De/Colonising Tales


Tony Simoes da Silva

University of Exeter, U.K.

Copyright © 2001 by Tony Simoes da Silva, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. In the Military Museum the children wanted to play with the tanks, to put on the uniforms on display. They sat in the Jeeps, with the seat covers long gone, the metal now hot under a Portuguese Spring sun. They ran wildly around the anti-missile weapons on display, looking through the 'target' holes, pretending to shoot, to kill. In the Military Museum no one pays any attention to children pretending to kill. This is a place of death, harmlessly musty as it may now seem. The weapons sitting in these dusty old rooms have killed, maimed, decimated -- people, villages, forests. They are the relics of a war long over, once fought brutally between the Portuguese and the native peoples of the then Portuguese colonies. The stories these weapons could tell are not pretty. The Military Museum people know that. The Military Museum people have placed the weapons randomly, without any obvious rule or pattern in mind.

  2. The young man at the door is too young to have fought in this war, or any other. He is keen and enthusiastic, smiling broadly as he welcomes you. He ruffles the boy's hair, blond, wild. O pá, tu estas bom? Diverte-te. How ya going mate? Have fun! The questions, in Portuguese, go unanswered. My children have not yet taken on board the joys of polyglossia. The young man smiles as they rush in, running past the 'No running. No touching.' sign. Perhaps he is happy the war is over, that the tickets he sells afford us no more than access to a quaintly dilapidated building, with a patio from where some of the best views of Coimbra [1] can be gained. All for 300 escudos, around a pound sterling. On that basis the spider webs draped over the various objects perdus in the stuffy, mildewed rooms of the Military Museum seem a real bonus.

  3. The Portuguese fought a long, cruel war in Africa, between the 1960s and 1975. The official war is said to have begun on the 4th of February 1960 in Angola, and to have ended when the last Portuguese colony in Africa achieved its independence, on November 11th 1975. It was a war I am too young to have fought, a war I am old enough to have lived through. I too was born on February the 4th 1960. My children, both born in Australia, the oldest just over 20 years after my place of birth gained its independence, know nothing about wars. They come in here to play with the guns my liberal conditioning prevents them from having at home. They are happy about playing war games. I want to tell them the stories the guns will not tell; they are old and rusty. Soon I will be that way, too.

  4. I grew up in Africa, in a country at war with itself. The civil war in Mozambique that had officially started in 1964, lasted until the day I left with my family in 1976, to live in Portugal. Officially it ended on the 25th of June 1975. Unofficially it rages on today. We lived at times fairly close to the war front, and often my Father would be caught up in incidents where a train was ambushed and derailed, a bridge destroyed, a section of track lifted piece by piece. Then he would be away for days, weeks at a time, and at home we would pretend that life carried on as usual. But the routine of everyday life was not possible, for at such times my Mother would become so obsessively preoccupied with our safety that the whole house resembled an army barracks. At night, as we prepared for bed, we barricaded the front and back doors with two, three chairs, stacked high upon one another. Rather than securing the house against any attempt to break into it, the idea was that the chairs would come crashing down as the doors were pushed in, thus both alerting us to the imminent danger and, hopefully, frightening away the would-be terrorists. Probably it would have made no difference one way or another, but such tasks, bordering on the mundanely insane, were part and parcel of life in a Portuguese colony.

  5. It is often said that for the Whites living in the colonies all Blacks were the enemy. Yet, surrounded as we were by the shantytowns where hundreds, if not thousands of Black people lived, we never feared the possibility that the families all around us might ever attack us. We knew, instinctively perhaps, that these vast masses were as terrified of the guerrillas as we were. These were the people the Dictator's lackeys insisted would never revolt against the Portuguese presence in Africa unless they came to be indoctrinated by forces of world communism. Within this argument, the terrorists against whom we turned our houses into fortresses at night were the best example of this process in action. Obedient, Portuguese-loving people once upon a time they had been brain-washed by groups of subversives, who could achieve their objectives only by beating up their victims, raping the women and torturing the men. The stories the Empire told itself as it went to sleep, though stories that made it no easier to go to sleep.

  6. When my Father was around there were no chairs behind the door, lest it upset him. Years later I wondered if his objections reflected a fear that the barricades might affront his manhood, but I never felt I could ask him. Perhaps he was simply too rational, knowing fully well that no chair sculpture would stop any group of highly trained individuals intent on performing their task. Perhaps he believed, like Amílcar Cabral, that to the nationalist guerrillas the real enemy were not the Portuguese, but the system of which they were a part. Sometimes my Mother got away with her constructions by beating him downstairs and removing the chairs before he saw them. I knew because I had helped stack them up late the night before, half-conspiratorially, as my sister stored yet another bit of information she might use for some hard bargaining later on.

  7. I liked to have my Father away, but not for too long, for his absences placed with me a greater share of responsibility than I cared to assume at the age of 11. My Mother was always in charge, and everyone knew it, but she liked to give the impression that my presence in the house in my Father's absence was a great comfort -- a manly comfort. Mostly the staff accepted such arrangements and occasionally would defer even as far as notifying me of small problems in the house, in the garden, in their own lives. These were not real issues for me to solve, for before coming to me I knew they had already conferred with my Mother and in any case they knew only too well what she would want them to do. Running the place day after day, year after year, now with this White boss now with another, the staff knew precisely what needed doing and when and how, but they also knew that their place in the White master's household meant that certain games needed to be played. These were the games we all played in an attempt to give our lives a sense of normality they lacked in a country constantly on the brink of wanton destruction.

  8. And yet there's something odd about growing up in a land at war without ever really seeing it, feeling it in any crueller sense than in the enormity of the fear the rumours leave behind. As a family we knew of it because of my Father's frequent absences, but most of all because on many a night we could not sleep, haunted by the rumours rife within the White community of impending attacks. And like everyone else, we knew about the war in other ways, too. We knew of the thousands of young boys shipped over from the Portuguese metropole to the African colonies. We heard of their arrival though the local newspaper, O Notícias, and of the graciousness of the governor's wife who, accompanied by the other worthy ladies in town, had awaited the boy-soldiers' disembarkation with flowers and cold drinks. O Notícias, the only widely read newspaper in the colony, always ensured that the ladies' deed was depicted on the front page, their discomfort in the hot, humid day a symbol of the dedication to the Fatherland the Dictator so cherished. And it was thought that such feminine acts of nurture and support could in some mysterious way allay the boy soldiers' terror of the great African unknown.

  9. We knew also of the genuine or supposed acts of terror the guerrilla movements were supposed to have inflicted the week before, or the previous month, upon some isolated farmer's property and his family. Although O Notícias was careful to avoid the graphic detail of the horror of each attack, the rumours would inevitably ensure that each and every farmer's wife was not only killed but a child in her womb extirpated and chopped to pieces, the farmer's other children first murdered and then beheaded. These stories were not what the government wished to have circulated among the White settlers, but in its own mad attempts to impose secrecy at all costs it was powerless to stamp them out.

  10. It was not until much later, when the end was already in sight and the sun that had shone upon the Portuguese empire for nearly 500 years was beginning to fade, that the government's strategists realised that too little information was almost as bad, if not worse, than too much. So that when the Rádio Clube de Moçambique spoke of 'tragedy' in Northern Mozambique, the massacre of yet another white family would be described simply in terms of its statistics -- 'A farmer, his wife and 2 children were murdered last night in their isolated property in the Niassa province. Their dog was found dead, away from the homestead, and an old faithful servant's body has also been discovered some distance from that of his master. The terrorists are said to be part of a group of between 10 or 15 men, and the family never had a chance of escaping their murderous intentions. The National Army is now close in pursuit of these murderers and expecting to reach them possibly within a few hours' -- the White listeners and their Black servants alike knew that the story was not quite as seamless. Perhaps it was the consistency with which the old dog and the faithful servant, or the old servant and the faithful dog appeared in these narratives that raised their skepticism. Formulae are fine when confined to the realm of abstraction, but they become unwieldy creatures if used ad nauseum when dealing with that most unfathomable of conditions, the human condition.

  11. The rumours would now begin their journeys, slowly and diffidently at first but almost always soon getting totally out of hand. To most White people no attack made sense unless the White male victim's genitals had been removed from down below and stuffed down their mouth, the head cut off and impaled at the entrance to the farm, or to the family home. Invariably the farmer's wife too would have been subjected to all sorts of ignominies, and their innocent little children the victims of the vilest, most unspeakable horrors. I don't know what the African servants thought of such news bulletins -- in what ways did they mis/read the official accounts so readily rejected by the White people? It is unlikely that masters and servants would have processed all such official reporting of events in the same way, but all would have agreed, albeit in uncannily an unspoken alliance, that the army was nowhere near the guerrillas (terrorists, in officialese), and would certainly be miles away from capturing a single one of them. And in their mutually secretive ways none would allow the sheer terror and / or exhilaration they experienced to reveal themselves in even the faintest of ways.

  12. Then in 1968 the news bulletins announced that the Dictator had died. Slipped on a bar of soap, they said. No, perhaps it was not a bar of soap. That was Biko, in another land and to another dictator's pleasure. But I know that afterwards nothing would ever be the same, for the Dictator's death turned out to be the final catalyst for the kinds of changes earlier not thought possible. But just he would lay comatose for many, many months yet, surrounded by morbid acolytes and ghostly cardinals, so too the process of change took its time to evolve. When the revolution arrived it had been such a long time in coming, it caught most people by surprise. For us in Mozambique it took place many miles away, in a far-off land of which we knew little, about which we cared even less. Some immediately said that the first revolutionary shot had already been fired in Portuguese Africa in 1960, when the African people had rebelled openly, and attacked Portuguese farmers in more isolated locations in Angola. Others went back further -- the revolution, they said, had started in 1958 when a group of would-be Portuguese revolutionaries took over the Santa Maria, one of the few sea-worthy ships the badly impoverished Portuguese navy could muster, off the coast of West Africa. A few chose to go back to the individual and collective acts of rebellion by Africans whom the Portuguese had come to enslave. Fewer still would have said that what we now had with us in any way was news.

  13. But the revolution had finally come. It was announced on the radio in Portugal early in the morning of the 25th April 1974, though when it arrived in Mozambique it was already mid-afternoon. The revolution, this Portuguese revolution, was clearly never meant to be on time. Now at five o'clock in the afternoon the parents of the White children assembled outside the school gates, their faces tense with anxiety and fear. They had come to ensure that news of the revolution did not cause unnecessary panic among the children of the White minority. As the eyes of the Black people became increasingly curious, it was important not to lose the composure of the colonial master. Besides, in this least Lusophile outpost of the Portuguese empire's world-scattered possessions, the colonials had long advocated a break with the metropole. Their reaction now was ambivalent, and their sorrow self-centred. Ever since the Dictator fell off his chair in 1968 -- ah, that's what it was, a deck chair, and no one believed you could die by falling off a deck chair and when they took him to the hospital he had already gone to sleep never to wake up -- they had toyed with the idea of their own UDI, their own Unilateral Declaration of Independence, in the mould patented by the Rhodesian Ian Smith. They had their own lunatic, too, the outrageous, courageously barmy Jorge Jardim, he who batted for all sides, mostly all at once. [2]

  14. The Portuguese in Mozambique were a discrete breed. They saw themselves as superior to both Black Mozambicans and Portuguese from Portugal. They spoke condescendingly, often contemptuously of the Portuguese army's continued inability to the gain the upper hand in a guerrilla war that had long wreaked havoc with the economies of the two most useful Portuguese colonies. Generally, they ignored the thousands of young Portuguese boy-soldiers arriving from the metropole every month, young men frightened of a war they felt was not theirs, a fight they knew they could not win. These were boys-not-yet-men terrified of a world of which they knew little, and then only that in the darkest of Africa they would find little sympathy, from either Blacks or Whites. They knew too that the White minority living in Mozambique would go to all extents to ensure their own sons would not fight the empire's losing battles.

  15. But in the immediately post-revolution period the colonials worried that the actions of a group of rebels in Portugal might encourage millions of Black Mozambicans to seek revenge for the long centuries of oppression and abuse. And they feared that those soldiers they often so openly ostracised should now simply pack-up their guns, wrap their curios in the brightly coloured capulanas [3] they bought in the local markets, and depart for Portugal. They feared most of all that their servants, the Africans whom they had always felt they ruled, should now put to practice the lessons in abjection so thoroughly absorbed from their colonial masters. Outside the school, in small groups of three or four, leaning against their cars, the colonials whispered gravely to each other. Looking both undisturbed and agitated, they sought to show their Black servants awaiting to carry home their little masters' school bags that nothing had changed, that all was the same today as it had been since Vasco da Gama first set foot on the Ilha de Moçambique.

  16. There was some trouble in Lisbon this morning, my Father had said as we got in the car, just the two of us. My sister was travelling in a friend's car, the local provincial Governor's daughter sharing liberally the drives to and from school in a large American car driven by a Black chauffeur. You mustn't say anything to your sister. They are talking about immediate self-determination for the colonies, followed by independence later on. No one knows for sure what's happening. There are rumours that in Lourenço Marques the University students have been demonstrating in support of the FRELIMO, calling for a Black government to be formed right away.

  17. My Father was calm, and his voice sounded unusually restrained as he spoke of the university students in Lourenço Marques. After 500 years of colonial occupation there was still just the one university in the whole of Mozambique, and in 1974 its students were mostly the sons and daughters of the White minority. And the University, everybody knew, was a hotbed of communists and FRELIMOS, the noun derived from the acronym for the main group fighting to overthrow Portuguese colonialism, the frente de Libertaçao de Moçambique. My Father's voice always took on an extra gruffness when he referred to the university students in Lourenço Marques, strangely the same tone he reserved for the Portuguese secret police. Scum, he railed, Scum. One lot he blamed for spying on the White minority's dreams to break away from Portugal in the way Southern Rhodesia did, the other he accused of wanting to hand the colony to the USSR-supported FRELIMO. The Catholic Church he blamed for getting in bed with the colonial government; the foreign Protestant churches, mostly Swiss or German, he thought guilty of being behind the various nationalist movements under the guise of their literacy campaigns. [4] My Father was never one to quibble over the quality of his enemies, and soon there would be plenty more to choose from. After the Carnation revolution, the 'Revolution without Guns,' so called because when the crowds took to the streets to support the rebels, someone -- a budding poet? A bored florist? -- inserted blood-red carnations into the silent guns and cannons, nothing would stay the same for long.

  18. It was not long before it became impossible to ignore the changes beginning to occur in this far-off outpost of the empire. Soon the crates were everywhere. The crates had slowly started to take over the once quiet, tree-lined streets almost immediately after the Revolution, but then only in a rather half-hearted way. Those were the days when the colonials had still to realise that their time had come; the sun in this late-imperial enclave was on its way out. The events of the next few months would soon have them engaging a new gear. Now, the men hammered away, night and day, the women hung around, watching and talking quietly, and the children eagerly held out a hammer, nails, wood, a drink of water. They were playing the parts they had learned in the playground, in the games they had played with other children. Now grown-ups played these games, though when they turned sour the children would be spared no suffering. Then, as the gunshots silenced the noise of the suburban streets, men, women and children became the statistics quoted by conservative governments the world over, as they argued that Africa was yet to show that it could look after its own affairs.

  19. But that time was yet to come, and for now the children could still go on play-acting, pretending that the ghostly scenario all around was put in place especially for them. In the city now there were crates outside the tall skyscrapers, in the driveways of the luxurious mansions by the seafront, crates in the back of trucks being driven to the harbour where day and night the Black stevedores struggled to keep up with an ever-growing workload. There were crates at the train station, awaiting dispatch to South Africa, that old bastion of western civilisation, as the newspapers put it, and the White coffee-shop patrons repeated to each other, reassuringly. But these were not our crates. We were not going away, my Father had said when we walked home and first saw the crates.
    But the crates, Dad?

    What about the crates? he said. They are not our crates. We are not going away.

    We were not going away then, the crates were not our crates, we saw no crates.

  20. As the night crept in over the White city the children would stay out, long past their bedtime. They held out portable, strong spotlights, shifting earnestly around their working fathers. Some would labour by the dimmer light provided by the cheap kerosene-fuelled lamps owned by most Black Mozambicans to whom electricity and running water were but a dream. Slowly the children would fall silent, sleep induced by the questions that came with no answer. Dad, why are we going away? You said when Mozambique became independent we would have our own country. . . . Why do we have to leave? This is our land. The sound of clichéd utterances filled in moments of despair, hoping to dispel the clouds of uncertainty in the horizon that hung heavily in the air. And the air now thick with the corny patriotism of days gone by choked the answers the fathers would have liked to give, but could not bring themselves to. I too am afraid. The children's questions went on tiresomely, cruelly, until the fathers shouted them into silence or the tantrums of exhaustion took over. The women, the wives, mothers and older sisters of the men and children out in the street, would long have gone in to prepare the food to be eaten among the crates, sitting on boxes and smaller crates.

  21. This was Africa, Portuguese Africa in 1974. The land in which the children had been born but a land they now had difficulty recognising. Now a new Africa was being born, slowly yet frantically to the sound of hammers and saws. In this new Africa Black people no longer did as they were told, and as the wooden crates took shape, preparing to swallow the possessions of their White makers, other children, Black Mozambican children, watched in silence, while elsewhere in the city their parents set out to reclaim this country that was theirs, but in which for so long they had been strangers. Gradually . . . the stone city lost its value in favour of the wooden city . . . afterward, it sailed away on the ocean. . . . The city sailed out into the world, in search of its inhabitants, wrote Kapúscinski. The city, that city, was Luanda, Angola's colonial capital in late 1975. This city, my city, was Lourenço Marques, September 1974.

  22. Late September in Lourenço Marques normally would have meant crowded streets, loud White South Africans taking advantage of the easy way of life of a society where racism assumed much subtler disguises than those to which they held the patent. For White South Africans this was a city where the cheap beer and prawns served at sidewalk cafés and restaurants symbolised a lifestyle impossible to imagine within the constraints of their Calvinistic society. They came for the summer, slowly at first, then in droves, which by December had taken over the city's hotels, camping grounds and pensoes, the rough equivalent to the B & B. Here, in the city by the sea, they could drink in public places, laugh uproariously as the sun shining on their fair heads re-fermented the beer consumed in copious amounts. Here, where from now on the humidity levels hung around percentages that rarely came below the high 80s, they would sweat profusely, their pink skins changing, within the hour, into violent shades of red. The men would then shout loudly and lewdly at the demure-looking Portuguese girls passing by, mostly accompanied by their mothers. Whistling, catcalling, kisses blown sonorously were met by the girls' embarrassed giggles and shy smiles, and by their mothers' scowls.

  23. When the sun grew hotter, the noise at the cafés subsided, and the drunken tourists were driven away to their hotels, or to the local beaches. Many, their fair skin covered in unsightly and painful burns after a few hours at the beach, would soon take refuge in the brothels and dingy nightclubs where the trade in love and flesh was as brisk at night as it was during the day. The more adventurous, at home probably the most outspoken advocates of apartheid, would disappear into the shantytowns that surround the White city, where the majority of Black Mozambicans lived. They would emerge days later, drunk, drained, claiming to have been robbed, or bewitched, victims of the evil charms of xicuembo, witchcraft. As they stood at the few taxi stands this far into the Black city the Black children would taunt them, laughing wildly at the White man's fall from grace. Going home to the strict ways of biblically endorsed separation of the races of their South Africa, many of these men often left behind the by-product of their mercantile intercourse, light-skinned children whose lives would forever be associated with impurity and racial discrimination.

  24. This late September, however, was like no other. Lourenço Marques was quiet, calm, but it was an uneasy calm. An attempt at a coup d'état by dissatisfied Whites had failed, resulting in hundreds of deaths, the exact numbers lost forever in the burning fires that encircled the White city for days on end. This revolt was rumoured to have cost the lives of hundreds of Whites, these rumours igniting the first serious frenzy of crate-building by frightened Portuguese, especially those to whom Mozambique had remained always a temporary stop on the way to a bureaucratic career back at the centre of the empire -- a station of the cross for the colonial functionary. In the wave of panic that swept the city after the third day of chaos and indiscriminate killings, trains arrived in Johannesburg carrying thousands of White refugees. Amidst the terror and confusion of their hasty departure and arrival, rumours attained the solidity of well-built truths. Most of these would never return to Mozambique, opting instead for the comforts of apartheid. Others would come back only briefly, fleeing again after a second attempt by the White minority to derail the process of self-determination on October 21st also failed, though the statistics now showed clearly that the victims this time had been largely Black.

  25. Afterwards White supremacists wove tales of divine intervention, their desperately boastful claims that each White life would be avenged by those of thirty Black people 'proven' by the thousands of bodies piled in the city morgue, or lining the muddy paths that led to the shanty towns around the White city. The rumours this time had spoken of crowds of impoverished Blacks beginning to make their way into the White suburbs, and sections of the Portuguese military had intervened, leaving behind once again that indelible tale of blood and destruction that for so long had been their calling card. When troops from Tanzania arrived overnight to take up the positions FRELIMO had been granted but was unable to fulfil, the Portuguese battalions were swiftly put on board commercial airplanes and repatriated to the metropole before justice -- was it revenge, perhaps, too? -- could run its course.

  26. So as September came to an end there were no tourists. The restaurants and cafés were empty, the sidewalk chairs turned upside down, the Black waiters shuffling slowly in and out of doors in search of a break to the monotony of a hot, humid, summer day in Lourenço Marques. The beaches too were deserted, for the locals were still in too great a state of shock to sit in the sun, working assiduously as they once had done on their claims to a darker shade of Africanness. Now, as the foundations of their colonial world crumbled, they had turned to building once again, only this time no longer an empire, nor a copy of the ghetto set up by their White Rhodesian neighbours, but crates, wooden crates in which to ship away their treasured material world, the palpable emblems of a time fading away rapidly, now, when the fires of the last few weeks were still smouldering away at the invisible boundaries of the White city.

  27. But we were not going away, my Father had said. Not now. Not ever. Not yet. We would build no crates. We would pretend instead that the world, our world had not changed. At home, the servants had been dismissed, their presence in the house perceived as too great a risk to a White woman on her own for long periods of time each day. My Father had returned to work, after a short holiday during which he would sit with my Mother considering the options for an escape. His choice, South Africa, was not hers; to travel to Portugal, where so many of their friends had begun to go, would have meant a return to a land he hated with customary passion. In time Brazil came closest to becoming our new land, but the fear of crime figures of mythical proportions held us back. So we stayed on, not so much out of choice as because of a lack of one. We took a vote, in retrospect almost a joke. My sister and I knew no other land, and we voted with my Father to stay on in the new nation. But in time we, too, left. In time we, too, packed our belongings in three small cases, and left, quietly, not wanting to say goodbye. We had built no crates, we would build no crates, my Father had said. Not then. Not now. Not anymore.

  28. In Histoire des Colonisations: Des Conquêtes aux Indépendences, XIII - XX Siècle, Marc Ferro remarks on the veritable industry currently in progress in the previous colonial potentates, both in academic circles and in the wider community, as more and more people try to come to terms with the reality of postcoloniality. The English and the French are hard at work in an attempt at making sense of the changes that have so dramatically altered their societies. Decolonisation, a process over which quite often they exerted little or no influence whatsoever, is suddenly appropriated as one of their masterstrokes, a gift by the coloniser to the colonised. The master, always one step ahead in the civilising stakes, again comes forth in shining bright armour as the white knight to the frail (dark) damsels. In this script BC (Before Colonisation) has long been seen as a time of uncivilisation, just as AC (After Colonisation) denotes a period of untold joy and prosperity, with wealth, health and wisdom made available abundantly by the White man to all and sundry. But BD (Before Decolonisation) too now enters the vocabulary of postcoloniality, as the coloniser's stance shifts uneasily between the gruesome reality of AD (After Decolonisation), attempting to situate himself / (occasionally) herself always as the benevolent individual who parted with the imperfect creation he / she knew decolonisation to be as a result of an inability to deprive the natives of the sheer joy of newness.

  29. Though not so with the Portuguese, it would seem. The Portuguese dealt with colonisation by claiming it as their own natural vocation, they a people so utterly aware of the cruel fate of submission to, and dispossession by another nation, Spain. Thus Portuguese colonialism stressed not so much a desire to civilise and colonise but rather an avowed commitment to help others liberate themselves from their own brands of oppression. Aware of the shortcomings of a civilisation which they knew from experience to be neither enlightened nor enlightening -- perhaps not surprisingly, given the enormity of Portuguese culture's debt to the obscurantist teachings of a backward-looking Catholic Church the Portuguese identified their colonial mission with a genuine desire to help others achieve for themselves what the Portuguese so painfully managed to wrest for themselves from the Spaniards. That is, the freedom to claim a sense of national belonging, the dignity of sovereign (if minuscule) statehood.

  30. In his biography of Dr. António de Oliveira Salazar, the one who fell off the chair, but who, before that fall from grace, ruled Portugal for 40 years with the proverbial iron fist, F. C. C. Egerton cites Section 2 of the Portuguese Colonial Act, which states that "it is in keeping with the organic nature of the Portuguese nation to fulfil its historical function of possessing and colonising overseas territories and civilising the native populations thereof, and to exercise the moral influence which is bound up with the padroado of the East" (259-60). [5] Not everyone agrees, though. In the words of the Brazilian anthropologist, Alcida Ramos, "this image of the easily adaptable Portuguese who populated the colonies of Africa and America, thanks to their lack of prejudice toward black and Indian women, was to remain one of the strongest ideological artifices of Portuguese colonisation" (66). [6] Indeed, it is a sign of how little things have changed that fifty years later, the influential novelist and intellectual Miguel Torga, one of Portugal's more liberal minds, and for years a consistent if mild critic of Salazar's brutal regime, should have little trouble recycling Salazar's words in what must be one of the most uncanny instances of ideological transference:
    Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe, and through a desire to free its peoples it forged away from its peninsular domains. Then, throughout the centuries, it anticipated and pioneered all the great movements for the emancipation of the human condition. In a moment of febrile colonial convulsion, Portugal gave Brazil its independence, erased slavery from its penal codes, abolished before others the death penalty, miscegenated itself with all the races [sic] of the planet. [7]
    Colonisation having thus created little or no angst at all in the national psyche, de-colonisation, most thought, would be just as uneventful.

  31. Even the colonial war continues to be discussed largely for the damage it did to metropolitan Portuguese society rather than for its wanton destruction of African lives and cultures in the former Portuguese empire. Today, more than twenty five years after the process of decolonisation was declared complete, the one thing the pundits on both the left and the right of the political spectrum agree is precisely on the fact that Salazar's greatest fault was not to let go of the Empire much earlier. The damage to the way the Portuguese see themselves in the world to many seems irreparable. To have been asked to join the European Union in the latter half of last century, no matter from how diminished a place of representation, was for the Portuguese a motive for much joy and celebration. From a stance that to a minute and unimportant nation must appear of enormous prestige, Portugal now renegotiates its colonial past not as a failure but as a coup of true international statesmanship. Having previously argued their presence in Africa as an everlasting selfless attempt at giving the colonies freedom from other, more powerful, enemies -- from ignorance and obscurantism -- the Portuguese now re-present their decolonisation as a genuine desire to allow the African colonies they still held in the last quarter of the 20th century an independence that would keep them outside the malevolent influences of the Soviet Union of old, of the voracious China of today, and forever and ever an integral part of a great, free, family of Lusophone communities. In this new creation Portugal would then be able to reinvent itself as the revitalised pulsating heart of a living AD Lusophone New World. Fernando Nogueira, Salazar's Foreign Minister charged with making sense of a brutal colonial system to the outside world, had said in 1967:
    Before all others, we alone have brought to Africa the idea of the rights of man and racial equality. We are the only ones to have practised "multiculturalism," the perfect expression of a brotherhood of peoples. No one in the world challenges the validity of this principle. But there is still some hesitation to acknowledge that this is a Portuguese invention. To do so would enhance our authority in the world. (Cited in Ferro, 138-39)
    Alas, history has spoken differently, in a language which in this land of polyglot-minded individuals few have been able to interpret.

  32. So when the tragedies of Mozambique and Angola began to speak otherwise, the Portuguese as a nation adopted the proverbial three monkeys posture -- 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.' The business of acting up now came in useful, for as teachers they were better prepared than anyone else. Those on the left of the political spectrum busied themselves with the dramas of their own metropolitan condition, struggling between the posturings their internationalist souls dictated and those demanded of them by their position as Portuguese citizens. The colonial war has become in their discourse of de/reconstructed nationalism the wedge between a place of Greatness at the heart of European civilisation and that of marginalised little nation at which White Europe proper could throw the odd crumb every now and then. Others on the right, less likely to be affected by moral considerations of much intensity, remarked loudly on the inevitability of the tragedies. The Pretos, they note wisely, were renowned for their dislike of hard work, their distaste for much effort, their dim intellectual capacity. Colonisation having run its course, the argument went, the Portuguese had promptly, and efficiently, set upon taking up their place in the pantheon of history by allowing their African children to go, as any benevolent, caring parent so often does knowing all the same that the timing is not right. They said they wanted de-colonisation we gave it to them. Now they also want us to let them come back to live here. Typical Pretos, always wanting something for nothing.

  33. And then, as the possibility of a return to old positions of power and domination began to wag their little tails in their minds, the Portuguese began to accommodate to the requirements of their status of AD postcolonials: Of course, we could always go back. No one is best suited to deal with Blacks, you know. They know we will not put up with their little games of 'acting White,' as the English and the French taught them to. For acting White is not quite the same as acting like Whites. In one of many pieces bemoaning the collapse of the Portuguese empire, a piece in a local newspaper reads:
    Africanos nascidos em Portugal, sao portugueses com os mesmos direitos do cidadao nacional, dirao os hipócritas, falsos 'samaritanos', numa tentativa de se limparem da criminosa descolonizaçao que fizeram. Esquecem-se, contudo, dos portugueses brancos nascidos em Africa que foram expulsos e espoliados dos seus bens (nunca indemnizados) com a cumplicidade dessa tal descolonizaçao que tirou aos nacionais (ultramarinos) o direito de viverem na sua terra natal por pertencer aos africanos (será?) legitimos donos daquelas terras 'democraticamente independents.' (O Titulo 13)

    Africans born in Portugal are Portuguese with the same rights of the national citizens, hypocrites will say, false Samaritans, in an attempt to detach themselves from the criminal nature of their decolonisation. They forget however those Portuguese born in Africa who were expelled and who had their material possessions expropriated (without ever receiving any recompense) with the complicity of the said decolonisation which deprived our (overseas) nationals the right to live in the land of their birth on the basis that it belonged to the Africanos (would that be right?) legitimate owners of those lands now democratically independent.

    A group of Portuguese entrepreneurs, many of whom had once fled from there, most of them new arrivals from an independent South Africa now in the hands of the Black majority, recently visited Mozambique as distinguished guests, potential investors, putative saviours of a land not yet through with the horrors of a war that has raged unendingly since the early 1960s. Now is the time to go back, the overweight millionaire member of the Academia do Bacalhau[8] remarked excitedly at dinner. Do you know, they come to you in the streets and beg you to come back -- Faz favor Senhor, quando Senhor volta me dá emprego? A gente quer os Portugueses outra vez. Please Master, when you return will you give me a job? The people want the Portuguese back in power. They, he said. No need to speak of Blacks and Whites, they, now as long ago, are always the Africans. That in the Portuguese language 'Senhor' is both 'Master' and 'Lord,' as when speaking of God our Lord (Deus Nosso Senhor) only adds to the poignant irony of the situation.

  34. A young Black woman walks past the bus stop in Coimbra, where a group of White people congregate. It is hot and the people seek the comfort afforded by the cramped shelter. Dressed in a black tracksuit she carries two large shopping bags. She looks tired and the effort of climbing the steep hill in the hot early afternoon sun makes her look older than she is. She is absorbed in her own thoughts as she passes us.

  35. Look at that Black woman, an old Portuguese man remarked, not too loud yet clearly within her earshot, addressing the small group of people waiting with him at the bus stop. She's got quite a body. I tell ya, I know what I could with her.

  36. Pois, pois. Yes, of course. That's what they're here for, you know. To steal, and create trouble all over the place. Did you hear on the TV last night? Quite a fright, I tell you. The woman who spoke had avoided replying to the man's allusion to the Black woman as a sex object by speaking of the load she was carrying. In this Catholic country it is till easier to pretend that the body, at least the Black female body, does not exist. [9] The old woman was dressed in black, the epitome of a cliché all foreigners associate with Portugal. A country of old traditions, Portugal lived in the grips of a cruel dictatorship until 1974. Today, 20 years after the Carnation Revolution, there remains great poverty in most places. Portuguese women are still meekly obeisant toward their men, and generally dress in black, a recent article in a British publication informed its readers.

  37. Trying to act like Whites, someone else commented now. Bloody niggers, the government should pack the lot up and send them back to their own countries.

  38. Too right, the first man continued. They say that in Lisbon it's become too dangerous to walk the streets at night. The damned niggers roam the streets in bands, attacking our own people on our own land.

  39. From a local tabloid:
    Neste Portugal ainda nosso (até quando?) vamos ter africanos a piar cada vez mais alto, empoleirados na cobarde democracia de uma política que lhes abre a porta fechando os olhos a violência cada vez mais perigosa para o povo português ainda alheado as terriveis consequencias que podem fazer perigar vidas nas maos desta 'fauna' tao apaparicada por certa camada nao racista que prefere calar a realidade dos factos. (O Titulo 13)

    In this Portugal of ours (till when?) we are going to have Africans twittering ever louder, perched on a cowardly political democracy which gives them free entry while remaining oblivious to the ever more dangerous violence to the Portuguese people still unaware of the terrible consequences which put lives at peril at the hands of this fauna spoilt by a certain non-racist group which prefers to ignore the reality of facts.

    The frightening grammar, the ornithological discourse, the meaningless prose, the ability to be racist unashamedly.

  40. Acting-up White, the old woman had said. Gostam de se armar em Brancos. When White people in Portugal talk about their compatriots of a different colour, this is still one of the most commonly heard refrains. As more and more Lusophone Africans arrive here, fleeing the misery Portuguese colonization set in place and decolonisation failed to unsettle, White people seem to be confronted with increasing numbers of mimics. Colonisation in reverse indeed. Today Portuguese-speaking Africans from the previous colonies of Mozambique and Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are a conspicuous presence in all major Portuguese cities. They came as intrinsic parts of the Empire in the 1950s and 1960s to study, then in the post independence period in search of asylum, peace, normality. Some were now able to reclaim their status as Portuguese citizens, the majority simply settled down to exist as neither migrants nor citizens. Outside the Great Metropolis that is Lisbon, the shantytown grew in size, changed colour, became for the vast majority of Portuguese people places associated with Black people, with danger, fear, the unknown space of the colonies now a barely containable world on their doorstep. Africans born in the former mansions of the Empire continued to arrive in the 1980s and 1990s because at home nothing changed, and suffering gave rise to yet more despair.

  41. There are more many Blacks here than I thought, an Australian tourist remarked in an interview with a major Portuguese newspaper. Speaking within the ambit of the International Day of Tourism celebrations, she went on to note: But they are always in hard jobs, especially in the construction industry. She was right of course. Black Portuguese do occupy the lowest rungs across the national spectrum. They are poor, often unemployed and living in the most degraded conditions. They are also mostly resigned to their fate in a land that is not theirs yet not totally foreign to them, remembering always to smile obligingly when reminded that in the land of their birth they would still be living in trees. They are abused everywhere, by young and old, rich and poor, Portuguese Whites keen to emulate the racist behaviour typical of most of the nations that comprise the European Union. In many ways they have an advantage, they have had centuries of practice. Here Le Pen would find ground for rich pickings. Enoch Powell might have taken lessons from the Portuguese. Outside, in the cafés, they sit and shout across the street at the old Black woman walking with her children in tow, Malditos pretos, vao prá terra deles.

  42. Damned Blacks, go back to where you came from, goes this refrain, repeated ad nauseum across the land. They come out here and they expect us to look after them. They don't know what work is, that's what it is. The Australian woman on the other hand thought otherwise. A case of different(iated) perceptions. And yet -- where does this leave the masters' ability to impress upon the native an ethic of hard work? Five hundred years of hard civilising slog, and so little to show. After five hundred years of spreading the message of whiteness and the joys of its civilisation one would expect them to rejoice in the accomplishment of their mission: Africans who can act like White people. Note that they are not accused of being like white people, for that even the most ignorant Portuguese bigot acknowledges as the impossibility borne by race, but of acting like white people. For that was the purpose of colonialism at large, the fabrication of mimics, of actores, so "that by careful mimicry [they] might become men" (Walcott 12).

  43. If only the Portuguese could be happy with the palpability of their minor achievements. If only they could be proud of teaching their Blacks to act White. If only they could read Conrad, judicious chap that he was when speaking of the natives, and colonialism, and of the Portuguese for that matter. "Appearances -- what more, what better can you ask for? In fact you can't have better. You can't have anything else" (218). But then it is said that the Portuguese were never in the business of colonialism for the sake of civilising anyone, least of all themselves. Indeed, in the Austrian historian, Urs Bitterli's unsettling, but suggestive and succinct phrasing, "the Portuguese were supple in adapting to circumstances and sensitive in their responses to alien cultures" (61). Not a bad point, until you realise he is talking about the fact that upon discovering a new a land Portuguese men soon took to raping local women.

  44. In a reading of the Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre's best known work, Casa-Grande e Senzala (translated as Masters and Slaves), Bitterli noted that "[he] has drawn attention to the very marked sexual preference for exotic women shown by the Portuguese and has shown that to what extent, even within the family, physical relationships have encouraged the easy transfer of cultural elements" (68). Freyre was less than concerned with the deeply problematic ideologies that underpin such encounters, and Bitterli is too much in awe of these virile Southern European males to consider it. Both men underline the extent to which Portuguese colonisation was "exclusively masculine," as Ferro puts it (107).[10] Although I suspect that by 'masculine' he means 'male,' the ambiguity is itself an interesting slippage. Bitterli and Freyre contend that it was not only acceptable but desirable that the Portuguese colonial / slave master should engage in sexual intercourse with the native women (it was also good for improving the slave stock, and the sons of slave owners were in fact encouraged to 'show a marked sexual preference for exotic women'), but the situation differed greatly with regards to dealings between White women and Indian men, let alone African slaves. [11] Distinctive hierarchies of both race and gender operated within the contact zone. In her analysis of Brazilian national ideologies, Alcida Ramos notes that Indian men were carefully kept away from their White mistresses, for in this context sexual intercourse would have meant the contamination of the White man's own reproductive unit (68). Far from being the benevolent process its advocates describe, miscegenation was in fact largely an act of violence against the colonised female subject.

    Once upon a time, so the story goes, the Pee were a small but fierce nation, whose sense of being derived from their intense dislike of their more powerful neighbours, the Spee. They fought them till the day they could proudly proclaim themselves a free people. Although the Spee never quite forgave them this intense rejection, of paella, sangria and other such delicacies (which, many centuries later, others would find truly irresistible), the Pee remained alone until 1580. But that's another story, and here, perhaps, out of joint. Once they had been able to expel their oppressors, the people of Pee set about making a name for themselves, fighting bravely in the Crusades against the Infidels, and impressing upon the Santissimo Pater at the Vatican their capacity for great successes. That in the process their aristocracy ended up mortgaging themselves to the hilt meant that in time the Spee could come back to reconquer much of what they had lost in the past. Besides the excursions into foreign lands often turned out none too successfully, and soon the Pee were having to stave off incursions by the peoples they had provoked in their displays of devotion for the Santissimo. But all is well that ends well, and when the Santissimo decided to set his eyes upon the affairs of the world, the Pee were justly rewarded with half of the unknown world as their own fiefdom. They might have had the lot, too, if only they had read Catulus a little earlier. Although one might presume that having to share this gift with their previous enemies might have taken some joy out of being the owners now of an enormous mass of land and all its peoples, the Pee soon set about forgetting their past grievances. For after all the Spee were also a White people, and together with the Pee they would face the demanding but glorious task of taming all peoples of a darker hue. Vicious, but envious, tongues would inevitably later remark that in their conquering zest the Pee and their close neighbours more often than not came to be the tamed ones. Having entered the cages filled with wild, dark beasts, they soon found it difficult to resist their charms. The result, these rumour mongers would be quick to point out, was obvious in a progressive but irrevocable descent towards a people of less than pristine roots in the land of the Pee and that of their next door chums. The phenomenon, which the peoples in question disclaimed rather righteously, in time became a source of much scholarly attention. Writing some time later, more precisely in the latter part of the 20th C, a German professor put forth a thesis which related this willingness to sleep with the enemy to the particularly mild brand of colonial oppression practiced by the Pee especially. Unlike the people of England, or France, whose presence in different parts of the world became synonymous with some of the strictest colour divisions ever set in place anywhere -- the Union of South Africa standing here as the crown jewel of this complex system -- the Pee and their friends (increasingly they were becoming better acquainted with each other) left upon the lands they visited a myriad of peoples of many colours, ranging from the mild caffé latte to the much darker macciatto. Many a scholarly dissertation has since sought to address the fascinating mysteries of this process, of which the German professor's effort is but one of the better publicised, but rarely by either Pee or Spee individuals. For the latter remain too much in tune with the national insecurities of their own lands to be able to deal with the intricacies of any racial discussion of their recent colonial past. Besides the colour stream continues to run too deeply through the imagination of both the Pee and the Spee. Even amongst the more enlightened middle-classes, whose existence becomes more and more a constant struggle to stave off the hungry marauders below them, any relationship with a dark son or daughter of their former colonies, be it a local 'worthy' capable of securing the financial position of the Pee family, is valiantly resisted. Valiantly because occasionally any such alliance would mean for the Pee family involved a sudden entry into the rarefied world of power and money of a neocolonial society. Alas, old habits die hard.


  1. Coimbra is a city in the heart of Portugal. Back

  2. Jardim was a local entrepreneur, one to whom the word fits so aptly it might have been invented for him. He made his money by playing his cards well with the colonial authorities, all the while supposedly paying his dues to nationalist movements. Under surveillance by the Portuguese secret police, he was equally distrusted by FRELIMO, the largest nationalist movement in Mozambique. In the dying days of the empire, Jardim became a mythic figure, said to be behind all sorts of plots for Mozambique to secede from Portugal, and declare its own UDI. After Mozambique became independent in 1975, he left for Gabon, where his business prospered. He remained a putative saviour in the eyes of many Portuguese who had left Mozambique and Angola, spoken of in tones that ranged from ridicule to adulation. He has since packed his bags and gone to keep Salazar company, though in life they never saw eye to eye. Back

  3. A capulana is a brightly coloured piece of cloth, worn by most Mozambican women. Back

  4. In his work, The Challenge for Independent Africa, K. A. Busia remarks: "The earliest European schools in Africa were established in the Portuguese African colony of Angola, when the first Catholic mission opened there, in 1534. Despite this early start, the indigenous populations in Portuguese African colonies have illiteracy rates that are among the highest in the world; about 95 per cent of the African populations of Angola and Mozambique are illiterate. The Roman Catholic mission has carried out most of the educational work that has been done, acting as an agent of the state. In accordance with state policy, the Catholic Church has been, in the words of the Colonial Act of 1930, 'an instrument of civilisation and national influence.' Portuguese policy has been to use the schools as the vehicles to spread the Portuguese language and culture. Africans who sufficiently assimilate it move up the social ladder to join the class of assimilado, the class of those who are counted with the civilised section of the population, to which the Europeans . . . " (81). Back

  5. "Padroada" means 'clergy.
    Although I am not aware that they are available in English, much more relevant in this context are Salazar's regular "addresses to the Nation," broadcast regularly on the radio and in which, a most unlikely Sheherazade, in the late '60s he sought to prevent the inevitable; see also Basil Davidson. Africa: history of a continent. London; New York: Spring Books, 1972. Revised ed.; equally useful are Norrie McQueen (1997) and Busia (1962). Back

  6. That is also precisely how they are portrayed in two important, and still fairly pioneering attempts at analysing globally the European colonial project. I am referring specifically to the Austrian Urs Bitterli's Alte Welt, neue Welt: Formen des europaisch-uberseeischen Kulturkontakts vom 15. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert; translated into English as Cultures in Conflict, 1989, and to Histoire des Colonisations, 1994: translated into English with an even more ambitious title -- Colonisation: A Global History, 1997 -- by the Frenchman Marc Ferro. Both works examine the story of Portuguese colonisation largely through a perspective which stresses the Portuguese role in the development of colonialism in its modern, Western version, in the fourteenth century, and their tendency to 'go native' in the "contact zone" as potentially responsible for the creation of conditions which ensured that they would in time leave behind some of the most degraded former colonies of any European colonial power. Back

  7. Miguel Torga, in an address to the European Writers Parliament, in 1993, in Lisbon. Back

  8. A business lobby group of Portuguese businessmen (largely so, too) resident in South Africa. At the time of South Africa's independence, the Portuguese community was said to number between 400 and 500000 individuals. By and large the community was as rabidly racist as any radical Afrikaner, though the latter had much time for the 'sea-kaffirs', as Portuguese people were known. In Mukiwa, the ex-Rhodesian writer, Peter Godwin writes: "The Portuguese themselves were quite strange. Although they were Europeans, they couldn't speak English. In fact some of the boys at school called them sea-kaffirs, or Porks, and treated them as though they weren't entirely white. They were unusual for whites because quite a few of them couldn't read or write and did jobs that Africans did in Rhodesia. They operated the lifts and buses, which were black men's jobs, really" (1996: 153). The community has borne the brunt of South Africa's serious problem with crime and is now much reduced, and the Academia has spent considerable effort trying to seduce the present Mozambican authorities. Back

  9. One of the few points Ramos, Bitterli, Ferro, Buarque de Hollanda, Godwin and others agree on is the fact that the Portuguese men sent out in search of an Empire put to practice with unusual enthusiasm the Biblical recommendation to procreate and populate. However, while some have elected to read this propensity to mix easily with African and Asian women, the Brazilian Alcida Ramos and Alfredo Bosi see it as rape. As Bosi notes: "The libido of the conqueror was phallocratic rather than democratic, for clearly it was unidirectional: the female slaves impregnated by the slave masters were not pulled up, ipso facto, to the category of spouses and ladies of the manor, and neither were the children born out of these brief trysts allowed to share equally with the so-called legitimate heirs in the patrimony of their progenitors. The exceptions, rare and belated, constitute little more than anecdotal evidence, and serve only to confirm the general rule" (28-29). Back

  10. Further, while Ferro himself does not reference Bitterli for the information, the latter already in his 1986 work had noted that "During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Portugal sent out twenty ships a year, with a total of some 15000 voyagers on board, including no more than a couple of dozen women" (1989: 64). Back

  11. The point is made in no uncertain terms by Alfredo Bosi, in his A Dialética da Colonisaçao. Back

Works Cited

Bitterli, Urs. Cultures in Conflict (Alte Welt, neue Welt: Formen des europaisch-uberseeischen Kulturkontakts vom 15. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert.) Trans. Titchie Robertson. Cambridge; Polity, 1989.

Bosi, Alfredo. A Dialéctica da Colonizaçao. Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

Busia, K. A. The Challenge for Independent Africa. New York: Praeger Paperbacks, 1962.

Conrad, Joseph. Victory. 1915; London: Penguin, 1989.

Davidson, Basil. Africa: history of a continent. Revised Edition. London; New York: Spring Books, 1972.

Egerton, F.C.C. Salazar: Rebuilder of Portugal. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943.

Ferro, Marc. Histoire des colonisations: des conquêtes aux indépendances, XIIIe-XXe siècle. Paris : Seuil, 1994. (Translated into English as COLONIALISM: A GLOBAL HISTORY, 1997.)

Freyre, Gilberto. The masters and the slaves (Casa-grande & Senzala): a study in the development of Brazilian civilization. Tr. Samuel Putnam. New York, Knopf, 1946.

Godwin, Peter. Mukiwa. London, Picador, 1996.

McQueen, Norrie. The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metroplitan Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire. 1997.

Ramos, Alcida Rita. Indigenism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

O Titulo. 'A Caixa do Correio.' 29 / 09 / 94: 13.

Walcott, Derek. The Star-Apple Kingdom. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979.

Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 6 Issues 1 - 2
Back to Jouvert Main Page