I did not know what I was in for when I traveled to Portugal for 10 days! Seeing black travelers posting flicks on Instagram and watching fellow travel snap chatters covering Lisbon, I assumed that Portugal was diverse. Social media deceived me, and it hit me hard real quick!
Until I reached Lisbon, I found myself being the only black person. If I did see a black person, it was usually a random citizen going about his business. Considering Lisbon was the last city I visited, I quickly discovered Portugal’s homogeneity. This made me go on some Google investigations. The first thing I discovered was that the current Portuguese population is actually one of the most homogenous in Europe. The minority population includes less than 100,000 citizens of black/African descent who immigrated to the mainland during decolonization from areas such as Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and Cape Verde seeking a better economic life. Considering the country's population is 10.3 million, blacks only make up about 0.9% of the total population. No wonder it was hard to spot my people!
Although I saw some diversity in Lisbon, it was by no means – large! Whether it was African Brazilians working low wage jobs in stores, groups of Africans going about their business or dark skinned individuals driving the trams, I was left pondering deeply about Portugal’s colonization history.
I was fully aware that Portugal was a huge colonizer at some point. However, I did not realize its extent until revisiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the United States, where I saw the statistic that Portugal had enslaved nearly 6 million people, which is about nearly double the people enslaved by Britain. Although I am not excusing the British for what they did, we have somehow forgotten about Portugal's role in this.
As a person who is passionate about colonization history and actually focused on this specialization area in college, Lisbon intrigued me. Amidst the beauty of cobblestone, meandering streets and orange rooftops was this hidden history built on the blood of slaves. During the modern slave trade off the coast of West Africa (especially during the Middle Passage), Lisbon became the center of Portuguese slavery. Between 1440 and1640, Portuguese slave owners essentially monopolized the exportation of African slaves.
Wealthy Portuguese families and traders purchased slaves to work in their homes and docks. However, when you visit Portugal, there is arguably no obvious evidence that such actions ever occurred, although it’s literally right in front of your eyes. For example, when you see all of the churches decked out in gold, you can't help but to think about whom most likely built those churches. African slaves. Where do you think the gold came from? The African Gold Coast and even Brazil! Have you ever heard of the Brazilian Gold Rush?
I just learned during that time, more than 400,000 Portuguese and half a million African slaves came to the gold region in Brazil to mine. Many people abandoned the sugar plantations and towns in the northeast coast to go to the gold region. 850 tons of gold were sent to Portugal in the 18th century and were used to adorn churches and other places! The closest acknowledgement of Portugal's colonization past is this enormous erected statue in Belem, Lisbon called Padrao dos Descobrimentos, which translates to "Monument to the Discoveries." Located along the Tagus River where ships departed to explore, trade, and let's not forget colonize India and Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese “Age of Discoveries” during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The biggest monument represents a sailing ship with statues on both sides. The main statue is Prince Henry the Navigator leading 33 figures on both sides of the monument, depicting the history of the Discoveries. On the front of the monument, there is a huge sword. Let's note there is no depiction of the slaves that these celebrated explorers exported! Although I enjoyed the beauty of the Portugal, I left with feelings of anger, frustration, and puzzlement about Portugal's deliberate choice to omit its history of slavery and to not own its largest role during the "Age of Exploration," aka the "Age of Colonization."