As the world marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery, more and more Portuguese with African roots are calling for a critical reappraisal of this dark chapter in history.
“Portugal has long swept the history of slaves from Africa under the carpet,” said Evalina Dias, president of the Lisbon-based association of Afro-descendants, Djass. A native of Portugal with ancestors from Guinea-Bissau, she is now demanding that Portugal finally face up to its historical responsibilities and thoroughly reevaluate its role in the story.
“We know that the structural discrimination of African people today is also the result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was largely introduced by the Portuguese starting in the 15th century,” Dias told DW.
The Portuguese have always covered up this stain on its history, she said. In Portugal, it is always said that slavery was not an invention of the Portuguese or the Europeans and that there always were slaves, even before the 15th century.
But the fact is that during the age of the “discoveries” — beginning in the 15th century — the slave trade took on a trans-Atlantic dimension. By opening up sea routes to Africa, Asia and America, Western European countries — led by Portugal — rose to become internationally active trading and colonial powers.
From that point onwards, trading in spices, ivory, textiles and slaves became global.
“The new trans-Atlantic slave trade turned Africans into objects that were seen as commodities for Europeans,” said Gilbert Ndi Shang from the Africa Multiple research group at the University of Bayreuth. He said millions of Africans were forced to labor on European-run plantations in Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean.
“Over a period of more than 400 years, more than 15 million men, women, and children became victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Ndi Shang told DW.
It has repeatedly been noted, including in history textbooks, that Portugal was the first country in Europe to officially abolish slavery 260 years ago. But the ban initially only applied to Portugal and its colonies in India. Slavery continued in the other colonies. In Brazil, slavery was still practiced well after it gained independence from Portugal in 1822 and was not officially banned until 1888.
Honoring victims of enslavement
“Trivialization is a tradition in Portugal,” said Dias. Lisbon has been full of monuments to conquerors and explorers for centuries, she said, but the city has not erected a monument honoring the victims of slavery until this year. The initiative, she said, came from her association, a civil society of Portuguese citizens with African roots. Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda designed the monument. Source: Deutsche Welle