O português dos outros


In the documentary ‘Citizenfour‘ (2014) we see the campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald speak at a senate hearing in Brasília to draw attention to the British authorities’ treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who had been detained  for nine hours upon arrival in the UK on jumped-up counterterrorism charges. (The hearing starts at 1h26m.) Having made his home in Brazil, Greenwald made his statement and responded to questions in Portuguese. Although the theme of the hearing was deadly serious, I found it hard to hold back my laughter and difficult to imagine that the assembled journalists were not doing the same. Glenn Greenwald is an extremely brave and principled journalist and the way his partner was treated was outrageous, but his Portuguese was (at least at the time) a bit shit.

Mas quem sou eu para rir? – But who am I to laugh? Well, I lived in Portugal for several years and take an interest in other people’s (particularly English speakers’) command of the language. It’s not entirely a healthy interest, containing elements of snobbery and jealousy, but it is hard not to be competitive, and to try to resolve anxieties about one’s own abilities by means of judging others’ over-harshly. One of the first proper sentences I taught myself to say was ‘My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson’, the football manager whose struggles with the language were the source of much mirth and affection:

It became a running joke with friends to take the piss out of British people who spoke Portuguese with no attempt whatsoever to mimic the way local people spoke. Although (adopts very strong English accent) EU NÃO CONSIGO ENCONTRAR BONS EXEMPLOS DISSO ONLINE, anyone who is able to distinguish Portuguese from Spanish will find this clip of the Portuguese writer José Saramago (who exiled himself in Lanzarote and married a Spanish woman) speaking the latter similarly amusing. He simply never made the slightest effort to modify his voice to the sounds of the neighbouring language. I met countless compatriots whose attempts to speak with Portuguese grammar and words but with the sounds of Hemel Hempstead were probably endearing to someone but grated on my ear. 

Ridiculing others was one way of addressing my own anxieties about my pronunciation, and thus about my own legitimacy as a Portuguese speaker – of course, my own command of the language was never by any means perfect, despite my very best attempts to delude myself otherwise. When it came to visiting Brazil, I felt a large chip missing from my shoulder, given that it took a conscious and constant effort for me to speak the jollier version of the language rather than the more slavic-sounding European variety. I envied those foreigners who had learned the more gregarious Brazilian language first, accompanied by that physical volubility natural to Brazilians. As it happened, most other gringo tourists I met there spoke portuñol, but when I was hanging out with Brazilians for prolonged periods and my energy (not, like theirs, inexaustible) started to run down I eventually reverted to my most relaxed version, which is strongly luso-accented and, to Brazilian ears, sounds sometimes cute but mostly sort of backward.

The resulting resentment is probably an ingredient in my wanting to find fault with the esforços of someone like Greenwald, who, after all, succeeded where I failed. Of course, it’s only fair to acknowledge that in the hearing he was under immense pressure. Even Manu Chao, interviewed here before a live audience in Goiás, gets visibly and audibly nervous when obliged to address a roomfull of highly attentive native speakers. I’ve never had to do anything similar, and if I did the results would be atrocious. As the New York Times reported, in his interview with the then-Brazilian President, Greenwald performed extremely well, and he has given numerous interviews and reports which demonstrate that he was having a bad day. Perhaps the fact that his partner had been arrested for terrorism put him off his concordâncias nominais and made him keep forgetting to roll his erres appropriately.

Comedy aside, I’m opposed to language shaming per se. It’s particularly unpleasant and unfair (although very prevalent, particularly when it comes to public figures) in the case of foreigners speaking English, a language few truly choose to learn. There should be a camaraderie among foreign speakers of a language. It takes courage to put one’s aspirations and identity on the line in such a way, and being mocked for doing so is often traumatic.

My Portuguese is now officially enferrujado – rusty, at least when speaking. Fortunately Brazilian music is so rich and enjoyable that I am regularly exposed to new and old vocabulary. In the last couple of years in Mexico and Italy I’ve managed to overcome some of my preciousness about Getting It Right when speaking other languages. I’m not from either place, but I get by, in the sense that I can do what I need to do and I don’t get nervous when interacting with strangers. I think that a lot of my prior anxiety came from trying too hard to fit in, to step outside my own skin and discard my own identity. In such a situation it’s inevitable that you will feel like you’re in a No Man’s Land when trying to reach the other bank of the linguistic shore. As you can see from that poorly-assembled sentence, even my own command of my ‘own’ language isn’t always up to scratch. As for Glenn Greenwald, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist rather than an academic linguist or a language freak, and he uses his experience and skills in both English and Portuguese to expose injustice and hold power accountable at every turn. If he were ever to see this website, he’d probably partir-se a rir: piss himself laughing. And if he heard me speaking Portuguese, he’d likely switch to English quicker than you could say “cê é gringo, né?!”.

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 4


I’ve called this short series about living in and learning about Portugal ‘Postcolonial Melancholy’, a phrase I borrowed from a book by Paul Gilroy. But that book isn’t actually about Portugal, it’s about the UK. Melancholy is partly in the eye of the beholder.

A couple of years after leaving Lisbon in 2004, I went on to do a Master’s in Portuguese Studies at King’s College, London and developed my understanding of the histories and cultures of Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone Africa. I also took the opportunity to learn more about cities in general. I didn’t know that much about Lisbon when I was there. I never really thought about its layout and the different stages in its history. I didn’t reflect on the different layers of the palimpsest. It was just Lisboa, the city I’d chosen to make home, and I saw it like a child would, without contemplating the distinctions between its elements. Looking back I reflected on the tensions between various kinds of old and various kinds of new: I thought about the ways in which new infrastructure, such as Oriente, Armazéns do Chiado and the Amoreiras shopping centre related to other areas like Alfama and Bairro Alto. I thought back to the recent and more established immigrants I’d made friends with, the new and old political parties, the values of the young and those of the old. Some things were in the process of dying away, some coming into existence. Very few things were fixed in stone.

I’ve reflected here on the role of the loss of empire in Portuguese culture. The UK fifty years earlier went through an even more extensive and thus more traumatic process, and it struck me as remarkable that, despite being raised and educated there, I’d rarely consciously reflected on its import.

I’d often remarked on the fact that when EFL teachers got together, one of the safest and most obvious topics of conversation while the ritual of getting slaughtered was being performed was television comedy. It was, along with music and The Guardian newspaper, after ten or so years of self-imposed exile from the UK, one of the things that kept me attached me to my culture. I’d tried to make my own country and myself foreign to one another. Having left straight after university I felt I didn’t know much about the country in which I’d been born and brought up, and in a sense I didn’t, but maybe at another level I didn’t know much about anything else.

Having abandoned my attempt to Be Portuguese, I went to live for a while in China and then in Spain, before returning to London in January 2006. It was a good thing that I left Lisbon when I did. Drinking-as-a-way-of-life is just not funny after a point. I left behind friends who either got married and developed roots or went mad and/or took drugs and died. I was lucky enough to get into a terrible relationship which led me to brief unhappiness thousands of miles away. In several ways it saved my life. In early 2010 I went to Coimbra to discuss doing a PhD there, and then spent a long weekend in Lisbon. I decided I didn’t want to go back. I recognised the mood, or at least the mood the place inspired in me. Having since been to Macau, Maputo and Havana I’ve sensed a similar atmosphere, a certain inertness, a sense of life adrift.

There’s an adage used in recovery circles that says ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’. Although I learnt a lot about Portugal, it’s likely that a lot of what I perceived about its melancholy response to its diminished role in the world were projections of my own cultural background. After all, it barely needs stating that there’s a strain in British culture that looks back with nostalgia to the days of empire and war. Paul Gilroy points to the persistence of the football chant ‘Two world wars and two world cups’* to argue that “sport has the same value as war in the national circuitry”. In Summer 2006 the football world cup took place in Germany, and there was a debate about the role of the St George flag, about what and who it represented. Some (like Billy Bragg) argued that it was a symbol of a renewed and more inclusive national culture, one based on what (by extension) Paul Gilroy two years earlier had called ‘conviviality’, rather than on the reactionary racist values represented by the Union Jack, which in the UK has always been associated with the far-right. Bragg even went as far as publishing a book called ‘The Progressive Patriot’, in which he put together a personal panoply of heroes to argue there is a non-imperial popular identity to draw upon. He also released an album celebrating the mixture that is English identity today, with its mix of elements of folk culture (some of which originate overseas) with immigrant elements, some of which came to us with empire. Gilroy argues that The Streets represent something similar, which he calls ordinary demotic multiculturalism, vernacular dissidence.

The optimism embodied in such attempts is obviously laudable. It is an attempt to celebrate and promote (Gilroy again) “the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness”. The racist murder of the black teenager Steven Lawrence and the eventual inquiry’s revelation of the subsequent police cover-up had exposed a level of institutional and unconscious racism which came as a genuine shock to a population which had thought itself past all that. It was an important factor in making us reconsider our society and our responsibilities to one another. The mood was also partly due to our having a nominally progressive Government. In 2001 the then-Foreign Secretary announced that Chicken Tikka Masala  was the country’s favourite dish, saying that it was “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. It was partly an aspiration but also reflected a certain inevitability given the reality of our lives. It was an image of ourselves we were happy with, one which was global and mobile rather than insular and fixed. People’s lives revolved around a rhythm of regular flights to foreign cities, choosing between a gamut of different cuisines,  mixing with a wide range of people who just happened to have been born elsewhere. All of this was joyously represented in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, with its radical take on British history centering on Windrush, the Suffragettes, the NHS, Ken Loach, The Tempest, and William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

How did we go so quickly from all that to Brexit? It may be that the expansive yet inclusive national culture celebrated by Boyle was too urban, too superficial, too dependent on consumerism, on investing in an image of ourselves. Perhaps the shame of renewed imperial adventuring meant that it could only go so deep. Maybe further down there was a swell of hollow pride that our lads were off savaging the natives again, encapsulated in The Sun’s obnoxious but (in some parts of society) ubiquitous ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign. In any case there were other forces pushing back.  It was easy to laugh when the pitifully Blimpish Ukip MEP Geoffrey Bloom railed against foreign aid going to ‘Bongo Bongo land’, but harder to do so when various members of the public were filmed abusing perceived outsiders on public transport. Such outbursts often had a bitter, recriminatory tone: ‘My Britain’s fuck all now’, bewailed the woman on the Croydon tram. The targets of this kind of abuse were often more recent immigrants bearing the brunt of buried resentment. As Gilroy wrote, “incomers may be unwanted and feared because they are the unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past”.

It’s easy to overlook the role that mainstream TV still plays in British life in framing social attitudes, in creating a picture of the society that it’s hard to shut out. The national mood was soured by hateful propaganda scapegoating the unemployed and spreading the virus of negative empathy. The active celebration of bullying by programmes such as ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘The Apprentice’, with psychopathic character traits openly lauded, and other shows on which everything from hosting a dinner party to making a cake is a competition for attention, can only have further frayed the national fabric. Meanwhile, ‘Downton Abbey’ promoted the most reactionary imaginable vision of the purported benefits of strict social hierarchy. Plus, in the background, sadistic cuts in the name of austerity did their dirty work of making everyone that bit more scared and unhappy.

Those who austerity hasn’t touched, who have so far remained immune to the pressures it creates, are often oblivious to this resentful mood. The speed with which commentators swept the causes of the 2011 riots under the carpet was breathtaking. Within a few months, the whole issue had become more or less taboo, and by the election of 2015 it was simply never mentioned. After the Brexit vote I briefly became part of Facebook groups made up of people outraged at what had happened. Some seemed to believe that it was the only bad thing that had ever happened, and that if the decision could be reversed everything would go back to being perfect. There was a tenor to a lot of the comments to the effect that the underclass that has always been small-minded and racist. An extremely cogent and trenchant speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris came as a salutary corrective to this. Late last year, watching Ken Loach’s heartbreaking and bloodboiling excoriation of the effects of benefits cuts, I wondered: which way would Daniel Blake have voted? I would have been hard-pressed to argue that anyone dealing with the hard edge of government cruelty should vote for the status quo.   

So here we are on the other side of the looking glass, staring ‘hard Brexit’ in the face. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but we know with all certainty that it will be very miserable indeed. For (and partly because of) all its bravado, inertia is the future of the UK. The very worst elements of British society, the scum of ages, are in charge, and they have nothing to offer except a puerile and obnoxious nostalgia. Last summer during the Brazil Olympics, a Tory MP tweeted a map showing how many medals the ‘British Empire’ had won. The response to every issue, from vegetable shortages to floods, is framed in xenophobic terms. Theresa May, for all the vapid progressive sentiment of her maiden speech as leader, soon fell into line with the likes of Le Pen, with her sneering at rootless elites. The hint of antisemitism, never far from the surface in patrician British elite discourse, was not accidental.

All this posturing, like the chant of ‘two world wars and one world cup’, covers a deeper sadness, staves off the melancholy which, as Freud says, results from an inability to mourn. The alternative would involve the painful process of coming to terms with the loss of something we should never have had in the first place, but also wouldn’t exist without.

I did a Master’s in Portuguese history but not one in my own. Learning about Portugal and Brazil was, I now realise, a way of learning about my own history, culture and identity. At a national level that history is blood-soaked and shameful. Reading John Newsinger’s ‘The blood never dried’ made me aware of how little I know about the barbaric recent history of my own country. I’ve also slowly become aware that my professional field (teaching English abroad) contains powerful echoes of colonial administration. We laugh and drink away our colonial guilt and find subtle ways to sneer at other country’s histories and cultures, seeking to escape from the irreversible fact that “the carnival of Britain’s imperial potency is now over forever”. We use satire as a form of deference, a means of disavowing our responsibilities to take our past and our selves more seriously**. While the British love to joke about the Germans’ excuse for the Third Reich (‘I was only following orders’), the ubiquitous get-out clause for us with regard to our own misdemeanours is ‘I was only having a laugh’. Or we drink away our guilt, finding it puzzling that few other cultures share our addiction to oblivion. A book simply called ‘Why do the British drink so much’ would be an international best-seller. Part of the answer is that we are seeking that “manic elation” which combines with “misery, self-loathing and ambivalence” to produce this sense of postcolonial melancholy. For me, writing about my relationship with Portugal has been a means of reflecting on where I stand in relation to my own country’s past and present. In the words of Paul Gilroy:

melancholic reactions are prompted by “the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence” and suggest that the racial and national fantasies that imperial and colonial power required were…predominantly narcissistic. From this perspective, before the British people can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism, they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit, to understand the damage it did to their political culture at home and abroad, and to consider the extent to which their country’s complex investments in the ethnic absolutism that sustained it.

In my obsession with identity I know I tend to fixate on national identity. Ultimately nobody is ‘just’ British or Portuguese. Being an immigrant is never as simple as ‘fitting in’, as simply becoming like ‘any’ local. Where does one insert oneself? What sort of local does one become? Where in the new society can one find a niche, or escape from the one that has been pre-allocated? One of the joys of being a foreigner is that you can play with identity, experiment with your and others’ perceptions of who you are. There is inevitably  more space for individual flamboyance. In the words of Fernando Pessoa, we are an empty stage on which various characters play out their roles. Not having a script, struggling to follow and participate in basic routines of social interaction, is at once troubling and liberating. Some markers of identity are subjective, others objective, assigned by others. Moving to another country involves not just geographic adjustment, but also a social relocation. Defining oneself as an ‘expat’ is one way of dealing with this, by seeking to limit one’s commitment to finding a place in the new environment. Doing so often locates you within a social stratum which aspires to be from elsewhere and disavows its own background. One common theme I’ve recognised across the countries I’ve lived in (and am increasingly aware exists in my own) is: blaming the ‘common people’ for whatever you find embarrassing or painful about your own country. Across all countries there is a lazy and parasitical elite which bemoans its misfortune at being from that country and bullies ‘o povo’ (Portuguese for the ordinary people) for their supposed indolence, blaming the poor for the backwardness of the country. This attitude I’ve encountered among Portuguese betinhos, Spanish pijos, Mexican fresas and mireyes, Italian fighetti, Brazilian mauricinhos and patricinhas. In Mexico they talk about ‘gringos nacidos en México’ – people who just happen to have been born in Mexico, but who like to think of themselves as being from elsewhere. It would be wrong to put this snobbishness down to a national characteristic, because I hate it when people do that to me.

While in London I kept up with Portugal a bit through my Portuguese flatmate and occasional contact with friends still there, but gradually, inevitably drifted away. I was vaguely aware of new artists, writers, and trends, and also of more established ones I failed to engage with while I was there: Boss AC, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Joana Vasconcelos, for example. I didn’t follow up my interest in hiphop, fado and the myriad new hybrid forms of music, new identities based on shaking off the past, acknowledging its history without glorifying it, integrating other colonial and postcolonial experiences, and thereby producing “a new image of the country that can accommodate its colonial dimensions”. Despite its ongoing battering by austerity and its corrupt political elite, Portugal has very great advantages over the UK. The radical left is far more dynamic and cohesive than its UK equivalent: articulate, responsive, and smart. Portugal also has (unless things have changed very recently) no far-right nationalist movement to speak of. I suspect (but don’t know) that the national mood is, although depressed, a lot less resentful than the atmosphere in the UK and in Italy (where I live now).

I have an enormous affection for Portugal and its people. I feel grateful for what it taught me. So much of what applies to Portugal and the Portuguese also applies to me and to my own culture. It taught me a huge amount about myself, the world and the relation between the two. It helped me understand Brazil and Mexico. Certain dynamics are common to all societies and it’s thanks to Portugal and the Portuguese that I was able to learn about them. Getting older involves realising that one is part of history and may fall victim to it. Since 1999, when I first set foot in the country, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the euro, the spreading of globalisation and of challenges to its dominance, the increasing rule of the internet, Brexit, the shift into a whole new anthropogenic age…I know now what it feels like to be part of a generation. I wish I’d stayed in contact more with the people who shared that part of my life, and feel a certain sorrow that I didn’t. That’s saudade, I think.  

* Gilroy’s previous book was the classic about Black British identity, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

** On this theme Jonathan Coe’s review of a biography of Boris Johnson is an absolute must-read.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation


“O disco amarelo iluminou-se” is the first sentence of the first novel I read in Portuguese: ‘Blindness’, by José Saramago. It means “the yellow light came on”, and (although it took for a few seconds to work this out at the time) it refers to a traffic light. The first driver in a line of cars has suddenly been struck by a mysterious blindness which will go on to infect all but one of the inhabitants of an unnamed city, causing the authorities to panic and impose martial rule as society breaks down more or less overnight. One key to the novel lies in the fact that the Latin word for ‘city'(civitas) is also related to ‘civilisation’; when the basic signs and codes that regulate civilised behaviour lose their meaning, we may as well all be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the novel I’ve read more times than any other. I’m always slightly surprised to come across people who haven’t heard of it as it has always struck me as a fundamental insight into the times we are living through.

Both the city and the country in the novel are unnamed, and the film of the book was shot in Tokyo, Toronto and São Paulo. Three of Saramago’s subsequent novels are set in similarly anonymous urban environments: ‘Seeing’, ‘All the Names’, and ‘The Cave’*. When, in 2006, a particular set of circumstances led me to take a Master’s course in Portuguese Studies which entailed writing a 15,000-word dissertation, I decided to connect those novels with an area I was becoming increasingly interested in: Urban Geography. I read writers such as Henri Lefebvre, Mike Davis, Teresa Caldeira and learned about the notion of the right to the city in a world increasing divided between neoliberal dreamworlds on the one hand and nightmarish slums on the other. The thinker I learned most from, however, was the world’s leading urban geographer, David Harvey, who actually looks a bit like a cross between Karl Marx and God. There are passages of his books you could dance to, punching-the-air kind of dancing. This video is a great visualisation of how his lucid style makes it beautifully easy to understand complex subjects.

The Master’s course was, then, a pretext to learn about the world through the prism of a limited range of countries. Learning about Portugal’s history of empire and loss of empire helped me reflect on my own country’s shameful past. Going back to writing essays after a 13-year break also made me reassess my relationship to ‘my’ language. My dissertation supervisor, who was from Mozambique but had lived and worked in English for more years than I had, once corrected something I had written, changing ‘in doing so’ to ‘in so doing’. Given that my livelihood is based on claiming authority over the English language, it was quite a salutary moment. (The difference is actually one of formality, but I thankfully had the humility not to try to pull rank.) Writing such a long-form piece helped me reflect on my command of written English. My natural style is actually not that different from Saramago’s, one which some people find rambling and irritating. The original title of ‘Blindness’ was ‘Ensaio Sobre A Cegueira’ (an essay on blindness), after the style of Montaigne, and his novels read like extended reflections, conversational in tone and consisting of digressive explorations of ideas rather than compelling plots and detailed characterisation. Writing about his work in an academic setting forced me to employ a more direct approach than I’m naturally inclined to adopt.

Throughout the course modules and during my dissertation research I learned about the depth and contours of my ignorance of the world and tried to fill in some of the massive gaps. The experience helped me learn that not everyone knows everything, and that knowledge in an academic context is often very specialised**. In around 2008 I got talking to David Harvey himself at an annual summer conference in Central London, and over a couple of pints and a LOT of crisps he said that my topic sounded interesting but he’d never heard of Saramago. I meant to put this information in the essay, along with a footnote boasting that it was revealed in a personal conversation, but sadly I forgot.

For a while I planned to turn my dissertation into a PhD but, although I did discuss the possibility during trips to Coimbra and Rio, it didn’t happen. Maybe that’s a good thing – I could quite happily waste the rest of my life in a good university library. While a friend of mine took 14 years to finish his PhD thesis, I reckon I would be the first to take 1,400. I did, however, end up back at the same university (King’s College London) in a working capacity. Last summer I was preparing Chinese students to take postgraduate courses, so I thought it would be fun to show them the short essay I’d written exactly ten years earlier when I was applying to do a Master’s at the same institution. (The essay is here, but it’s a bit crap.) Towards the end of the course, as we were working on writing abstract-style summaries, I proudly showed them the one I’d written for my eventual Meisterwork and was simultaneously chastened and impressed when they pointed out that among its 150 words there was a blindingly obvious typo.

I was already thinking that it might be fun to write something here about Saramago when it struck me as weird that something that took me so long to write has been read by so few people. Therefore I’m posting it here for the ages. It’s never been published (for at least two very good reasons) so it may be that someone researching or just interested in the topic will find it useful. I’m sure there are bits of it I would now change, with some sections underdeveloped and some overreliance on and/or misrepresentation of other people’s ideas, but in any case here it is, verrugas e tudo.

*Not that those are necessarily the best Saramago novels to start with, I would recommend ‘The Double’ if you’re not familiar with his work as it’s much more of a philosophical pageturner.

** For example, geologists often know almost nothing about climate science, especially those who are being specifically and handsomely paid for their ignorance of the topic.

Continue reading “Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation”

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 2


Please read Part 1 first.

Living in Lisbon I sometimes felt a bit like I’d fallen off the map. On Sunday afternoons in particular the city seemed to be not just sleepy but fast asleep. The atmosphere occasionally put me in mind of Ricardo Reis returning from Brazil to live out his final days in his desolate and listless hometown in José Saramago’s aptly-titled novel ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’. I also recognised it from the work of Fernando Pessoa himself, in particular his ‘Book of Disquiet’, a part-autobiography of a faceless clerk revelling in his dull quotidian existence, one sweetened by intense daydreaming and a rapt attention to poetic possibility. Around this time I also read Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi, which is similar to the Saramago novel in that it depicts a character drifting round an empty Lisbon on an eternal Sunday afternoon waiting for an appointment with the ghost of Pessoa. I had known about the Portuguese gift for melancholy and fatalism, especially having lived for a year in the cradle of Portuguese nationhood, and had also read an enchanting article on the subject by John Berger (RIP) in The Guardian while working in Dublin in the summer. It was by no means always unpleasant, once one adjusted to the languid rhythm and the solitude.

Melancholy sometimes seems like a national cause in Portugal, one even promoted abroad in the form of countless travel features celebrating saudade. At the turn of the decade the local group Madredeus were heard everywhere, and were even brought to international prominence thanks to their wailing about Alfama in Wim Wender’s 1994 film ‘The Lisbon Story’. Fado, the name of the music they were playing, means ‘fate’. I began to develop a vague notion, partly acquired from those books and others like Saramago’s ‘Memorial do Convento’, partly from Pessoa’s poems and partly from articles I’d read in a special edition of the magazine Granta dedicated to Portugal (one which I had, fittingly, lost) that this atmosphere of apparent stasis was somehow related to history.

To be fatalistic means to accept whatever happens, however sorrowful, as inevitable. In Portugal that means looking back, living as it were in the pluperfect, feeling sad for what had been and mourning its absence. Such a stance seems to have its roots in Portugal’s sudden acquisition and loss of an empire.

It is a historical truism that Portugal had to expand to survive. The idea that the nation had been born with a civilising and christianising mission was no more than a reflection of historical realities. So as not to get subsumed into a bigger entity, Portugal needed to become a bigger and richer country, and so, partly drawn by ancestral legends telling of kingdoms of infinite gold overseas, the Crown invested in navigation. In the space of a single year (1498) Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco da Gama reached India, and 24 years later even those achievements were surpassed by Ferdinand Magellan, who became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. Portugal wasn’t the only European country seeking to expand but it was ahead of the pack. Millennia of Jewish and Arabic wisdom and technology were put to very good use. The Portuguese reached Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Japan, and set up trading arrangements wherever they went. But it was all too big and too fast. Portugal was too small and too thinly spread to maintain control. They had networks of forts and trading posts but their empire was neither coherent nor centralised and they hadn’t effectively colonised the places they had nominally conquered, so were vulnerable to encroachments from the Spanish, the British and (in particular) the Dutch*.

Contrary to the later propaganda of the Salazar regime, the povo (common people) had little interest in expansion. A trope commonly evoked in Portuguese-speaking culture to decry a defeatist or pessimistic attitude is that of the ‘Old man of Restelo’**, a character in Luis Camões’ 16th century epic of expansion and conquest who condemns the departing expeditions as vain and wasteful. Certainly the Crown ransacked its new territories without building much back home in the way of infrastructure. Instead it spent the money earnt from slaves and silver on baroque palaces and manueline monasteries. The ruling elites also allowed Britain to exploit Portugal’s new wealth, which is why so much of British history and culture comes from or via Portugal. Tea was part of the dowry that came with Queen Catherine of Braganza, and Britain brought Portuguese wine in preference to French for political reasons. It is also partly thanks to Portugal that we have a taste for spices – it is telling that the word ‘vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese words for wine and garlic. In Britain Portugal had its oldest ally, but the relationship wasn’t always to Portugal’s benefit. Church and crown became phenomenally wealthy but Portugal itself was undeveloped. The fact that nowadays it has just two big cities is a legacy of centuries of failure to build roads and develop internal trade.

The symbolic defeat of the Portuguese empire took place in what is now Morocco, with the death of the royal successor Dom Sebastião (known as ‘The Desired One’***) at the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir. Two years later the Portuguese Crown passed into the hands of Philip II of Spain. This led to a suspension of the alliance with England and a further deterioration in the empire. Although Sebastião was dead, a powerful current arose based on the rumour that he would return one foggy morning, giving Portugal its second birth. The idea that Portugal could still one day fulfill its mission of building the 5th great empire on earth took hold. This movement became known as Sebastianism and had a powerful proponent in Padre António Vieira, a Portuguese preacher in Brazil; it was still very much a theme in Pessoa’s poetry and nowadays when headlines such as this and this appear it is an appeal to Sebastianist sentiment, the idea that Portugal can shake off its past and be reborn.

Another ongoing theme in Portuguese history was that of the Inquisition. According to the historian António Saraiva, the prevalence of this institution can be attributed to the desire of the nobility and church to hold down the emerging mercantile class, which is why Jewish people were persecuted, forced to become ‘new christians’ or leave the country. Some were burnt in Rossio Square. The term ‘auto da fé’ is one that exists in several languages, designating the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates. In addition to the banishment of a whole class of entrepreneurs, Portugal also suffered from a quasi-colonial relationship with England with regard to the trade in wine and cloth. Although Portugal had regained its own crown from Spain in 1640 it was still very dependent on England for commerce and on the colonies for lucrative slaves, spices and precious metals. The ‘enlightened autocrat’ Marquês de Pombal made some progress in challenging the power of the reactionary nobility and the church, reigning in the Inquisition and rationalising the economy. However, the 18th century was also a time of wars with Spain, and colonial gold and silver were beginning to run out.

Then, in 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon (as immortalised by Voltaire in Candide), destroying the city. The following century began with the Napoleonic invasion, at which point the royal family fled to Rio, which briefly became the capital of the empire until, tired of Portugal acting essentially as an intermediary between its products and the European market, it proclaimed Independence in 1822. The 19th century was also a period of civil wars between liberal and conservative factions. Throughout the century huge numbers of people left for Brazil, partly to replace the workers freed at the end of slavery. Emigration was (and continues to be) a constant theme in Portuguese history, with a large proportion of the people always leaving, mostly for South America. Few 18th and 19th century emigrants could be persuaded to move to Africa, with its disease, prison colonies and lack of prospects.

There was always the possibility of union with Spain. In the late 19th century this was seriously mooted as a means of survival. In reaction there was a powerful nationalist movement, based around the 350th anniversary of the restoration of ‘independence’. In fact, several historians have argued convincingly that the accession of João 1 in 1640 was not the result of a popular revolt but merely the change of one lord for another. Nevertheless, the campaign culminated in the erecting of a statue in what became known as Praça dos Restauradores, Restorers’ Square. In 1890, Portugal was humiliated internationally by being forced to give up territory it had claimed but never occupied between Angola and Mozambique. In response it launched a long and brutal campaign to pacify those parts of Africa it did nominally rule over, and there was a wave of nationalist fervour at home, resulting in what one historian called the ‘second foundation’, as it was during this time that the flag, shield, and the national anthem were chosen and the writing system standardised. Then, with the assassination of the King in 1910, a short-lived republic was installed.

Political and economic instability resulted. Fernando Pessoa wrote during this period of:

This dull brilliance of the land
That is Portugal sinking in sadness –

All is uncertain and ultimate.
All is fragmented, nothing is whole.
Oh Portugal, today you are mist..

If Pessoa thought a saviour was at hand, he wasn’t completely wrong, but it wasn’t anything like the one he’d been dreaming of. In 1926 António Salazar took over, and within a few years he had established the ‘Estado Novo’, the New State. He preached and practised a severe doctrine of austerity and self-reliance. I once asked a Portuguese friend if Salazar had children, and he laughed, explaining that he was ‘kind of a priest’, but he wasn’t the friendly sort, presiding instead over a brutal police state in which political opposition was crushed. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and forced into exile. In the Second World War Portugal was ‘neutral’, but…with benefits.

As for the colonies, they played a powerful ideological role. In classrooms throughout the country for decades there hung a map of Portugal and its colonies coloured in as one country the size of Europe, accompanied by the slogan ‘Portugal is not a small country’. The nature of Salazar’s closed, integrated circle of trade meant that for a period the country was also economically dependent on its colonies. Portugal survived partly by providing raw materials and African workers for South Africa. This gave Portugal currency stability, particularly important as it traded little with other countries. Hence the response of the regime to the outbreak of anti-colonial agitation was ferocious. In 1951 it had declared that all its colonies were now overseas provinces, so it was an existential issue to hang onto them; letting go of them would be like giving up the Algarve. The irony that most of continental Portugal was still not particularly well-connected to the Algarve probably didn’t bother them unduly*****.

Portugal also actively promoted the notion that in its colonies racism had been overcome. It was argued that the Portuguese benefitted from a ‘unique gift for understanding the African’. In fact, from the start of the 20th century a system was in place in Portuguese colonies under which Africans had to qualify as ‘civilised’ by taking an exam. Very few passed and no white settlers were asked to do the same. Nevertheless the respected Brazilian sociologist and father of lusotropicalism Gilberto Freyre accepted an invitation from Salazar to visit Angola, presumably in his dotage and wearing lilac-shaded lentes, and he gave it a clean bill of health, before popping back to Brazil where he was last heard of singing the praises of his own country’s military dictatorship.

The PR effort by the Portuguese could not disguise the ugly reality of the brutal wars it was fighting across all its African ‘provinces’, with significant support from apartheid South Africa. Then, in 1968 Salazar fell off a chair******. The regime pretended he was still in charge for a while and then put someone more hapless in charge. Portugal was effectively freed on April 25th 1974 by its own colonies – a movement of army officers who were no more prepared to fight for a lost cause overthrew the regime overnight. It was already becoming a different country in economic terms. With the overseas-funded growth of the 1960, a new middle class was rapidly developing. Not that political stability had suddenly been achieved, however; there then followed several years of infighting between political forces whose Marxist revolutionary credentials were very quickly proving to have been forged.

For the philosopher-king of Portuguese national identity Eduardo Lourenço, membership of the European Community was the ‘best drug to cure the post-colonial hangover’. Not everyone agreed. In 1986, the year of both Spain and Portugal’s ascension to the EU, lifelong Communist José Saramago published his novel ‘The Stone Raft’, in which the entire Iberian Peninsula floats away, eventually to reposition itself midway between Africa and Latin America.

Perhaps all former colonising and colonised countries share something of this particular mix of melancholy, insecurity, guilt and regret. Like in a bullying relationship, the two sides of the equation are interdependent, defining themselves in relation to one another, and once freed/deprived of that role it’s inevitable that they are forced to face searching questions as to their identity. To quote Eduardo Lourenço again, such countries have to undertake a ‘slow, painful and perhaps impossible reconfiguration of our national mythology’. In the words of Portugal’s King Pedro V:

‘Once we were great, now we’re small. We are still not used to being small, and in the middle of our misery we still want to show off a level of luxury that provokes scorn. Let’s not delude ourselves; let’s look at reality, and let that be our starting point’.

Being from a former imperial power myself, one whose long-standing connection with Portugal has not always been to its advantage, I can see that Portuguese history and the attempts of the Portuguese to come to terms with their past has a lot to teach me. It shames me somewhat that my knowledge of Portuguese history is, although inevitably faulty, better than my understanding of my own*******. Nevertheless, learning about it has been a means of coming to terms with my own history, culture and identity. The British tend to err more on the side of arrogance than melancholy, but they are after all two sides of the same coin. While the Portuguese like to say that the word ‘saudade’ cannot be translated into any other language, I, and I’m sure most other people, find the English term ‘Brexit’ to be equally mystifying. Maybe it means that the UK’s necessary reconfiguration of its national mythology is no longer possible. I do hope not.


* This is attested by numerous sources on the historical record but as this is a blog and not a history book I will just leave this here.

** See e.g. Dilma.

*** In Portugal all monarchs have nicknames. The English equivalent is not ‘Big Ears’, ‘the one who murdered all his wives’ and ‘that bloke who resigned to spend more time with Mein Kampf’. Incidentally, when José Mourinho called himself ‘the special one’ he must have been thinking in pretty grandiose terms.

**** In fact I just googled Ronaldo and Sebastião and I found this page by someone who is clearly, as the Portuguese say, madder than Batman.

***** I met people in Guimarães who told me that when they were kids it took two days to reach the Algarve and five hours to reach Porto.

****** As described in excruciating detail by Saramago in his you-had-to-be-there short story ‘The Chair’.

******* With regard to any inaccuracies please contact the Master’s tutors in the Portuguese Studies Department of King’s College London, ‘cos it’s them who taught me all this stuff.

Part 3

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 1

1000px-panorama_of_alfama_lisboa_from_belvedere_portas_do_sol_on_2014-11-08In a previous life, I lived in Lisbon. I’d already decided it was my favourite city before I’d even set foot there, and in some ways – although I’d never want to go and live there again – it still is. 

I’d found the town I’d been living in up north very pretty but culturally and socially moribund. Most of the young people seemed to dress exactly like their parents and the more interesting ones were straining to escape and didn’t understand what I was doing there. Arriving for an exploratory visit to the capital in spring 2000, I climbed up from Santa Apolónia station to the ramshackle medieval labyrinth of Alfama, on the foothills that led up to the Castle. There was something about the light across the river which I found immediately beguiling and the intricate layout of the alleyways intrigued me. The city felt like it had been built on water.

Within a few days of moving there later that year I had my own 5th-floor cabin on the edge of Alfama, with dentists chairs and a view across the Tejo to Alameda. I had decided to take the place at first glance because when I had looked out of the window on my first visit there was a group of caravels lighting up the river. My flatmate was a sombre and taciturn Mexican restaurant manager who spent his days off “buying soap” (there were indeed two drawers full of the stuff in the kitchen) and sobbing along to Celine Dion. On my first weekend, mortifyingly hungover after meeting and greeting my new teaching colleagues in Carcavelos (I recall that the police were called at some point), I stumbled down in the glaring sunshine to Campo das Cebolas, where my new Mexican friend took one look at me and handed me a michelada. He may well have saved my life. For the rest of the day I floated round the deserted city, feeling like I was on a magic carpet and wondering just what was in that drink. I ended up entranced in the cinema before a random Portuguese film called ‘Peixe Lua’ (Moon Fish). It opened with a orchestrated panoramic swoop across the river and up towards the castle and then descended into a lush and more-than-a-little-silly tale of cross-border love triangles, implausible bullfighters and Cordoban gypsies. Over the next four years I would occasionally oblige friends to watch the film with me but, like a movie seen on a late-night flight, it had little earthbound appeal.

When I went back in 2010 and 2013 I was disappointed and surprised to see that so many places I knew, shops, bars and restaurants that I had assumed had been and would be there forever, were gone. Years later I would read up on our ingrained tendency to essentialise other societies, to assume that whatever we see abroad is unchanging, eternal. A staple subject in English language coursebooks is just how happy everyone is in Bhutan. EFL teachers do have something of the eternal tourist along with (if you’re not careful) the worldview of a minor colonial administrator. Plus, of course, the lifestyle of a part-time alcoholic.

Fitting, then, that one of my favourite places (which, also fittingly, no longer exists) should be a bar, the Estrela d’Alfama, a tiny daytime place on Rua de São Miguel run by my hilarious English colleague Steve and his mordantly deadpan Finnish wife Jaana. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I was inside a soap opera. Alfama sometimes seemed like a village. Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and there were some who very rarely left. The area is often romanticised but there is a lot more to it than picturesque charm – it seemed resistant to any attempts at what I now think of as trasteverisation. My fellow timewasters included João, a local lothario whose job, we eventually figured out, consisted of tiptoeing round shopping centres stealing fire extinguishers, Sauri, another Finn with a gift for intricate wood carvings and mammoth vodka benders, and Joanna, an English colleague who could swoop from the most staggering heights of charm, wit and eloquence to the deepest canyons of inebriated truculence with the speed of a severely liver-damaged peregrine falcon. There were also men who had spent twenty years or so working in northern Europe on building sites and then returned exhausted to look after ailing parents, but whereas their counterparts from the north had spent their savings building the kinds of pink bungalows you see dotting the hills of the Minho and the Douro, they invested all they had in tiny bottles of Sagres and Superbock called minis. Thanks to such characters I learnt that anyone who drinks non-alcohol lager and is not pregnant at the time is a late-stage alcoholic. (Around this time I also figured out that someone drinking Cerveja Martini at 10am is probably an English teacher). In previous generations my fellow drinkers would probably have stayed in Alfama and worked on the docks, but such work had dried up and despite their often impressive command of spoken languages they didn’t have the education required to get jobs in the new economy. Some of the regulars were amazed that I could read newspapers of which they would struggle to get past the headlines. I tried to impress upon them the nature and extent of my good luck in having being born in a country which had had the foresight to impose its language on the world, which meant that my choice of livelihood, unlike theirs, had not depended on my ability to master other languages. But they insisted I must be some sort of genius. Nem por isso, I protested to little avail.

Often a despondent atmosphere prevailed, but everyone would cheer up such as when there was a big football championship on or some fado singers would turn up. Every June 12 was the festival of San António, prepared for months in advance, when the whole of Alfama would colourfully carouse on sangria and sardines and I would dig out my rusty bartending skills. In mid-2001 I moved up to the more rarified environs of Príncipe Real, to Rua da Palmeria, my own overfurnished deathtrap-wired bolthole. A Brazilian friend, the partner of the then Canadian Ambassador, who lived in a place with three bathrooms and (I seem to recall) eight balconies, described it as ‘aconchegante’. I looked it up; it means ‘cosy’. Back down in Alfama Jaana displayed very great fortitude in the face of provocation of local drunks, while I spent what now seems like several months at a time looking out of the door waiting for my friends, or anyone who spoke Spanish, to show up. One day it was two comedians: David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who were ‘researching’ their new football show by walking round in the sunshine coming up with ‘improvised’ repartee. I joined in their bantering for a while but sadly they didn’t immediately offer to include me in any future projects. I also met a Chicagan taxi-driver who, when I asked him where he was from, responded by accurately guessing which part of Sheffield I had been brought up in. On another occasion me and my friend Andrew met a monolingual German couple who dragged us down to the local Irish pub to see Germany play England. We found it packed with British sailors, and it was only from Horst’s belligerently overjoyed reaction to Germany’s goal that I finally realised mit Hindsight und ein bisschen Angst that the hilarious football anecdotes he was loudly regaling me with mostly involved acts (his) of partisan violence. Luckily England then scored five times in quick succession, so the filthy looks and muttered abuse from the sailors began to taper off and the Schadenfreude of my new hooligan friend turned into a more incoherent and thus less life-jeopardising kind of Freude.

Meanwhile the world changed. In March 2001 the country was aghast to witness the sudden collapse of a bridge in the north of the country. Several cars and an entire coachload of local people plunged into the river. They were on their way back from an excursion to see the spring blossoming of cherry trees. It was soon discovered that local companies had been extracting the sand surrounding the pillars of the bridge; the whole country was outraged and then increasingly resigned. There was general agreement that in the rest of Europe such a thing could never happen.

Six months later I was walking into work for a lunchtime class when one of the more security guards told me out of the blue ‘é todo culpa tua!‘ – ‘it’s all your fault’, and when I responded with bafflement said something to do with some planes and the Empire State Building. I presumed he’d been drinking on the job, which was not unusual; it would indeed have been perfectly understandable. The euro came in and I got into debt for no reason at all. I got my first ADSL line and celebrated by staying awake for six whole months cheating at Championship Manager. Those Chinese shops which had been a novelty in Dublin became more ubiquitous. I made friends with people from more salubrious areas of the city and from less stable and/or prosperous parts of the world. Together we watched in dismay as Portugal’s golden generation threw a World Cup tantrum and stomped off in tears. In Jaana’s bar one constant refrain accompanied any change for the worse, from falling bridges to football punch-ups to rising prices: Tem que ser, pá: that’s just the way it is, man.

What’s that all about?, I thought.


Part 2

Seven Stories About Language and Identity

China Miéville’s recently published (and much, and rightly, lauded) novel Embassytown concerns a far-flung species of alien on a planet colonised by humans, aliens who speak a language in which they cannot lie. Not only can they not say what is not, they can also not say what things are like. The existential crisis provoked by this inability to express themselves figuratively eventually causes a majority of the species to tear out their hearing organs to escape the prison of their Language, while others manage to survive, painfully, by learning to express their experiences through the use of similes. When they finally manage to do so, there is an explosion of poetic language:

‘Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much of certain things. We were grown into Language. After history we made city and machine and gave them names. We didn’t speak so much of certain things. Language spoke us… when the humans came they had no names, and we made new words so they would have places in the world…Language took them in.

We were like hunters. We were like plants eating light. The humans made their town in our town like a star in a circle. they made their place like a filament in a flower… we spoke the name of their place, but we knew it had another name, sitting in the city like an organ in a body, like a tongue in a mouth.

You have not spoken before. You will. You’ll be able to say how the city is a pit and a hill and an animal that hunts and a vessel on the sea and the sea and how we are fish that swim in it..you have never spoken before’.

In the novel we at no point encounter a description of the aliens themselves. We learn of some of their physical characteristics but we never find out what they look like. This seems apt.

In this spirit of the recognition of likeness I wanted to draw a series of comparisons and make explicit what my experience and interpretation of certain ideas I have encountered in certain books is like.

In the novel Blindness by José Saramago the characters in an unnamed city lose their ability to see and henceforth to recognise one another. A mysterious epidemic deprives them of sight, and all social bonds and connections are broken. Civilisation collapses as the individuals are no longer able to acknowledge to themselves that the people who surround them and on whom they depend are like them.

Blindness is like the novel New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (the inventor of the language game Europanto) in which the main character wakes up on a quayside in Trieste during the Second World War with no memory of his identity or his language.  He is mistaken for a Finn, taught the language and sent to Finland in order to allow him to discover his identity and his place in the world. He eventually realises that he has no means of recovering his true identity and enlists with the Finnish armed forces to fight on the border against the invading Russians, never to return.

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani is like Austerlitz by WG Sebald, in which the main character, who grew up in Wales but has no memory of his origins, follows an impulse to go to Prague, where he discovers that he speaks the language of the city from which he was exiled from his Jewish parents on a Kindertranport at a very young age.

Austerlitz by WG Sebald is like the novel Budapest by the Brazilian songwriter and novelist Chico Buarque, in which a ghost writer travelling back to Rio de Janeiro passes through the eponymous city and resolves to stay until he has mastered the language from scratch. He invests all his energies in his quest for a new identity, abandoning his life back home in Brazil, but comes to experience a crushing personal defeat whe he is told that his voluntary exile has been in vain, that the poems that he has so painstakingly created under the pseudonym of a moribund Hungarian poet ‘read like they were written by a foreigner’.

Budapest by Chico Buarque is also like another two novels written in the Portuguese language, one which, like the Marani novel, was written by an Italian. Afirma Perreira by Antonio Tabucchi tells the tale of a newspaper editor in Salazar’s Portugal of the 1930s, who comes to identify with an exiled Italian dissident and then to take enormous risks on his and  his comrades behalf, putting his own life in danger and finally engaging with a society from he had previously felt almost entirely detached.

And Afirma Perieira is like (indeed too similar, according to the author) another Saramago novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which one of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, the eponymous poet who has previously been exiled to Brazil, returns to his native country and also becomes drawn into a plot against the regime in which his own sense of detachment from the world around him must be sacrificed together with his freedom if the life which he has lived is to have (had) any meaning.

None of these novels are particularly like the short story by Will Self, Story for Europe, in which a young couple, concerned that their child has not acquired the ability of coherent speech, take him to a specialist in child language acquisition on Harley Street, who listens to the burblings of their son for some minutes before declaring solemnly that their child only appears to be able to communicate in Business German.

Perhaps this could be a challenge for another Diego Marani or George Perec: would it be possible to write a novel in the ‘business’ version of a language, if such a thing actually existed? Unlikely.

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’.

The Scramble for Angola

The Portuguese generally take a lot of pride in the fact that Brazil, a country they discovered, has become one of the most vibrant and varied countries on earth and a true cultural superpower. That diversity, of course, came into being largely because of the slave trade. But slavery is a word seldom mentioned in discussions of Portugal’s glorious age of expansion and empire.

A current exhibition in the museum in Lagos makes a laudable attempt to promote Portugal’s own multicultural heritage, talking at length about how successive migrations of humanity have culturally enriched European societies and made them much more ethnically diverse, but fails to mention how forced migrations of people created economic riches, or even the remarkable fact that Lagos itself would give its name to the capital of Africa’s most populous nation, as many of the slaves traded in the Algarve originated in that part of Africa.

Portugal first arrived in what would become its largest African colony, Angola, in 1483, and they would stay there for almost 500 years. Like any colonial relationship it was one of brutality and forced obedience:

Until the late 1900’s Portugal used the area as a “slave pool” for its far more lucrative colony in Brazil and to benefit from the occasional discovery of precious gemstones and metals. Angola suffered from one of the most backward forms of colonialist rule. (from www.africanet.com)

According to an article by Helena Matos in Público, it always held a special significance for the Portuguese:

(There is a) word which, in Portugal, throughout the entire twentieth century was murmured in times of crisis and in the inevitable periods of euphoria that followed. That word is Angola.

Generations and generations of Portuguese people were born, grew up and died hearing stories of Angola’s riches. Of the progress of Angola. Of the potential of Angola. Of German and English geologists disguised as priests and tourists running around the country secretly excavating its wealth. About the negotiations in which Britain and France tried to placate Hitler offering him Angola. Of the sale of Angola. Of the Russians and Americans that craved Angola’s riches. Of the new nation that was going to be born in Africa.

It remained one of the jewels in the crown of empire until, shortly after the 1974 revolution, the Portuguese grudgingly packed their bags and went home.

Now the Portuguese state is sending further missions to Angola. At the start of April the newspapers and TV news bulletins were packed with stories about the Prime Minister’s impending visit to the former colony, accompanied by 300 of the country’s leading business people and with two billion euros of credit on offer. The weekly news magazine Visão highlighted stories of those of those who have returned and those few who never left. It boasted of Portugal’s extensive knowledge of the terrain, its linguistic and cultural links and shared history. It did however omit to mention that that long relationship was a massively unequal one based on forced occupation and the most brutal exploitation of the lives of countless millions of people, and ended in a fifteen-year war for independence. That war sowed the seeds of the civil war that followed, which may have recently ended – for the moment at least – but which has left the country with a life expectancy index of 37 and ranked 160th in the 2005 Human Development Report.

Several hundred years ago Portugal was competing for control of large parts of the world’s extent and population with other (equally brutal) colonial powers. Now it is returning to the scenes of its colonial crimes, it faces a new, powerful and determined adversary.

China is partly after Angola’s oil reserves – it already buys 30%, and derives most of its crude oil from the same source. It is also looking to create Lebensraum, due to the pressing need to keep creating jobs at home and overseas in order to maintain and raise its own furious economic momentum. As the LA Times reports:

A main driver in the relationship is China’s insatiable need for energy. Its oil imports are surging, and African oil now accounts for nearly 30% of the total. The China National Petroleum Corp. has invested billions of dollars to take control of Sudan’s oil production, estimated at 150,000 barrels per day and growing. Another Chinese oil company agreed in January 2006 to pay $2.3 billion for a major stake in a Nigerian oil field.

Africa is certainly benefiting. China’s demand for resources has driven up prices, propelling significant GDP gains in many countries. China has educated thousands of African university students, and it sends Africa hundreds of doctors and advisors each year. Chinese firms are building roads, rehabilitating infrastructure and bringing cellphone service to places that land lines never reached.

It is a formidable opponent – compared to Portugal’s 2 billion in credit, Chinese state banks are looking to provide double that amount. And according to Visão:

A year ago China occupied fourth place in the Angolan imports, a position that will, in 2006, threaten Portugal’s leadership. It is possible that the number of Chinese people will soon exceed the number of Portuguese. (The Chinese businessman) Li Yun’s new shop will compete with a Portuguese-owned business next door. Faced with the unbeatable prices of the Asian giant (between three and five times cheaper), the Portuguese firm has already started to import materials from the East.

The cost of Portugal’s past involvement in Angola’s development has been very clear. What does China’s concern for the country’s future have in store?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has criticized the funding given by China, saying that Beijing does not care how the money is used. The IMF had offered subsidized loans to Luanda on condition that it allowed effective monitoring of how the money was used and that it reformed its corrupt power system, which benefits a restricted elite and leaves 13 million people in poverty. (from www.asianews.com)

Visão backs up this point:

The conditions that the IMF impose in terms of Macroeconomic policies and the the demands of Western powers in terms of Human Rights are not an ssue for the Chinese. They do business and don’t ask questions. A number of UN Security Coucil resolutions in relation to African countries, particularly to Sudan, “have been blocked by the Chinese”. And Visão has discovered that a European country has recently made a proposal to the Angolan government along the lines of that proposed by the Chinese banks.

Which might well lead us straight back to Portugal.

As I said, China’s motivations are many – including both petrol and global as well as local political influence – and they are the same motivations that have led to deepening relationships not just with other African countries but also with Venezuela, for example.

According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Chinese interests are not merely limited to petrol, but also involve the supply of food, acquiring fertile territory in Africa.The principal objective, says Santos Neves of the IISS, “is internal social stability”.

So part of the motivation is, as I say, to provide jobs and stave off potential disquiet from unemployed workers back home:

Chinese engineers work in Africa for around 100 euros a month, as opposed to six hundred paid by French companies to African foremen. This signifies that contracts with China close down job opportunities to Africans and limit their chances to be directly involved in the reconstruction of their countries” (from an Angolan university study quoted by Visão).

This cornering of the labour market comes about because of the scale of China’s investment, and the willingness of exported Chinese peasants to work for less money than the locals. All over Africa concern is being expressed about the commercial dominance and the political influence of the Chinese Goverment – a recent case from Zimbabwe shows what can happen when a little political influence is brought into play:

Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime has chosen to consolidate its recent election victory by bulldozing homes and demolishing markets, leaving vast swathes of the capital and other cities in ruins and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees with neither shelter nor livelihood. Locals are calling it the Zimbabwean tsunami.

“This is Pol Pot style depopulation of cities,” said David Coltart, legal affairs spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “It’s a sinister pre-emptive strike designed to remove the maximum possible number of people from urban areas to rural areas where they are easier to control.”

Another suggestion was that the vendors had been cleared out to make way for Chinese traders. China has become Mugabe’s new best friend, supplying commercial and military planes and sending in advisers.

12% of China’s oil comes, astonishingly, from Sudan:

It’s Sudan that’s got the closest links. 60% of its oil exports are now bound for the People’s Republic.

In Darfur, government sponsored militias have driven up to two million people from their homes. Women have been raped, men murdered. But China certainly wasn’t going to support oil sanctions or harsh UN Security Council Resolutions – the resolutions were watered down, so China abstained and didn’t veto.

“We don’t feel any interference in our Sudanese local business, or any of our traditions or politics or beliefs or behaviours. They just devote their time and their energies to their business as we planned for and agreed to.” – Awad Al Jaz, Sudanese energy minister.

The roads the Chinese built to bring in supplies should help the area develop and some people have benefited from electricity extended to their homes. But government attacks forced many more thousands out, as land was cleared of people to make way for oilfields.

The refugees now live in poverty in Khartoum. They have their own perspective on the Chinese.

“Investment is good. It will develop our land, but the most important thing is how we are treated. In the end, the Chinese must go home. This is not their country. Then this will all be ours.” – James Lei (from channel4news.com)

The week following Visão’s report about Portugal’s ‘Return to Angola’, the same magazine published an extensive article about the ‘Chinese Invasion’. It mentioned the growing disquiet among the local population about what is going on:

Despite the good relations between the two countries, in Africa rumours are often taken to be true. It is rumoured that all the Chinese in Luanda have criminal records, that they are to multiply by millions and take jobs from the local population. A recent front-page of the weekly news magazine Folha 8 read ‘Against Development and Employment – the Dangerous Invasion of the Chinese’. (from Visão).

The article ended with a comment from a Portuguese economist, who remarked:

China’s presence in Africa is a long term project.

So, of course, was Portugal’s.