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.


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.’


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.