Rome: Armed soldiers and homeless immigrants

img-20161224-wa0000-1These are some fairly disorganised thoughts scribbled in a station and on a train on 24th December last year. I have a bad habit of trying to (in the words of my wife) connect the dots and present a complete and coherent picture of an issue. For reasons that will become clear I don’t want to do that here.

There have almost certainly been homeless people in Rome for as long as the city has existed. Similarly the presence of armed soldiers has probably been a constant. Here in and around Termini Station there is an abundance of both, but ordinary life is going on oblivious. On the main concourse there is a Christmas tree with messages and wishes stuck to it. One piece of paper reads simply: Gulio.

Gulio Regeni, whose name has been seen everywhere in Italy this year, was, after a fashion, a migrant, an Italian PhD student in Egypt. He was by all accounts an exemplary human being, the sort of person who quite simply gives you hope for the future. He was murdered by the security services. They saw him as a potential threat: a European in a repressive Middle-Eastern country asking searching questions and sticking up for people whose livelihoods and rights were threatened, and who had no alternative but to stand up for each other and take whatever outside help they could get.

He could have stayed in Italy and helped migrants here. There are lots of good people involved in such initiatives, people from the church and civil society. The Italian Navy has managed to save huge numbers of people from the Mediterranean, but the response of national and local government authorities has sometimes been a lot less helpful. Recently the police in Rome turfed out the inhabitants of a volunteer centre which was housing, feeding and advising homeless newcomers. Lots of people on the streets come from Senegal, Mauritius and Pakistan. They are, despite their religious background and the colour of their skin, the counterparts of the Italians who went in such huge numbers to the Americas a century ago and who now go to work and study in London and elsewhere. Any one of them could be another Gulio Regeni.

In Rome there is huge pressure on public housing. It started before the recent wave of migration. Nevertheless openly racist groups like Casapound have been exploiting the crisis for their own ends. A family of Moroccan origin, who have been here for several years and are now Italian, were prevented last month from moving into the apartment assigned to them by a group of ‘locals’ shouting “we don’t want blacks here”. I came across other migrants online (white European ones, who classify themselves as ‘expats’) who made excuses for the protests.

Homeless people, whether migrants or otherwise, are usually invisible. Armed soldiers are too, albeit in a different way. I’m used to guns, having seen so many of them in Mexico. When we came back to Europe last December they were already everywhere. It’s not just stations and airports and major tourist sites, but also our local metro station. They are there to identify and exclude anyone who might be a threat.

They are there in Brussels too. No-one talks about it, a friend of ours who lives there tells us. It’s become a taboo. Life must go on.

It’s all too complex and contradictory to assemble into a simple picture or a single narrative. The problems are multifaceted, dynamic and interlinked. What’s the proper reaction to attacks like the ones in Paris, Brussels and Berlin? Any response is inevitably partial and incoherent. For several days this month no big trucks were allowed to circulate in Rome. Last month there was a similar prohibition in place because of the pollution. In the first case no one complained. In the second people felt justified in doing so.

Any attempt to describe the future which doesn’t address Climate Change is meaningless and dishonest. Last Christmas someone gave me a book called ‘Sapiens’, which purports to be a complete history of the human race. The conclusion features one reference to the changing climate, and it dismisses the prospect in two lines. Yesterday in Feltrinelli I saw that the same writer has a new book about the future. This time there are three pages dedicated to the environment, on which he argues in a tone of staggering glibness that human beings will probably survive like they always have, probably just in much smaller number.

That’s all fine then.

Migration is one of the most basic evolutionary reflexes. ‘You only leave home/when home won’t let you stay’.

I take a photo of the scene with the tree and like any photo in any public place in Europe right now it could end up being captioned ‘five minutes before the shooting began’.

It’s easy to identify the main ingredients in this stew of fear and resentment: ‘We’ have to protect ourselves from ‘them’. ‘They’ get everything. ‘We’ get nothing. Far-right tricksters, agents of violence and chaos, keep throwing extra spice into the simmering unpalatable mix. We don’t want to accept what they are offering, but maybe after a certain point there will be nothing else to eat. That’s what they and their counterparts in the Middle East want to happen.

In the meantime lots of people are unhappy in their lives. The obvious thing to do would be to stop spending so much, get out of debt, but our mode of existence is based on over-consumption. That’s why Bush came out immediately after 9/11 and told American citizens to get back in the malls. That’s why the implied missing word in the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ meme’ is ‘…shopping’.

The Internet tells us there is no limit to how much we can consume. It’s an infinite resource. It increasingly determines how we regard that other reality, the one that sustains and troubles us so much. Maybe one of our secret thoughts is: Why can’t all these homeless people and migrants just do what we do and take refuge online?

Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough: if states are so keen to protect us from the threat of terrorism, why do they do basically nothing to protect us from climate change? Why don’t they tell us to consume less rather than more?

A neoliberal response to any question is that more markets are the answer. In the words of Thomas Pynchon, the real war is a celebration of markets. Perhaps it’s significant then that so many terrorist attacks target markets; generally local ones, as the global one is beyond reach or reproach.

Deaths from terrorist attacks are visible, immediate and spectacular. Terrorists target people like us because they know it will be newsworthy. Climate change will – probably already does – kill many more people than terrorism will, but more slowly and less visibly. It targets people who are more vulnerable than we believe ourselves to be, who do not have the protections that states founded upon and legitimised by liberal values and institutions provide.

It’s strange, or at least illogical, given the prevalence and persistence of climate change denial, that there is no-one (or at least no-one I’ve come across) who tries to get away with claiming that there’s no connection between a bomb exploding in a marketplace and people being killed and injured.

What’s Christmas like in Russia this year? After the massacre of Aleppo are people still sentimentalising the young, are orthodox priests preaching about the need for peace in the world? Are they mourning the ambassador to Turkey? Will anyone around the Christmas dinner table point out that bombing Aleppo to pieces would have consequences?

What are the consequences of me, a British citizen, asking these questions? One of my compatriots once wrote:

‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in their turn’.

There is a tension around the issue of belonging, and the line between those who do and don’t belong is fraught. That’s why we ignore armed soldiers and homeless people in our midst. In the words of the great Zygmunt Bauman (RIP), the greatest fear we have nowadays is of being excluded.

It’s the day before Christmas. There are adverts for luxury goods everywhere we look.

If the dead could speak

If I should one day die, and should I happen to be in Rome when such an unlikely event takes place, I’d like to be buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not because I have anything against Catholics, of course, I may even be one by that point anyway. Possibly. It would just be nice to be laid for eternity next to such characters as Keats, Shelley and Gramsci. If the dead can actually speak I’m sure they’ll have enough to keep us moved, entertained and inspired for the rest of our, er, deaths. (Someone did once say if the dead could speak, we would not be able to understand them, but that’s by-the-by as I’d be dead myself then anyway).

Most of the other residents of the graveyard are immigrants, people who were born elsewhere and made their lives here. It struck me as an important place right now to reflect on migration and particularly on the experiences of those who for various reasons may have had or may be having a more tortuous passage to establishing themselves as foreign-born residents. It seems apt that in the cemetery there are at least two people from Syria – as it happens, ‘If the dead could speak’ was the title of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report into the horrific conditions endured by inmates of that unfortunate country’s torture prisons.

There is a bond that connects all migrants, living and dead, and if the residents of this cemetery, most of whom we might suppose came here in peace and out of their own volition, were to hear the details of the plight of those prisoners they would hopefully wish that their own good fortune, the welcome extended to them, were passed on to others. There is also the possibility that the experiences of migrants today would resonate with their memories of their first days or years in Italy; maybe those in the cemetery went through similar struggles to their those whose stories are quoted below. In any case, I would assume that they would at least want the voices of their living counterparts to be heard, whatever their reasons for coming here happen to be. As I myself am a living human being who happens to be an immigrant (one who has been made to feel very welcome here – and one from a country which has of late been a lot less welcoming than Italy has) those are very much my sentiments. What follows therefore are quotes from a number of sources, including the immigrants themselves, which, if we pay attention, may help us to better understand the current situation and help us to recognise what our own responsibilities as fellow migrants and living human beings are.

dsc_0058“The way people look at you and mutter about you on the bus or train, as though you’re dangerous. That would never have happened in the ’80s. Now if you want to rent a house, you’ll get a viewing appointment over the phone alright, but as soon as you get there and they see you’re black, you’ll either get told ‘it’s already gone’ or quite simply ‘the neighbours don’t want to live next to foreigners’. It’s become quite normal for people to admit they’re ‘anti-foreign’ and talk about it freely. They don’t differentiate between migrants and nationals with foreign parents.” (France 24, 2009)

dsc_0060“In July, in Quinto di Treviso, Northeast Italy, residents and far-right militants broke into flats destined to receive asylum-seekers, took the furniture outside and set it on fire, leading the authorities to move the asylum-seekers to another location.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0053“Akram, a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.” Human Rights Watch, 2016

dsc_0052“Mayor Alberto Panfilio said calm had been restored at the center, where up to 1,500 people have been placed in a facility originally meant for 15 migrants.” (Voice of America, 2017)

dsc_0050“Four Eritrean girls, aged 16 and 17, said that adult men constantly harassed them. Bilen, 17, said men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us… They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.”” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0044“Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0042“Kaiser Tetteh was from Ghana. He was kidnapped and imprisoned for three months in a makeshift jail in Libya by a smuggling gang. “Kidnapping is normal. If you are in a taxi they will kidnap you, they will take everything from you.” He said he witnessed the killing of 69 people in Libya during an escape attempt from the prison. “All the time you don’t sleep,” he said. “Everyone has guns. Even kids have guns.” Lucky told us he did not mind where he was resettled in Europe. “I’m a beggar, I don’t have any choice. I just want protection. I just need freedom.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0035““It is not easy to live here illegally,” Lisa, one of the volunteers told me. “I don’t know if people really want this, sleeping in the park or not having a job. “We think people are coming here because of war and violence, not because we are kind. We are doing something very human. We tell them where to go, where to eat and try to give them advice. We don’t want them to be illegal.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0029“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for a concerted international effort to block people-traffickers after the reported deaths of up to 700 migrants in the latest sinking in the Mediterranean. “We are asking not to be left alone,” Renzi told reporters after an impromptu cabinet meeting, adding that he wanted an emergency meeting of European Union leaders to be held this week to discuss the mounting migrant crisis. Renzi underlined that search and rescue missions alone were not sufficient to save lives. He said the problem could only be solved by preventing the criminal activity of people trafficking and stopping migrant boats from leaving Libya.” (Reuters, 2015)

dsc_0026“I left Ethiopia because of the political situation. I’m Oromo and in 1991 there was conflict between Tigrinya and Oromo. My grandfather and my father fought for the Oromo. Later, my father was arrested and my brother shot dead at university by the government. In Ethiopia if you are Oromo you can’t do anything. They arrest you and they can kill you. At the time I wasn’t involved in politics. My father and grandfather were part of the OLF party. The Ethiopian police came to question me, asking who was supporting the party. In 2013/14 they arrested me and held me for two months in the prison of Diradawa. They wanted to know where my uncle was. They didn’t give me food, only bread and water once every three days, and we had to do a lot of work in the prison.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0028“About seven months after Osama’s arrest, security officers stopped Firas at the gate of his university. “If you keep asking about your brothers, we will cut out your tongue,” they told him. That day, Firas fled Syria.” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

dsc_0027“Compounding Italy’s frustration is the fact that its northern neighbours, including France, Switzerland and Austria, have in effect closed their borders to migrants, preventing what had been a natural flow of refugees towards more prosperous parts of Europe.” (Financial Times, 2016)

dsc_0064“A 16 year old, named Djoka, from Sudan reported, “They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist… They took both my hands and put them on the machine.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0068“Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said Tuesday there would be “mass expulsions” of migrants when the League gained power, after the most recent revolt in a migrant centre in Italy.” (ansa.it, 2017)

dsc_0062“An Afghan migrant travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) along an Italian highway strapped by leather belts to the bottom of a lorry, according to police.” (Guardian, 2016)

dsc_0054“In an intercepted phone call, Mafia businessman Salvatore Buzzi was heard telling his assistant Pierina Chiaravalle: “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”” (Al Jazeera, 2015)

dsc_0065A Nigerian man who had recently fled to Europe to escape Boko Haram militants was beaten to death on the streets of Italy this week as he tried to defend his wife against racist abuse. (Huffington Post, 2016)

dsc_0039“Syria is burning; towns are destroyed and that’s why people are on the move, that’s why we have an avalanche, a tsunami of people on the move towards Europe… As long as there’s no resolution in Syria and no improved conditions in neighbouring countries, people will move.” (UNHCR, 2015)

dsc_0073High ships come in bearing black strangers

who call over the harbor, Where are we?

Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.

Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway

standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,

a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls

to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,

the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.

Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.

And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,

grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me

as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.

I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.

Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,

how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.

(Eliza Griswold)

dsc_0077No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well. (Warsan Shire)

dsc_0066“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Puebla: Clowns, Trains and Antorchistas

dsc_1022In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.dsc_0791Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.dsc_0830

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dsc_0835We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.dsc_0887

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dsc_0892I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.dsc_0893The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.dsc_0932

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dsc_0998Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.dsc_0897It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more.dsc_0900 I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.

Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport.  I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.

Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.

dsc_1045We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists. dsc_1039

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dsc_1034Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. dsc_0166In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.dsc_1058It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.

In Defence of People Smugglers

A small group of German women and children arriving in the British sector of Berlin, October 1945 (photo: http://www.kingsacademy.com)


Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 2015 (photo: http://dailyamin.com)

When I was a child I loved reading novels about escape. They were mostly stories of people escaping from areas under Nazi control, being smuggled across borders into neutral countries, or trying to get hold of the right papers, or at least ones convincing enough to allow them to escape from imprisonment, torture and death. Along the way they would meet some people who would help them and some who would betray them — the suspense and drama came from sharing the character’s uncertainty as to whether or not they’d make it, and whether or not the person they’d just met could really be trusted. The escapees, exhibiting bewildering levels of courage and ingenuity, were ocasionally assisted by networks of resistence, anonymous people of staggering bravery who were prepared to face torture and give their lives to save others and to combat injustice. This kind of fiction was everywhere when I was a kid, which was still within the broad cultural aftermath of the excitement and traumas of the war. You could still buy Victor annuals which revelled in imagery of armed conflict — I’m pretty sure the very first phrase I learnt in German was ‘Achtung! Ich bin hit!’. By the time I came into being there had already been a good couple of decades of this stuff. As an adult I read A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque, a more complex account of the brutalities of the struggle for escape and survival, and also Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which explores the deeper implications of what it is to be rescued and to start a new life elsewhere. They depicted deep, intense psychological and moral battles, in a way conditioned by a profound sense of empathy at suffering and loss.

There was always a great deal of romance in these stories: divided couples and also people with divided emotions and divided loyalties who were forced by the threat of violence or by their conscience to do the wrong or the right thing. Intense human drama, in other words. The people who helped potential victims of nazi persecution to escape were heroes and still are. Oskar Schindler himself is only one of them. In Portugal a few years ago there was a spate of articles about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux in France who defied the orders of Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship to issue visas and passports to a number of refugees. There is also the similar story of Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, Mexican Consul in Marseilles, who directed his employees to issue a visa to anybody wanting to flee to Mexico. Two weeks ago in the UK press there were a number of obituaries of Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia. These were all extremely brave and principled people who clearly did the right thing despite not being perfect human beings, and they were not few in number -it is remarkable that in a few minutes’ googling I was actually quite hard-pressed to find any nation that doesn’t have a claim to their very own saviour-of-the-Jews (one might even argue, given the ending of the film, that Schindler in Spielberg’s film is the Israeli Schindler, a stand-in for the state of Israel itself as the only possible refuge for the Jewish people).

Another example is closer to home. When my mother was trying to open a Kindergarten in the UK about 20 years ago, she was temporarily stimied in her efforts by a group of local residents who didn’t want to hear the sound of screaming kids on their street day in day out. My father looked at their petition and gave a start — he recognised a name from many years ago. He went round to the house and introduced himself to the son of a man whose family my father’s father had, by means of his travel agency, helped to escape from Nazi Germany sixty years or so before. They soon dropped their opposition to the nursery.

All of the Schindlers above are dead and buried. The war they fought seemingly has a happy ending: tyranny was defeated, and a handful of good people tried to do the best they could to help the helpless. It’s a comforting tale which allows us to get on with our lives without dwelling too much on our own standing in relation to the events we’ve seen. Schindler’s List flatters ordinary people by putting us partly in the position of helpless victims, partly in the role of the heroic saviour, helpfully allowing us to forget what we know full well: that ordinary people like us were actually the protagonists of the nazi genocide. But that was seventy years ago. What about the wars of today? Where are the 21st century Schindlers?

It is worth playing devil’s advocate in relation to the massive refugee crisis engulfing the world, a world in which 1 in every 122 people is now exiled from their home by war, the changing climate, or extreme poverty. There are two recent must-read articles which can help us begin to do this. One of them has a happy ending: it tells the story of Hashem Alsouki, who managed, over the course of three hellish years, to make his way from Syria to safety in Sweden, suffering enormous tribulations along the way, managing to keep at all times his identity papers and a Human Rights Watch report about the destruction of his hometown hanging from his neck in a waterproof pouch. In the other story we don’t meet the main protaganist, who met a less happy fate. In both cases many people helped them along the way. Some of them were activists serving as a point of contact for people escaping from horror. Others were fellow refugees in an equally desperate plight. But some were traffickers, people who promised that they could take them the next stage of the journey in return for everything they possessed.

It’s probably fair to regard the majority of these traffickers as exploitative and abusive. It is a brutal and horrifying trade. A great deal of stories involving people smugglers resemble tales of kidnapping rather than transport. People fleeing are extremely vulnerable to fake promises and attempted rip-offs, and women, particularly those travelling on their own, are especially at risk. Cases abound of those piloting ships and boats in the Medetarranean simply abandoning their human cargo to the waves. But given the near-impossibility of refugees reaching safe countries in which they may be able to exercise their fundamantal human right to claim asylum through anything approaching conventional means, it cannot be denied that such people are serving a fundamental human need. The abuses and exploitation that people fleeing extreme danger and unbearable poverty face at the hands of the traffickers do not explain or justify the level of opprobrium with which smugglers are treated in the Western media. Clearly not all involved in the trade are, in the words of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, among the ‘vilest form of people on the planet’. It is a truism that bears endless repetition: if European society (and, for that matter, Australia) were truly concerned with the fate of refugees, they would allow them to reach their countries and claim asylum. And yet instead of this the EU demonises people smugglers to the point of seriously proposing bombing parts of North Africa in order to deter their trade, while Australia maintains concentration camps on Nauru island in order to prevent migrants setting foot on Australian soil.

We hear endlessly that human smugglers are evil people motivated only by the desire for wealth, an effective explanation as it relates to our increasing conviction that personal advancement is the only motivating factor in human affairs (indeed, we have actually come to believe that such aspiration is not only natural but also moral). We don’t often come across the stories of people smugglers or the stories of those they have saved. Of course there is enormous and widespread abuse. Of course there are, as in pretty much any industry, those at the top of the pile who get enormously rich on the basis of the brutal exploitation of basic human need, not to mention those at the bottom under very great pressure to avoid treating their passengers as anything other than human beings. But there are also staggering achievements mixed up in these cases of abuse, inspiring tales of bravery, suspense, drama and excitment. Why is so little effort made in the media in particular to give a voice to those who have sacrificed everything at enormous risk in order to reach safety and try to protect and provide for their friends and families back home? Almost all refugees are ready-made heroes with astonishing stories to tell, tales of human endurance, ingenuity, bravery, desperation and abuse, but also of generosity and ultimately of survival and hope. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for hearing them, possibly because at some level our feelings are conditioned by a sense of guilt and helplessness. Libya is a case in point. We Europeans first stabilised the country by supporting its dictator and then we destablised it by bombing it to pieces without the slightest regard for the consequences. And let us be honest: the British did much the same to Iraq. We created the conditions for Isis to thrive. The victims in this situation, people who were going about their lives, developing their societies, looking to the future, these people need help from someone, somewhere. We share responsibity for their fate, and we are not in a position to blithely condemn all those who are, whatever their motivations, trying to help them escape from the hell we have created.

But increasingly we’re not inclined to help. We’re full, we tell each other. We have our own problems to deal with. And so we demonise those who help them. We’re happy to go along with the story that those people stuffing desperate people onto tiny leaking boats are doing so only out of self-interest, that the human desire to help others cannot possibly be a factor. Perhaps the stories of all these Schindlers were never more than a comforting fairy tale about how we would all (as British, Mexican, Portuguese people) do the right thing in such circumstances, that we, and our kind, are essentialy good people at heart, a form of romanticising the past in order to show ourselves in the best light, even while we disown our present responsibilities. But out there right now there is an Afghan Schindler, a Moroccan Schindler or a Libyan Schindler. We don’t get to hear about the lives that they’ve saved. We’d rather not hear their stories or the stories of the people they’ve managed to rescue. There are millions of our fellow human beings exactly like us crammed into refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the Jungle in Calais, in Melilla, Kos and Lampedusa. But they’re Muslims. They might be armed, or diseased. There are far too many of them. They don’t share our values of liberalism, tolerance and generosity. They want to scrounge off our society. This is the story that we seem to find more comforting and more compelling.

Of course, back in the 1930s and 40s there were a number of people who talked in this way about European Jews. They were a minority. This time round, in addition to the very worst that humanity has to offer, the countless digital equivalents of this emblematic product of European civilisation, there’s most of us, and there’s those who we increasingly choose to represent us: people indifferent to the fate of our/their fellow humans facing tyranny, torture, starvation and death, unwilling to take responsibility for their fate, and prepared to assume the worst of those who are risking their lives to help them escape. We have to learn, and share, their stories if we are to have the slightest chance of rescuing our humanity.

Jack Straw, Zizek and UK Border Force

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An article in last week’s Guardian made it difficult for me to take Jack Straw’s liberal posturing on Question Time at face value. A ten-year-old girl tried to hang herself after being locked up for the second time and faced with deportation to Nigeria. She had recently been dragged screaming from her home by a team of UK Border authority officials. The ten-year-old’s attempted suicide was also an echo of an incident in 2005, when an Angolan man said goodbye to his son and then hung himself in the stairwell of a detention centre, in order that his son be able to stay in the country as an unaccompanied minor.

Perhaps when both families were being dragged kicking and screaming from their homes they were being filmed for UK Border Force. This is a Sky One programme, now in its second season, which is presumably made with the full participation and encouragement of the Home Office. It showcases the Government’s policy of sending out teams to hunt down and and round up ‘illegals’ and highlights the ‘tragic stories and challenges’ that they (the immigration officials, not the immigrants) face every day. Raids have recently been staged on a market in East London, dragging off immigrants whose only hope of survival is to work illegally given that the Government not only forbids them from working legally, but is also actively reducing even their most basic means of survival. Presumably in this way New Labour ministers hope to quench the thirst for brutal violence as a solution to the ‘problem’ of ‘illegal immigration’ which is, of course, a mainstay of Jack Straw’s favourite newspaper (see above).

Perhaps the Daily Mail is missing the boat somewhat when it comes to their bitter opposition to further British involvement in and cooperation with the European Union. Slavoj Žižek recounts the case of the Tunisian fishermen who face up to fifteen years of imprisonment for rescuing forty-four immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa. Other fishermen who have beaten off boatloads of people with sticks and left them to drown suffered no punishment. Zizek then quotes what Robert Brasillach, a ‘moderate anti-semite’, wrote in 1938:

‘We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz . We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organise any pogroms. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-semitism is to organise a reasonable anti-semitism. ‘

I can only presume that this is what Jack Straw et al are up to with their quasi-fascist hounding of immigrants. They certainly don’t want to organise any pogroms, but they seem to think that TV programmes which present pogroms as entertainment might serve as a means of pacifying violent racists, somehow making them less inclined to get off their sofas and round up ‘illegals’ themselves. Attempts to use similar means to combat racism and fascism in the 1930s met with limited success.

Why was Africa not a popular destination for emigrants from Portugal?


One word can be said to characterise the attitude of the Portuguese people to the question of emigration to Portugal’s African colonies: reluctance. In the late nineteenth century only approximately fifty emigrants a year went to Portuguese Africa. In the first half of the twentieth century, while more than one million Portuguese emigrated to Brazil, the United States and Argentina, only 35,000 made their way to the largest Portuguese colony, Angola. In the year 1908, the official figure for emigration to the whole of the Portuguese African colonies stood at a mere fifteen people.

This reluctance had deep roots. In Portugal and Angola, Wheeler and Pelíssier partly attribute the failure to attract sufficient numbers of early settlers to five factors: the high mortality from tropical diseases; African hostility; an arid climate; the domination of the slave trade to the detriment of all other economic activity; and the poor quality of the of the largely convict colonists (the ‘flotsam and jetsam of the Portuguese speaking world’).

These factors would emerge as recurrent themes over the centuries. Another abiding reason was what might be termed the ‘Old man of Restelo’ syndrome. The Portuguese Age of Expansion was partly an ideological crusade for the crown and for the explorers, but for those Portuguese who were so desperately poor as to consider emigrating, those ‘masses who derived little or nothing from the overseas wealth’, patriotic or religious fervour cannot have played such a major role when considering the different options available. Wheeler and Pelíssier write of Portugal as:

‘..two nations, rich and poor…(the poor) tending to be indifferent or even hostile to elite ideas and actions as well as to the outside world. The other nation has (…) participated little in the expansion (and) colonialism (…) most of Portugal did not willingly follow and sometimes opposed the lead of the Lisbon elite into overseas expansion.’

This lack of willingness had to be compensated for through forced emigration. The sending of degradados – ‘murderers, arsonists, rapists and thieves’ – in such huge numbers created such a climate of hostility and turmoil that Governor Sousa Coutinho advised his superiors in Lisbon that ‘the only way to avert total ruin in Angola was to replace degredados with free Portuguese farmers’. The problem was, of course, that free Portuguese farmers showed little inclination to relocate to Angola, and ‘before the end of the seventeenth century Angola’s reputation as a penal settlement and a white man’s grave was both firmly established and well deserved’.

In fact, not just Angola but the whole of Africa was considered ‘a graveyard for Europeans, who were in almost constant battle with Africans and/or the climate, animals, and insects such as the deadly malarial mosquito’.

As Wheeler and Pelíssier note, the calibre of the available settlers presented another huge problem for the Portuguese. Bender writes:

‘The Portuguese upper and middle class either remained in Portugal or had already left for better-known parts of North and South America. As a result, the government’s appeals for prospective settlers were generally answered by rural peasants or the poor and unskilled in urban areas’.

From the very beginning of Portuguese involvement in Africa, those who established themselves more successfully were those who realised that the slave trade was a considerably more attractive and lucrative proposition than agriculture. In Mozambique many of the holders of prazo titles became more ‘africanised’, established their own personal dominions and did not feel they owed a great debt of loyalty to the Portuguese colonial authorities. For the most part they traded in what was by far the most lucrative of the available commodities. Slaves accounted for four-fifths of Angola’s exports between 1550 and 1850. The gradual end of the slave trade would inevitably, therefore, create huge difficulties for Portuguese settlers who had no other source of income. Hence the determination of the slave traders to hang on to their livelihoods in the face of increasing pressure. Duffy writes, ‘The violent reaction in Portuguese Africa to emancipation has been noted’.

The loss of exclusive Portuguese access to Brazilian markets in 1810 combined with the ending of the slave trade mid-century inspired liberal politicians in Portugal such as Sa da Bandeira to devote new energies to making the colonies an attractive destination for both investment and emigration. Crucial to this new vision for the overseas territories was the principle that:

‘Angola must not be a place of exile for convicts and undesirables; settlement there by honest industrious citizens should be one of the first orders of business for the new regime’.

The success of this campaign depended upon a constant campaign of ‘education in the metropolis and sufficient capital and foresight in the provinces to create a community in which the immigrant could not only prosper but live comfortably’. But as Bender points out, ‘Lisbon appeared to be incapable of overcoming the lack of settlers without a heavy dependence on degredados’. Various plans were discussed and finance was provided for large-scale schemes of white agricultural settlement, but by the early 1880s penal colonies were being expanded to accommodate more convicts.

Those who did emigrate found life almost intolerable. Of the 1,500 desperately impoverished Madeira farmers who went to the highlands of Southern Angola in the mid-19th century, Gervase Clarence Smith writes:

‘Visitors to the highlands were shocked by the sight of these landless, impoverished, illiterate whites, who wore no shoes, were dressed in rags and lived in hovels’.

Emigrants to Portugal’s other African colonies fared little better. Duffy writes:

‘If farmers from Madeira found life difficult in the highlands of Angola, existence for them in the low-lying territories of Mozambique would be intolerable under present conditions’.

They were not generally at all well equipped for the difficulties they would face. Bender quotes Nascimento and Mattos as reporting that they were ‘generally poor, ignorant and illiterate, and for those reasons, without much ambition, withdrawn and lacking initiative’. According to Antonio Enes, ‘the Portuguese emigrants to Mozambique were rarely other than hands possessed neither of capital nor of the energy and aptitudes required to do duty for it’. Of course, even those with agricultural experience and expertise were to find that the African climate and the range of crops that could be cultivated were considerably different from what they were used to and presented often insurmountable challenges.

Understandably, many of the settlers showed more inclination to settle in the cities than in the rural areas. But they were no more immune than the farmers from many of the obstacles that Clarence Smith describes:

‘Independent fishermen, small farmers, petty traders and the like were constantly threatened by impoverishment and proletarianization. They were at the mercy of natural disasters and social calamities and were often incapable of breaking out of the vicious cycle of debt’.

Mirroring the reluctance of prospective emigrants to consider Africa as a destination, banks and small investors showed little willingness to risk their resources in areas with such a high rate of failure. Also the land set aside for the potential colonists was ‘inadequately surveyed’ and preparation of the schemes was poor, leading to settlers often abandoning the plantations and making their way to the more prosperous South Africa.

In the south of Angola, the Portuguese government did have some success at attracting foreign settlers. Attempts by Portuguese settlers fleeing from persecution in Pernambucano to settle in Moçâmedes were not initially successful but communities were eventually established. More successful was the settlement of Boer families in Huila in the early 20th century. Also small fishing communities were formed at Porto Alexandre by Algarvios who had made their own way in their own humble vessels in 1853. But these seem to have been rare exceptions.

In the judgement of Clarence Smith, Sa da Bandeira’s ‘plans of massive white settlement came to nothing. Apart from coastal southern Angola, the trickle of whites entering the colonies were nearly all convicts’. Bender records that ‘a series of plans and decrees, designed to augment free white settlement, either atrophied on the drawing boards or failed for lack of settlers’.

In 1845 they had been only 1,832 whites in Angola. By 1900 this had increased to about 9,000 and by 1911 the white population of Mozambique had expanded to about 11,000. However, a large proportion of the white population of Mozambique were not Portuguese, and English was heard almost as much as Portuguese. The Portuguese Community consisted almost exclusively and convicts and traders. Degredados continued to be imported and those in critical professions such as teaching and medicine showed little inclination to go and live in Africa:

‘A (..) serious problem was the want of trained personnel, teachers, nurses and doctors, willing to work overseas in a questionable environment for a paltry governmental salary’.

Equally disinclined to do so were Portuguese women; or, at least, Portuguese men were not inclined to bring their families with them to ‘a land infested with insects, wild animals, hostile Africans and degredados’. Those persuaded or forced to make the trip usually died within a few years of arriving, often during childbirth. In 1846 it was claimed that there was ‘still no case of a white woman giving birth when it didn’t cost the life of the mother and child’. In 1897 there were reportedly only two white women in Lourenço Marques.

This high death-rate, which obviously affected male settlers as well – Clarence Smith talks of the settlers dying ‘like flies’ – meant that the top-tier officials of the colonial civil service could never fully develop into a stable class, and therefore experienced and competent administrators were in short supply. Pay for these postings was not high, conditions were not at all satisfactory and, until the advent of the better-organised and more stable structures introduced under the Estado Novo, motivation remained very low. According to António Enes, one of the problems with Portuguese colonization in Mozambique was precisely this lack of a ‘colonizing class’.

However, emigrants both rich and poor did willingly make their way to Brazil, which offered poor Portuguese emigrants ‘a much better chance of surviving and making good’ than Africa. From the end of the 17th century until shortly after World War II Brazil accounted for the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Portuguese emigrants; between 1850 and 1950 1.5 million Portuguese emigrants chose Brazil over Africa. Evidently this was partly due to cultural links, but Brazil already had a long history of making fortunes in gold, diamonds, and coffee. Bender writes that ‘the perennial pot of gold sought by Portuguese emigrants was to be found in America, not in Africa’. The emigrants knew that they stood a very good chance of making or earning enough to enjoy a good life and to send money back to Portugal. By the end of the nineteenth century:

‘Brazil possessed the essential conditions to stimulate large-scale immigration: an expanding economic infrastructure which required large labour inputs (and) a commitment to pay living wages…the absence of these conditions in Angola explains to a considerable degree why Angola attracted far fewer white immigrants than Brazil.’

The ending of the slave trade, with the resultant demand for labour, had created a ‘sensational increase in emigration’ from Portugal:

‘Between 1840 and 1850, the Brazilian empire had still taken in about 33,500 slaves a year. This figure was reduced to 3,287 in 1851(…) thereafter the Brazilian economy entered the era of the expansion of coffee (…) The New world attracted numerous emigrants.’

Another essential factor is that while the climate and tropical diseases took their toll on a considerable proportion of the few settlers that made it to Africa, in Brazil the colonizers were able to deal with the climate; in fact, the diseases that the Europeans brought with them contributed significantly to the decimation of the indigenous population.

Life throughout Africa was known to be ‘hard and uncertain’. Hammond quotes a newspaper article from 1861 which directly addressed the question of why emigrants did not go to the colonies:

‘The reason is obvious. Whoever emigrates is poor, nay, of the poorest. His sole wealth is his labour, his sole capital his personal activity. He needs wages, not virgin soil. He needs an employer, not workers. Whither shall he take his way? To Angola? But what is he to do there? What industries exist there? What activity already established? What accumulated wealth? What cultivated lands? What industry? What trade? Trade – that of the blacks. Industry – none. Shall he go to Mozambique? Worse…’

The figures show that, while such an article would probably not have been read by the kind of people who might have been desperate enough to consider emigrating to Portuguese Africa, in the popular understanding these were the ideas that had most influence. In ‘Republican Portugal’ Wheeler mentions the difficulty that the Republican regime had in making pro-war propaganda amongst a largely illiterate population. The successive attempts to promote relocation schemes to Africa presumably encountered the same problem in trying to counter such negative impressions.

Under the Republic there was an expansion of public employment in the colonies. Clarence Smith writes that ‘it looked as though the republic had found the magic formula for expanding the white population of the colonies’. However, such state involvement no more constituted investment in their productive capacity and economic development than did the government subsidies paid to the colonos, of which Bender writes:

‘Such dependence on the state made the colono more of a civil servant than an independent farmer (…) In particular, the financial subsidies actually discouraged many colonos from devoting their full energies to their new farms.’

However, by the mid-twentieth century it was ‘clear that the long-standing reluctance of metropolitan Portuguese to emigrate to the colonies had been overcome’. The white population of Angola had increased to 78,826 by 1950, and that of Mozambique to 97,200; in the following ten years these figures would more than double. What had changed?

In the early years of the Estado Novo the Government had little more success than before with its rural settlement schemes. However, the 1940s and 50s was a period of ‘general prosperity in Africa, in which the Portuguese colonies (…) naturally shared’. In the 1950s there was a change in government policy: the Portuguese National Development Plan of 1953 allocated $100,000,000 to Angola and $85,000,000 to Mozambique, with a lot of the money being invested in dams, roads and railways. In 1959 another $237,000,000 went to Angola and $125,000,000 to Mozambique. Included in this was money for new and ambitious settlement programmes. It has been estimated that the cost of settling a single family in Cela, Angola was $100,000. The settlement programmes themselves were not overwhelmingly successful, but Portuguese emigrants were attracted in very large numbers to the cities; also in the 1959 plan, investment in health and education – essential given the rapidly increasing demand for skilled labour – featured for the first time.

Huge numbers of Portuguese immigrants continued to arrive throughout the wars of independence, right up to the revolution in 1974. Of the hundreds of thousands of retornados who fled back to Portugal shortly afterwards, more than half of them had only arrived in Africa during the previous fifteen years.

Conclusion

Apart from the physical difficulties that Europeans had faced in simply staying alive in Africa, the principal reason for the reluctance to emigrate to the colonies lay in the image that the Portuguese people held of Africa. In contrast to the developing and expanding society of Brazil, Africa had always been seen as a place from which resources – slaves and mineral wealth – were extracted rather than invested. Portugal’s nineteenth century dream of creating a new Brazil in Africa ignored this basic dichotomy.

Portugal’s attempts to build a society on captive labour had worked in Brazil, in much the same way as had Britain’s in Australia, but in both cases the indigenous populations were more or less wiped out within a couple of centuries of the Europeans’ arrival. This was clearly never a possibility in Africa, so the Portuguese attempts to create ‘new’ societies had to find some way to work with, rather than against, the African population.

Would Britain have been successful at creating a new United States in the areas of Africa from which it took its slaves? Of course Britain also had its lucrative Indian and Australian colonies, so such a notion is unlikely to have ever been suggested. Portugal, on the other hand, had no other significant territories. However, in developing Brazil, it had severely disrupted the complex societies which already existed in Africa without seeking to repair the damage until, crucially, it was too late.

Did racism exist in the Portuguese empire?


In 1950-51 Gilberto Freyre conducted a tour of Portugal’s overseas colonies at the invitation of the Estado Novo Government. At the end of a two-week stay in the largest of those possessions, Angola, he wrote the following:

‘Aqui, a presença de Portugal nao significa a ausência, muito menos a morte da África…Angola, luzitanzando-se, enriquece a sua vida, a sua cultura de valores europeus que aqui, neste mundo em formação, confratanizam com valores nativos ou tropicais, sem os humiliar: a oliveira ao lado da bananeira; a uva ao lado do dem-dem; a macieira ao lado da palmeira; o branco ao lado do preto’.

This contrasts sharply with the conclusions of Gerald Bender in Angola under the Portuguese:
‘Africans in colonial Angola were expected to assimilate an almost pure, unmitigated Portuguese culture, barely modified by the slightest trace of their own numerically dominant culture’.

Freyre’s intention was to ascertain if his theories regarding Brazil could be extended to the other Portuguese colonies. He would subsequently write of his trip that he had been able to confirm an ‘intuição antiga’:

‘Portugal, o Brazil, a África e a Índia portuguesa, a Madeira, os Açores e Cabo Verde constituem (…) uma unidade de sentimentos e de cultura’ .

These consisted in a predisposition for miscegenation and an absence of racial prejudice, both of which had their origin in the influence of the Moors, the Jews and of Africa and had served to create the paternalistic and ‘socially plastic’ character of the Portuguese. The Portuguese was ‘the European colonizer who best succeeded in fraternizing with the so-called inferior races’ .

The publication of his first book Casa Grande e Senzala in 1933 had served to overturn the consensus on race in Brazil, which held that Brazil’s lack of development was due to ‘the ”debilitating’ influence of the large black and mestiço population’ . In the late nineteenth century Brazil had imposed ethnic quotas on immigration in an attempt to guarantee the country’s ‘ethnic integrity’ . Freyre challenged these notions through detailing and celebrating the huge influence that the African and the Indian had had on Brazilian life.

However, such ideas of the racial inferiority of the non-European were and had been common currency in Portugal for some time. In 1880 Portugal’s most prominent historian Oliveira Martins had written:
‘Are there not (…) reasons for supposing that this fact of the limited intellectual capacity of the Negro races, proved in so many and such diverse times and places, has an intimate and constitutional cause? (…) Why not teach the gospel to the gorilla or the orangoutang, who do not fail to have ears because they cannot speak, and might understand pretty well as much as the negro?’

Many of Portugal’s most prominent colonial officials shared these racist sentiments. António Enes was ‘a forthright racist, and what he says about the African and his place in the colonies is a truism long accepted by most Portuguese colonialists’ . Mousinho de Albuquerque, Norton de Matos, Serpa Pinto and others ‘continued to propagate the notion that Africans were inherently inferior’ . Politicians in Portugal often shared these beliefs. In a speech in 1893 the MP Dantas Baracho stated the African didn’t deserve citizenship rights, as he was inherently ‘lazy, drunk and criminal’ . The notion of the African as someone who had to be made to work was very current; Mousinho de Albuquerque spoke of the Africans ‘recusando-se a toda a especie de trabalho’ .

Key to Freyre’s work is the notion that the tendency to miscegenation is inherent in the Portuguese character. However, this attitude was not shared by many of those who held powerful positions over Portuguese colonies. The former High Commissioner and Governor General of Angola Vicente Ferriera considered the effects of racial mixing ‘nefastos’ . Marcelo Caetano talked in 1945 of the ‘grave problema de mestiçamento’ , and Bender quotes Norton de Matos’ fears that:

‘(…) the inferiority of Africans could dilute or even ruin the effectiveness of Portuguese colonization if the government did not put ‘for at least a century, the greatest obstacles to the fusion of the white race with the native races of Africa.” .

Such attitudes would come to be challenged in various ways in the middle of the last century. As Claudia Castelo writes, the end of the Second World War implied a wholescale condemnation of ideas of racial purity, and the international consensus dictated that the principle of self-determination should prevail . This presented a problem for Portugal; the African colonies were an existential issue: ‘a moral justification and a reason for being as a power’ . For Marcelo Caetano, ‘sem ela (Africa) seríamos uma pequena nação; com ela, somos um grande estado’ . Nevertheless, as Castelo writes:

‘A ONU passa a considerar o princípio de autodeterminação como um direito humano fundamental, a atribui as potências colonais a obrigação de prepararem os territórios sob sua administração para a independência.’

In response to this situation, the Portuguese state faced an urgent need to affirm its national unity and to reassert its civilising project in the colonies. Salazar had said in 1939 that it was essential to safeguard ‘the interests of the inferior races’ under Portuguese rule . This stance, or at least this language, would have to be reconsidered in the light of the new international mood of racial egalitarianism. In the words of Freyre, quoting Henrique Barros, Portugal needed to give a ‘modern content’ to its ‘ways of living and acting in Africa and Asia’ . Bender writes:

‘Beginning with the intensification of anti-colonial criticism in the United Nations in 1951, Portugal began to shift the emphasis of her ‘mission’ from exaltation of the overseas settler to aggrandizement of the emergent and multiracial societies in Angola and Mozambique’ .

The work of Gilberto Freyre, then, and particularly his willingness to be carefully shepherded around selected parts of Portugal’s overseas world in the same year, 1951 , would play a crucial role in Portugal’s attempts to justify its continuing possession of parts of Africa and India. In one of the books he wrote after his trip to the overseas colonies (hastily recategorised as overseas provinces, hence parts of Portugal itself) he praised the Estado Novo Government as ‘honrado, intransigentemente honesto’ . He also wrote of the ‘gosto de ver confirmado na África e no Oriente (suas) antecipações sobre a obra colonizadora dos portugueses (que) continua a ser activa e fecunda’ . In The Portuguese in the Tropics (1961), a book specially commended by the state to commemorate 500 years since the birth of Henry the Navigator, he even talked of a new civilisation, a third species of man, created by the experience of Portuguese colonization .
Along with ‘Integração portuguesa nos tropicos’ (1958), this book was used by the Estado Novo to legitimise its colonial policies. Castelo writes, ‘O Estado Novo põe em práctica uma estratégia clara no sentido de reverter a seu favor o prestígio internacional de Freyre’ . It was certainly convenient in an international context for the state to have a renowned spokesman of world repute promoting the Portuguese empire as a place without ‘problemas fundamentais, de ordem social, entre portugueses do Continente, e os portugueses dos Territórios Ultramarinos.’

This new adapted form of Luso-tropicalism quickly became Portugal’s core colonial ideology. Salazar talked of the ‘primacy we have always attached to (…) the enhancement of the value and dignity of man without distinction of colour or creed’ . His eventual successor Caetano claimed that in Angola and Mozambique ‘races are blended, cultures are altered (and) efforts are united to continue and perfect a type of society in which men are only limited by their ability, their merits or their work’ . Franco Nogueira went even further in asserting boldly that ‘We alone, before anyone else, brought to Africa the notion of human rights and equality (…) it is a Portuguese invention’ .

In The Portuguese and the tropics, Freyre contrasts the Portuguese colonizing mission with the attitudes of the Northern Europeans, who he accuses of regarding the non-European ‘in the same terms as wild animals’ . In South Africa these attitudes had resulted in the Apartheid system, ‘the most perfect fulfilment until now carried out of the myth of the absolute superiority of the European race’ .

It is true that the Portuguese never enacted apartheid legislation of the kind experienced in South Africa. Black people were not restricted to townships, mixed marriage was permitted and the children of mixed unions were recognised throughout the Portuguese colonies. However, as Bender writes, ‘The absence of racist laws or separate racial facilities is clearly not indicative of the absence of racial segregation’ . There are a number of areas in which it might be useful to consider just how valid is Freyre’s implication that apartheid would have been untenable in Portuguese Africa.

Charles Boxer demonstrates that Portuguese policies with regard to race relations differed considerably according to circumstances of time and place. The Portuguese state was not an automatic promoter of mixed marriages. A royal decree of 4 April 1755, for example, prohibited mixed marriages ‘com mulheres índias ou seus descendentes’ . This contrasted sharply with earlier royal encouragement of mixed unions between Portuguese settlers and indigenous women in order to populate Brazil.

Such unions, as Gilberto Freyre shows, created a profoundly mixed society in Brazil. A similar level of miscegenation was seen in Cape Verde. However, this was certainly not the case in the other Portuguese colonies. The mestiço population of Mozambique in 1960 stood at 0.48%, and that of Angola merely 1.10%. Ironically, the figure for South Africa, where mixed marriages were prohibited by law and the children of mixed unions were not recognised, stood at around 10%. Contrary to Freyre’s assumptions, Brazil was not representative of the majority of Portuguese colonies in terms of miscegenation .

Were the Portuguese colonies substantially more racially integrated or equal than apartheid South Africa? Wheeler and Pelíssier talk of ‘racial castes’ existing in Luanda by the middle of the nineteenth century . Luís Batalha quotes a statistic from Guinea which shows that in 1959 the black population consisted of 502,457 ‘não-civilisados’ and only 1,478 who were considered civilised . Bender writes:

‘This cultural rigidity and the exaggerated standards demanded of Africans (prior to 1961) before they could be officially considered assimilated help explain why less than 1% of Africans in 1950 were legally classified as assimilados.’

The requirements for Africans to be considered ‘civilised’ varied, but:
‘In Guinea, and probably Angola, an applicant had to be able to read and write Portuguese, in spite of the fact that about half the population of Portugal was illiterate.’

One reason for the low levels of assimilation, alongside the virtual impossibility of attaining such status, may have been reluctance on the part of Africans due to white attitudes towards successful assimilados. For the former High Commissioner and Governor General of Angola Vicente Ferreira, the ‘so-called civilised Africans (…) are generally no more than grotesque imitations of white men’ .

It would be difficult to conclude that the policy known as the indigenato was not simply based on racial prejudice. The indígena was legally required to work in order to bring him up to the same cultural level as the European – a process which Salazar himself seemed to believe would take centuries . Jeanne Penvenne writes:

‘Portugal’s policy was patronizing and cloaked in self-serving protectionism. Africans were to be protected from one another and from exploitation by ‘superior races’, but it was also Portugal’s duty as the beacon to civilisation to instruct them in their ‘moral obligation to work’.’

Such policies were not explicitly based on skin colour, as they would be in South Africa, but Duffy makes the point that:

‘It is a logical human step, even in Portuguese colonies, to proceed from laws which distinguish between native and non-native (…) to racial distinctions between black and white’.

Marvin Harris points out that more important than the existence of mestiços being officially recognised, was the way in which they were seen and treated. Unlike in South Africa, in Cabo Verde there were no legal distinctions on the basis of skin colour, but the way that people behaved – exhibiting a strong preference for lighter looks and preferring to attribute a darker complexion to Moorish-Portuguese ancestry rather than African descent – tells us that it was a society with a very high consciousness of racial origin and appearance and that this was related to social and presumably economic stratification. And while in South Africa people were categorised by the state according to their racial origin, Brazil remains a society with an astonishing range of classifications for skin colour, and where someone’s racial status can be determined by their social position:

‘(…) light-skinned individuals who rank extremely low in terms of educational and occupational criteria are frequently regarded as actually being darker in color than they really are.’

In South Africa a number of laws existed which formalised the social exclusion of non-whites. Although this was not the case in Portuguese Africa, Bender records that as of 1970 most Angolan natives lived in rural areas and had little contact with the white population . Penvenne reports that throughout the twentieth century, with the arrival of more and more white immigrants, less urban jobs became available to Africans in Lourenço Marques: ‘The depression crisis hastened the pace of racial exclusion, particularly in the better positions’ . In Angola the increasing numbers of white immigrants meant that by the mid-1950s ‘Positions usually reserved for blacks, such as waiters and taxi drivers, were nearly all occupied by whites’ .
Duffy talks of the growing problems that this exclusion created in terms of race relations. Discrimination was to be witnessed not merely in terms of jobs, but socially too:

‘Signs on the doors of Angolan restaurants reading “Right of Admission Reserved” are not accidental phenomena any more than are the creation of almost exclusively white towns and colonization projects in the interior’ .
While Portugal did not have a formal apartheid system like in South Africa, such examples of inequality and exclusion derived directly from a strong discriminatory impulse intrinsically linked to the essentially antagonistic relation between the exploiting class of European colonialists and the exploited black African masses. The essential pattern right up until independence was defined by the relationship between the master and the slave. As Duffy writes:

‘The fact that the Portuguese male did take as wife or mistress an African or mulatto woman had very little to do with mitigating either slavery or the slave trade and (…) nothing to do with changing racial prejudice. By 1850 Africans in Portuguese colonies were generally regarded as inferior beings, ‘niggers’, whose function was to labour.’

Conclusion

Gilberto Freyre’s ideas of race relations in the Portuguese empire certainly shed a great deal of light on the extraordinary social origins of Brazil’s multiracial society. Their application to other parts of the Portuguese empire was at the very least limited and, certainly in the hands of Salazar et al, profoundly misguided. In the words of Amílcar Cabral:

‘Perhaps unconsciously confusing realities that are biological or necessary with realities that are socioeconomic and historical, Gilberto Freyre transformed all of us who live in the colony-provinces of Portugal into the fortunate inhabitants of a Luso-Tropical paradise.’

However, as Gerald Bender points out, these ideas have proved intensely resistent to any attempts to relate them to the actual reality of Portuguese colonization . Many Portuguese still now believe that their overseas explorations were essentially tame, well-meaning and mostly harmless when compared to those of other colonial powers. In the words of Claudia Castelo, the Estado Novo’s myths regarding the Portuguese attitude to race constitute both in Portugal and abroad ‘uma imagem relativemente duradoira’.

Ealing – the Promised Land of the Polish People?


I have nothing whatsoever against Polish people; although I can’t claim that any of my best friends are Polish, I have met some charming Poles over the years. In fact at the moment I have a couple in my class who I like enormously. And years ago, in my very first teaching job, on a glorious summer’s day in Dublin, I was given a class of 14 Polish au pairs, who seemed very sweet, outgoing and broadminded. Or at least they did until I happened to mention the word ‘gypsy’.

From that moment, as they skies outside the classroom suddenly filled with dark clouds the atmosphere in the classroom quickly turned to one of unadulterated racial hatred. Everybody had a bitter tale to tell about the filthy, lazy, scrounging scum plaguing their land. I was genuinely shocked as noone seemed to have the slightest reservation about advocating violence against an evidently fairly beleaguered community – 70% of Poland’s gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.

Of course it would have been churlish of me to point out that six of the main extermination camps were located in Poland, especially as so far as the Nazis were concerned it was all part of Germany anyway. But it just so happened that at the time I was reading a book about alcohol consumption around Eastern Europe, which mentioned that there is a very potent myth about the number of Jewish people living in Poland. Around three million died in the death camps, it said, and although official statistics state that there are now only about 15,000 remaining, most Polish people would apparently state with confidence that the real number is more like a good couple of million. So in the midst of this firestorm of racist attitudes I decided to find out if this was really the case, and my students, who before had seemed perfectly good-natured and tolerant, obliged by letting me know in detail about the scandal of Poland’s hidden jews. I don’t think they were talking about Anne Frank.

Partly because of this, I’ve never considered Poland as a possible destination, either for living or for a holiday. Too cold, too grey, too superstitious and too, well, racist. And certainly as far as the political side of things go, I think I’ve recently been considerably vindicated. The weather, as far as I know, has not improved much either.

I can understand, then, why people might not want to live there. Now, of course, the country is part of the EU and Polish people are free to travel to work – anyone who has been anywhere near Victoria coach station in London over the last couple of years can witness just how many of them are keen to come to the UK and find a job. They come to places like Ealing.

Now I want to make it clear here that I am totally in favour of immigration. It enriches the destination country economically, culturally, linguistically – in every conceivable way. Places like London, Sheffield and, now, Dublin are infinitely better-off for enjoying such a variety of different peoples from all over the world, and anyone who cares to suggest otherwise is well advised to spend a year or so in a place that doesn’t have such a mix – China, for example – and then see how they feel.

The problem that I do have is that here in Ealing, where I work, that mix is largely limited to the people you see on the streets. Because the moment you step into a cafe or a pub, the first thing you notice is: that almost all the staff are white. It’s quite rare to be served by black, Pakistani or Bengali people – by, that is, locals. The majority of people working in these jobs are Polish and have come here very recently, and they are doing jobs which, on the whole, would otherwise be done by people who were either born here or have lived here longer – for want of a better word, British people, wherever their families originated from.

The same point was made in an article in the Guardian late last year by Polly Toynbee, in which she talked about the recent opportunistic changes in Conservative Party Immigration policy. Her basic argument was that ‘the use of cheap foreign Labour may boost our GDP, but it enriches the well-off at the expense of the low-paid’. I can see her point, insofar as she is talking about recent arrivals from the new EU countries:

Bercow (Conservative MP) and Labour hotly assert that migrants don’t take jobs from British workers nor depress wages. But there is no evidence for this assertion. It is impossible to know what level wages might be at or how many unemployed might have been tugged into jobs at higher pay rates had Britain kept its doors shut to new EU citizens until their countries had caught up economically.

Blair and Brown embrace the inevitability of globalisation, but make a deliberately class-blind analysis. Migrants do bring GDP growth, but remember the Gate Gourmet workers fired to make way for cheaper newly arrived workers. Migrants add to the profits of the company and thus to GDP. They keep down the cost of flying for people wealthy enough to fly. They also hold down the pay rate for all other low-paid workers, keeping wage inflation remarkably low and the Bank of England very happy.

But all this does nothing but harm to the old Gate Gourmet workers and to all the other low-paid. This is what globalisation does, widening the gap between rich and poor. Cheap labour provides more cheap services for the rich to get their lifestyle at a premium while nailing an ever-larger swath of the workforce to the minimum-wage floor. The greatest job growth is in rock-bottom jobs.

London has the most migrant workers and it also has the most unemployed. Who are they? Many more young people are not in education or work after generations of deprivation. Bangladeshis are among the poorest because 80% of their women don’t work. Many more London single mothers can’t work because the cost of housing and childcare means even tax credits don’t lift them out of a poverty trap where a low-paid job means working at a loss.

This is quite a sophisticated argument because the superficial idea – that Eastern Europeans are coming over here and taking ‘our’ jobs, thereby deflating wages – seems like a classic racist rallying call. But we are talking here about a very sudden phenomenon, and one that seems to have been orchestrated from above precisely in order to achieve the objective of lowering wages.

I’m not actually very sure how I feel about the conclusions she comes to. In terms of possible solutions, the following is both seductive and shocking:

Try this thought experiment: 43.5% of nurses recruited by the NHS since 1999 come from outside the UK. What if that were banned? The NHS in London would find clever ways to recruit from the city’s mass of underqualified boys and girls, single mothers and other non-workers. Recruiters might set up special classes for 14-year-olds interested in nursing, promising work as nursing assistants while they trained, places to live in attractive nurses’ homes, starter homes for key-worker families, status and good pay. The offer would be irresistible, and yes, taxes would be higher.

Other employers would be in hot contest to entice the forgotten people into building, transport and catering. Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the market would force the workless into work. It is shocking that 30,000 of the 70,000 workers being employed to start work on transport infrastructure for the Olympics are to be east Europeans, not impoverished Londoners.

I’m not so certain about the ‘hidden hand of the market’. I think that’s just as much as a myth as Poland’s hidden millions of Jews. After all, one of the main reasons why people from low-wage countries are suddenly able to work in different countries is because the not-so-hidden-hand of European business and pro-business policy makers has determined that it is a convenient way of ‘reducing costs’ and making us all more ‘competitive’. And I find it doubtful that the new EU countries will rapidly ‘catch up’ with their wealthier neighbours, and find it difficult to believe that anyone really believes that – the most quoted statistic given for their ongoing level of economic development is GDP, which is, of course, and especially given that we are talking about wages here, nonsense. Those countries have been brought into the EU because it is cheaper to produce things there and workers will work for less money.

Nevertheless I don’t think there is some kind of idealised version of EU capitalism where everybody could be content to stay put and employers would have their workers’ best interests at heart. Globalised capitalism only allows and encourages people to move when it’s in its own very best interests, and it is cheaper to hand over low-paid jobs to EU newcomers than it is to provide longer-term immigrants – asylum seekers, for example – with the support and language training they need in order to be able to establish themselves here more permanently with proper jobs. After all, nobody should be working all week for the pittance that they pay you to work in cafes or bars these days, whether they were born in Britain, Bangladesh or Poland.

In conclusion, then, two unrelated points. One, that people from the Deep South must find it reasonably amusing that there is a country by the name of Po’land. And secondly, a prediction: in the not-too-distant future someone will pop up to proclaim that Poland is the China of Europe. Oh wait, someone just did.