Historians' Watch

Debating “Discoveries”: Colonialism & Public History in Portugal

Attempts to write a consensual past will only increase as the polarisation of the present deepens. This may help explain why, at a time when the future of imperial history looks far from settled, many are defensive and anxious to preserve a glowing image of colonialism shorn of its agonies. Examples are visible across the Western world. In 2005, the French parliament passed a law forcing national schools to stress “the positive role played by France overseas”, while in 2010 a former Belgian Foreign Minister hailed King Leopold II (under whom an estimated ten million died in the Congo Free State) as a “hero”. In 2017, an article making “The Case for Colonialism” led to half of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigning in protest, prompting a controversial project on ‘Ethics and Empire’ at Oxford University that sought to highlight the ‘positive’ aspects of imperialism. Surveys in Britain indicate that half the population thinks the British empire was a force for ‘good’, an opinion given new prominence in the age of Brexit. Debate over whether colonialism was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for whom and in what ways, is back with a vengeance, and in many ways has become the prime topic in European public history and cultural heritage.

Portuguese imperial propaganda poster, 1934. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Creative Commons).

Of all these memory battles, few have made this clearer than the controversy raging in the longest-lasting of the imperial powers, Portugal, one that has perhaps shed more ink than any other but remains little covered in global media. In 2018, Lisbon’s mayor promised to build a so-called “Museum of the Discoveries”, a space intended to cover the “most and least positive aspects” of the imperial past, with “an area dedicated to the topic of slavery”. This project – one that politicians have been flirting with for a century – went largely unnoticed, until over a hundred academics released an open letter objecting to the word “discoveries” as an “obsolete and incorrect” catch-all term to encompass five centuries of colonial history. Indeed “descobrimentos is one of the most charged words in the Portuguese language, canonised in the ideology of the right-wing dictatorship that ruled the country from 1933-74, almost a cornerstone of national identity. The academic objections sparked fevered responses in newspapers, debates on television, and attacks on social media; indeed in outpouring and duration, there is no comparable postcolonial controversy in Portugal. How did wording elicit such unbridled passions?

One word, a comma, even the simplest preposition, can be everything. As Howard Zinn once pointed out, there is a world of difference between saying that “Columbus committed genocide, but he was a wonderful sailor” and saying that “he was a good sailor, but he […] committed genocide”. This slight turn of phrase alone evidences the ideological work implicit in narrating the past, which always involves processes of selection, simplification and taking sides. Tzvetan Todorov famously noted that “language has always been the companion of empire”, and indeed such an idea came long before structuralism. When, five centuries earlier, Queen Isabella of Aragon asked about Antonio de Nebrija’s Grammar (1492), “What is this for?”, the Bishop of Ávila replied: “Language is the perfect instrument of empire.” No wonder then, that with colonialism still in earshot, our present grammar is teeming with imperial reverberations.

The awareness of words as the tools of power was there from the beginning of European colonialism. In 1573, the Spanish crown responded to criticisms of abuses perpetrated in the ‘New World’ by decreeing that the term ‘conquista’ (conquest) was to be forbidden, and replaced by ‘descubrimiento’ (discovery). The following century, Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius criticised the Portuguese pretence that ‘discovery’ consisted of a contemplative act rather than a de facto conquest with invasion, subjugation, and occupation. In 1832, the US Supreme Court infamously authorized the expropriation of lands inhabited by indigenous peoples under the “discovery doctrine”, with Chief Justice John Marshall harking back to early Portuguese colonialism in his assertion of “the rights given by discovery”. These semantic ruses show that such wording was never innocent, reframing violence as peaceful mission.

Despite such a history, and the intellectual cache of decades of research and debate, many commentators across the political spectrum in Portugal – senior historians, prominent journalists, respected opinion-makers – ridiculed the suggestion that the word “discoveries” could be problematic. The idea was openly denounced as the “splendour of the politically idiotic”, a “dictatorship of one-way thought”, “generalised stupidity”, a “far left-wing racket”, “the latest fad of the new inquisitors”, or a “cultural disease”. A popular petition demanded the proposed museum be predicated on “national dignity”, decrying “imported hysterias” that might create an “anti-Portugal house of horrors” focused on “regrettable aspects often exaggerated by fake historiography”, and demanding that the Portuguese empire be shown as “egalitarian and integrationist”, “benign, beneficent and stimulant”. This despite the fact that Portugal had been the last European nation to outlaw forced labour and extend citizenship to the black majority in its colonies, and the last imperial power to decolonise, only after fighting the longest liberation wars in Africa, wars that consumed the Portuguese economy in the final years of the dictatorship.

Monument to Portuguese soldiers who fought in the colonial wars (1961-76), Lisbon. (CC).

While there were, of course, important nuances in the debate, it was the virulence and the nature of the backlash that was most telling, especially as the issues are far from new. In the 1970s, historians puzzled over alternatives to the word ‘discoveries’. António Borges Coelho asked “What about the word Expansion? It is operative, a continent of a word, a vessel that can carry without significantly affecting its varied contents.” Indeed, after the dictatorship (and Portugal’s remaining colonies) fell in 1974, expansion became a standard convention, alongside the placing of the word ‘discovery’ within inverted commas. In 1983, the Council of Europe took experts to Lisbon to debate the teaching of the “Portuguese Discoveries” and concluded that teachers and textbook authors should use alternatives terms like “European expansion overseas” or “The Age of Encounter” instead, to move away from “chauvinistic and Eurocentric” assumptions that implied “racial or cultural superiority”. It was a symbolic moment to hold such discussions in the last European country to decolonise and democratise, at the moment it had just joined the European Community.

This historical juncture had brought out some of the most unresolved aspects of the colonial past, especially the exceptionalist myth of a Portuguese empire based on multiracial and pluricontinental conviviality. Portugal’s official entry in the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest, Da Vinci’s still-popular hit song Conquistador, is one of its most infamous examples:

An entire population / Guided by the heavens / Spread around the world / Following their heroes / They took the light of culture / And they sowed ties of affection / A thousand epics / Lives so full / Oceans of love / I’ve been to Brazil / Praia and Bissau / Angola, Mozambique / Goa and Macau / Oh, I have been to Timor / I have been a conquistador!

Such narratives continued in the final decades of the century. From 1986-2002 Portugal dedicated the lengthiest commemorative cycle in contemporary Europe, the so-called National Commission for Commemorating the Portuguese Discoveries, while the 1998 world Expo marked the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, with a nearby bridge (Europe’s longest) and Portugal’s second largest shopping mall named after the navigator (the largest is named after Christopher Columbus). Yet a public letter from leading intellectuals criticised the Expo for not “celebrating [with enough dignity] the Portuguese discoveries, as would be legitimate, natural, and desirable”. The centre-right PSD filed a parliamentary motion of protest, while the right-wing CDS condemned the “ashamed and modest, discreet and minimal commemorations”. This was the tenor of the commemorative history of the past.

The reaction to criticism of the proposed museum’s title shows how often history is told in the epic mode. In many ways the pushback went through the by-now familiar and circular routines whenever any public analysis of the colonial past is at stake, invoking impartiality yet filtering the past according to patriotic feelings of shame and pride, and value judgments of positive and negative, subordinating its narration to a nationalistic position delineated around an us and them. Some events are relativised as ‘of their own time’, but others as worthy of everlasting celebration, turning any historical particularities into evidence of a country’s transhistorical exceptionality. Criticism is deflected by pointing to other colonial powers who were ‘worse’, or rejected as national slander.

The ‘Monument to the Discoveries’ in Belém, Lisbon. Photo by Christopher Kissane.

Three other recent controversies presaged the current debate. In 2014, Lisbon’s mayoral office decided to restore a floral arrangement in Belém’s ‘Empire Garden’ (which stands near the iconic Monument to the Discoveries) that in the 1960s had included the insignia of provinces across Portugal and its empire. The decision to leave out the eight symbols that stood for the colonies led to a critical petition that called it a “whitewash of history”, while Belém’s town council denounced it as an “ideological vendetta to erase our [Portuguese] collective memory”.

In contrast to decolonisation campaigns for their removal elsewhere, colonial monuments remain across Portugal’s cities, and in 2017 a controversy erupted over the unveiling of a new statue in Lisbon, showing Jesuit priest António Vieira – who had a contested stand on the slave trade – circled by naked indigenous children, in a formal throwback to the paternalism of colonial statuary. When a small group tried to stage a poetry reading and leave candles and flowers in memory of enslaved people, it was met by far-right militants guarding the statue against efforts to “denigrate the Catholic Church and instil guilt in the Portuguese” out of “pure anti-Portugal hatred”. The same year, there was criticism of the award of municipal funds to a proposed first memorial to the victims of slavery planned by Djass, an association of ‘Afrodescendents’, in response to the near total absence of public monuments to black people.

Defensiveness about flowerbeds and monuments reveal deep-running anxieties about race and identity, but also how rhetorical and presentational matters are central to the production and reproduction of history. Nothing appears more intolerable to a country which has turned the habit of looking at the present through the past into a national religion, than the idea of having to look at the past through present eyes. Yet, in a country where condemnations of decolonisation have always outmatched the denunciations of colonialism, this is a pivotal moment, one which requires a review of critical pedagogies and cultural politics. With the mediation and curation of imperial pasts a pressing issue in the new century, there comes the heightened sense that the historical framing is every bit as important as historical narrative, and that no single discipline holds a monopoly over the shaping of this knowledge and its meaning. The idea of how to present and name the long colonial past has become the capital one. “Names are the turning point of who shall be master”, Walt Whitman once wrote, “There is so much virtue in names that a nation which produces its own names, haughtily adheres to them, and subordinates others to them, leads all the rest of the nations of the earth.”


  1. Could Dr Ramos direct me to any analyses of modern day Brazilian attitudes to colonialism and ramifications for equality and diversity?

  2. Informative. Clear examples. Thank you.

  3. Excellent article – clear and balanced.

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