Undertones: Portugal and the myth of the good colonizer

Illustration by Global Voices featuring the Monument of the Discoveries (Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

When in Lisbon, images of ships and references to Portugal’s seafaring past are ubiquitous. Caravelas, the signature sailing ships used during Portugal’s early voyages to West Africa and Brazil, are seen on Lisbon’s flag, in restaurant names and on cobblestone pavements, posing as touristic buses, and, in a more stylized fashion, in the Monument of the Discoveries, built during Salazar’s dictatorship in 1958. This enormous monument features renowned explorers, cartographers, navigators, and missionaries. It exemplifies how a rewriting of Portugal’s history of colonization was taking place. 

For scholars and activists, narratives that emerged during Salazar’s dictatorship still linger in Portuguese society. They mingle pride in an expansionist, colonialist past, all the while denying any internalized racism.

Recent incidents sparked debates on racism in Portugal. The first art installation commemorating the lives of enslaved Africans in Lisbon is facing pushback from the local authorities, sparking criticism in July that Lisbon’s mayor was “boycotting” the event. In September, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, during a visit to Canada, described Portuguese identity in words that, for some Portuguese, evoked Salazar’s slogan, “Futebol, Fado e Fátima” (Soccer, the musical style of Fado, and the apparition of the Virgin of Fatima). In October, a Black anti-racist activist was fined for defaming a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi.

“[For many], the positive view of colonial times is internalized,” Civic Media Observatory researcher Leon Ingelse says. “The narratives from the Salazar dictatorship seem to be normalized across the political spectrum.”

For anti-racist activists, a common narrative is: “Portugal is not dealing with its colonial past”.

How this narrative moves online

Joacine Katar Moreira, a Portuguese politician born in Guinea-Bissau, shared her discontent with the Portuguese pride around colonial history on X.

She criticizes how “every national reference is linked to Portugal’s colonial past”, like the words “Navegadoras” (the nickname of the national Portuguese women’s football team). She asks whether the Portuguese are proud of anything else.

Most comments are hateful and racist, Ingelse notes. The comments say that the author is racist for saying such a thing, that she should be thrown out of the country, and that she is ungrateful as Portugal ‘took her in’. Some comments underline their pride in the colonial past of Portugal.

This item received the positive score of +2 out of +3 on our civic media scorecard, because the message is anti-racist and important for the discussions about racism in Portugal. However, there could have been more explanation and background information.

The item above mentions “luso-tropicalism”, a concept adopted by Salazar’s dictatorship to evoke pride in Portugal’s historical identity and keep its African colonies. After World War II, Portugal was facing mounting pressure to amend its imperial narratives and release its grip on its territories overseas.

Portugal played a preponderant role in Europe’s history of colonization and human trafficking. In the 15th century, Portugal launched and dominated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, capturing and bringing nearly 6 million Africans to Brazil, more than any other European nation. Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822, while Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe, Angola, and Mozambique obtained freedom in 1974 and 1975 after violent wars.

After two decades in power, Salazar started to embrace the concept of luso-tropicalism coined by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. Before that, Portuguese politicians and colonial administrators most often thought of colonialism as a white civilizing mission for “inferior races.” A historical revision was taking place.

Luso-tropicalism contends that the Portuguese empire was more humane than other European colonizers, namely the British. Freyre and other contemporaries argued that the Portuguese were inherently friendlier, less violent, and prone to mixing with local populations.

Rui Braga, a researcher at the Tamera Peace Research & Education Center in Portugal, wrote in 2020 that “in the 1950s, at a time when colonial empires were collapsing all over the world, the regime faced the need to justify its colonial presence in Africa. Therefore, it amplified a narrative of ‘luso-tropicalism’ – an imaginary sense of Portugal as a multi-racial, pluri-continental nation with an innate capacity for friendly and nonviolent colonization and a liberal attitude towards interracial sexual relations and marriage.” 

Salazar did this by “suppressing the realities of racism and colonialism [and so] state propaganda became concretized in statues, monuments and history books.” Any opposing voice to this new national identity was censored.

Luso-tropicalism at Eurovision

In 1989, the Portuguese pop rock band Da Vinci sang “Conquistador” at the Eurovision contest. The song’s lyrics define luso-tropicalism in a nutshell.

Braga, and other scholars, such as anthropologist Cristiana Bastos, assert that this narrative continues on until today. “[O]ne would expect Luso-tropicalism to be now a curiosity of the past. Yet, it keeps reappearing,” she writes. In 2021, the Council of Europe urged Portugal to confront its colonial and slave-trading past in order to help fight racism today.

Today, anyone older than 68 years old was an adult during the deadly colonial wars with African nations. This recent history might explain a recurring narrative, even if sometimes non-verbal and implicit, that “Portugal was a good colonizer.” However, this narrative omits the cruelty of slaverygenocide, torture, and exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese during its colonial empire.

“Luso-tropicalism not only has masked the harsh and bitter reality—past and present—it also continues to provide a language, an appealing evasion, that makes the speaker feel good and special,” Basto, the anthropologist, writes.

How this narrative is alive online today

Five months ago, an anonymous Redditor published a meme on the thread “shitposting” (which has 2.6 million followers) comparing Portuguese and British styles of colonization.

The left image shows a famous Brazilian cartoon depicting an Indigenous woman “Kuruminha” in love with a Portuguese colonizer amidst a tropical backdrop. The image on the right recalls Iron Maiden’s cover of the song “The Trooper” depicting an inhumane British colonizer enacting genocide.

The post was upvoted 11 thousand times, but it is unclear whether the traction it gained was mainly in Portugal or abroad. The comments are a mixed bag of racist remarks, criticisms of “whitewashing”, and extensive discussions on “who was a better colonizer.”

This item was ranked -3 on our civic scorecard, the lowest ranking possible, as the meme spreads misinformation to a wide audience about the Portuguese colonization being enjoyed by the local and enslaved population.

This narrative has two corollaries: “Portugal was a good colonizer, therefore Portuguese people are not racist” and “Racism is a political issue brought by the left.” This last narrative is gaining traction as far-right movements, represented by parties like Chega! and Partido Ergue-te, gain ground in Portugal. In 2020, Chega organized a demonstration to claim that Portugal is not racist.

Other political parties think otherwise. In June this year, the leftist party PAN (People, Animals, Nature) introduced a law proposal to study “the causes and consequences of institutional racism” in Portugal. With five parties in favor, two against (of which Chega and the country’s leading majority, the center-left Socialist Party), and one abstention, the proposal failed. Chega tweeted about this initiative along the lines that racism is an issue that is politicized by the left.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary since the Carnation Revolution ended Portugal’s dictatorship and colonial wars. However, for many, the narratives of the past persist.

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