Series on Memory, History and Power: Portugal – The return of the colonial war


Praça do Império, Lisbon, 2021 PHOTO/Olivia Borges

Early this year, discussions around Portugal’s colonial past and its legacies reappeared in the country, restored by three episodes. The first was related to Lisbon City Council’s proposal to renovate the gardens of Praça do Império. The square, situated in west of Lisbon, was inaugurated in 1940, during the Portuguese World Exhibition. The event, organized by the Estado Novo dictatorship, was a celebration of both Portuguese nationality and its colonial empire. In the 1960s, when Salazar’s regime pursued colonial wars in Africa, flowers were introduced to the gardens of Praça do Império. The floral arrangements were designed as coats of arms representing the capitols of each district of the country and the ‘overseas provinces’ – a name that from the 1950s onwards would be used as an effort to internationally conceal the fact that Portuguese colonialism had ‘colonies’. The fact that the renovation proposed by the Lisbon City Council does not include the restoration of the coats of arms was enough for some to raise their voices against what would be an attempt to ‘erase History’, mobilising sectors from the right and the far-right and even two former presidents, António Ramalho Eanes and Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

The second episode, which also occurred last February, happened after the death by Covid-19 of Marcelino da Mata, a military leader who became renowned during the colonial war for commanding an extremely aggressive Portuguese squad of Africans soldiers at Guinea. As in other colonial wars (such as the French in Algeria), Portugal instituted, especially in the final years of the conflict, a process of Africanization of the war, integrating thousands of black men into its forces. None were as distinguished as Marcelino da Mata, known for his particular aggressiveness, he led various actions against civilian populations and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), including secret operations condemned at the time by the United Nations in neighbouring countries, such as Guinea-Conakry and Senegal.

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