-European communities are foreign communities or communities who have only ‘recently arrived.’  This official history allows people to have uncompromising ideas about how the Afro-Spanish community should be viewed and how we can recognize their cultural, economic, political, and scientific contributions to our society.”

Madrid-based poet and activist Yeison F. García López wrote an opinion piece in El along with Unidos Podemos’ congressional representative Rita Gertrudis Bosaho Gori, (the first person of African descent to serve in Spain’s Congress of Deputies) about the challenges Afro-Spaniards face:

“Spain has …continued perpetuating the invisibility of the African and African descendant community in Spain. … This invisibilization does not simply affect [Afro-Spaniards], it is also worth mentioning [that it also affects] the original communities of North Africa and Arab countries and the native communities of Abya Yala (Latin America).

“This initiative,” Bosaho and García write, “is a commitment to the diversity of our country; it is an attempt to put on the political agenda the realities of the African and African descent community of Spain. And, yet, we would be wrong if we believed that the presentation of this initiative is enough.”

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: October 19, 2018


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