Last week I traveled to Lisbon for the 2nd International Conference on African Urban Planning, held at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Lisbon. I felt like I missed out when I didn’t attend the first conference two years ago. So, despite its inconvenient timing, I seized on the opportunity to attend and learn more about the politics of urban planning and the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals of the UN-Habitat project. More on that to come as I continue to think about the very interesting conversations from that conference. In the evenings, after the conference closed and in the day and a half I had before my flight, however, I took the opportunity to explore as much of Lisbon as I could. I went with fellow conference attendees to eat in central Lisbon at night, which often involved wandering around until we stumbled on something that looked good. In the process, we passed beautiful architecture. But after the conference ended, I seized my 36 free hours and set off to see the sights.
I’m teaching the second half of the African history survey this semester, which technically begins in 1800, but which I normally begin with a review of the age of exploration – a sort of “how did we get here” lesson to connect African History and the history of colonialism with what are probably more familiar narratives about European exploration to find new routes to the gold and spices of the East. Since I missed that day in class, I told students that I would see the sights themselves in Lisbon and report back. In many ways, this is where it started in the late 15th century – where Vasco da Gama set sail on his trip around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean, where Columbus visited on his way to the Americas, where Prince Henry the Navigator funded the development of new sailing technologies and seemingly far-fetched expeditions. The narratives we get of those histories are romantic. Only more recently have people raised questions about the appropriateness of celebrating Columbus Day. Most people could repeat to you that Columbus’s voyage was extraordinary because he traveled West in defiance of conventional wisdom of the time that said that the world was flat. They could not really tell you much about what happened once he arrived or what and who he found when he got there. They could tell you that he was looking for gold and spices. They probably couldn’t tell you anything about the threat posed by the encroaching Islamic Empire and the wealth it obtained through control over the Silk Road and Trans-Saharan trading routes. I was curious about whether anything was different in Portugal.
On the very first day that I arrived, I was already primed by my Airbnb host, who said that the old quarter of Belem was a sort of shrine to the explorers, built from the profits of colonialism without of a lot of thought about its negative consequences. Some of that is less obvious. The monks at Jeronimos Monastery, for example, provided assistance to seafarers passing through Lisbon. Vasco da Gama and his sailors famously spent the night and prayed in the monastery the night before setting off on their famous voyage around the southern tip of Africa and on to India. The building was completed with money obtained through a tax of trade from Africa and Asia – trade that Portugal increasingly controlled as “explorers” established new sea-based routes, allowing them access to foreign markets that had previously only be accessible through long-distance, land-based trade that was under the control of the Islamic Empire. In the process, they effectively reshaped global trade and enriched themselves.
Nearby the Tower of Belem protected the enclave from potential attack.
While these sites have been preserved as part of a national historical narrative, they sit near a huge monument that makes clear how that narrative is remembered and its significance in the national imaginary. The giant Monument to the Discoveries sits in between Jeronomos Monastery and Belem Tower, jutting out into the sea, towering over the people below, standing on top of a stone map set into the ground, marked by distinguished Portuguese discovery and conquest. Built in 1960, this monument reflects a final effort by the dictator Salazar to boost the confidence of the struggling country, which steadfastly refused to give up its empire until the mid-1970s (and then only through significant struggle on the part of African resistance fighters in armed conflict) despite widespread international condemnation. Read within this clearly political and imperialist context, one reads the symbolism of the monument in different ways. In turning the “discoverers” into larger-than-life heroes, Salazar makes a moral claim to Portugal’s right to imperialism – an experience and a culture that unites all parts of Portuguese society. On the monument itself, the explorers are aided by aristocrats and religious leaders, who literally push the explorers up the incline around the monument’s base, symbolizing the critical financial, moral, and political backing that made these voyages possible.
On the ground around the monument, a giant map marks the sites of Portuguese conquest, symbolically fueled by the winds, risking the dangers of the open ocean, and empowered by the gods of the natural world.
It’s hard not to feel a little taken aback at the explicit self-congratulatory celebration if one questions at all the narrative of “discovery” and imperialism. Today, in the aftermath of Portugal’s near-economic collapse, these kinds of statements about historical greatness feel desperate. In another time, we might easily fall into a sort of self-congratulatory critique. But very similar questions are being raised about history and memory in this country right now, particularly around monuments. As these public conversations and some of the excellent public writing by professional historians make clear, monuments often reflect attempts to enshrine particular interpretations of historical narrative and shape historical memory to suit political purposes and to support political claims to power. Particularly when one is as large as the Monument to the Discoveries, you’re kind of stuck with it. But how do we recontextualize it after that historical moment, as our understanding of power and the past changes? How do we address present inequalities and discrimination when monuments to the very people and processes who created the systems and structures of inequality sit in our cities and public squares?
I’m curious to learn more about how this process is unfolding in Portugal, particularly as people pour into the country from former colonies like Angola and Mozambique and the kleptocratic leadership of those countries use their wealth to buy stakes in important Portuguese telecommunications and financial firms. No one seemed to be talking about it and the permanent exhibits in spaces within the Jeronimos Monastery or the National Tile Museum don’t do much to complicate the narrative, but I likely missed a lot as a tourist who speaks no Portuguese. Some of the visiting artists are at least thinking through the relationship between Portugal and its sites of discovery, like the interesting tile work of Japanese artist Haru Ishii found in the National Tile Museum. And there’s certainly lots of engagement with the history of Moorish occupation in the city.
The connection to a Portuguese history of colonialism in Africa, however, is a little harder to find – in the winding streets of Mouraria, for example, where many Angolan and Mozambican residents live or in the tours of “African Lisbon” which take visitors through major sites of the city’s contemporary African community.
I walked away from the Monument of Discoveries, and Lisbon more broadly, struck by the incredibly beauty of the city and its connection to its history – I can’t wait to go back. But I was also reminded once again of how pervasive and insidious the narratives about “discovery” and “civilization” really are and how much we live unthinkingly in the shadow of imperialism and neocolonialism and relive its worst attributes in language, assumption, politics, and perception. That’s yet another reason why it’s important to learn to grapple with the complexities and contradictions of history rather than sit comfortably with the romanticized memories and monuments of our supposed “heroes”. People are complicated; so is the past. And isn’t there a saying about not putting someone on a pedestal unless you want to get them knocked off?