Looking back at Lisbon: resisting disappearance in the face of colonial nostalgia

BATUKO by street artists Ergo Bandits and Frederico Draw, made in 2019 for the Cultural Centre for Cape Verde in Lisbon. The photo was taken by the author on a Kodak Portra 160 35mm roll.

Incidental to her travel to Lisbon in July 2022 alongside others who attended the 2022 Law and Society Association’s annual meeting, Anamika Misra1 reflects upon the persistence of the Portuguese colonial legacy, approaching the visibility of this legacy in the streets of Lisbon.

TWAILR: Reflections #49/2023

Long have the kings of Lusu’s daring race

Resolv’d the limits of the deep to trace,

Beneath the morn to ride the furthest waves,

And pierce the farthest shore old Ocean laves.

Luís de Camões, The Lusiads (1572)

The ineluctable modality of ineluctable visuality

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

The statue of Luís de Camões rises tall in the neighbourhood of Chiado, Lisbon. Revered as the national poet of Portugal, his epic The Lusiads celebrates the colonial expeditions of Vasco Da Gama and Portuguese imperial glory. Written during the renaissance period, it immortalised a pivotal moment in the emergence of the ‘New World’. It was translated into different languages to be consumed by European audiences, all of whom were nurturing their own ideas and interests about the world that lay beyond the shores of Europe. As a work of intense patriotic fervour, Camões’ poem has maintained a mainstream presence in Portuguese consciousness, particularly due to its utilisation by the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar’s Estado Novo to inspire colonial nostalgia and nationalism when both were waning.

This short reflection is incidental to my travel to Lisbon in July alongside others who attended the 2022 Law and Society Association’s annual meeting. As a scholar oriented towards what silences are reproduced in historical narratives,2 I cannot unsee the inscription of the wealth accumulated through Portuguese colonialism and the slave trade in today’s Lisbon. In writing this piece I have tried to navigate the stories that Portugal wants to tell of itself and the stories it would rather not speak of. Colonial nostalgia seeps its way into Lisbon’s design and just as the potent imagery of overseas conquests is inescapable in The Lusiads, similarly inescapable are the afterlives of colonialism and slavery in Lisbon.

Reflecting on the Joyce phrase quoted above, Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests that visuality is not simply the visible, or even the social manifestations of the visible. In fact, he situates visuality in its early nineteenth-century context as a practice of imagination inscribed with power and authority of the visualiser. Joyce calling visuality ‘ineluctable’ holds true for Mirzoeff as the power and authority of visuality is always unavoidable and inevitable.  More succinctly understood for the purpose of this piece, visuality is a subjective exercise with the autonomy to demarcate what is visible and sayable. Thus, colonial nostalgia in Lisbon – which takes the form of monuments, tiled murals of crusaders in metro stations, and restaurants named after imperial companies – performs a visuality which reinforces notions of a glorious colonial past-present while simultaneously silencing and hiding the violent excesses of these endeavours.

Figure 1: Memorial to the Victims of the 1506 Massacre.

Such a subjectivity makes a public spectacle of commemorating the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ with an offensively gargantuan monument, while treating the memorial funded by the local Jewish community for the victims of the 1506 antisemitic pogrom as an inconspicuous fact. There are no curated travelogues which will direct you to this memorial, and few travel guides mention it. This is despite its location next to Lisbon’s oldest ginjinha joint – visited by Anthony Bourdain in Parts Unknown and now thronged by tourists making Instagram reels and TikToks.

I want to use Mirzoeff’s analysis of visuality and the ‘right to look’ to bring forth what is silenced and invisiblised in Lisbon’s architecture. By doing so I want to place the counter-visualisations I explore in this piece in conversation with how Luis Eslava presents both photography and international law as ‘techniques of enframing’. I have chosen three sites – Praça do Comércio, Rua do Poço dos Negros and its Madragoa district, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, because of how they figure as popular places of everyday leisure and entertainment in Lisbon’s public life.

They are places where people go to eat and drink, jog past, take selfies, and relax.  In contrasting the symbolic and epistemological violence of these monuments, and the exceptional violence they commemorate with their unexceptional surroundings I want to subvert our gaze which is preoccupied with seeing violence manifest only in the extraordinary situations of war, disproportionate policing, or economic crises. What happens when we reckon with the violence inscribed in our everyday environment? How might that recognition change our way of thinking about the structural problems in this world? What possibilities of liberation could such a re-understanding hold?

I am indebted to public historian Naky Gaglo, whose walking tour about Lisbon’s involvement in slavery and colonialism helped me see the afterlives of slavery inscribed in the built environment. I appreciate his insistence on seeing these world-making processes as not only isolated within the timeframe of the ‘past’ but how they continue to constitute the relationship in the ‘present-future’ between Europe and Africa, particularly Portugal and its African ex-colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, and Mozambique. He interpellates these sites of deprivation and violence by reiterating how enslaved Africans practiced living and community-making in these same places. I was left contemplating how simply publicising the record of violence could not be the endpoint, it was important to know that within this record laid practices of resistance and an unflinching commitment to live despite the foreclosing of the possibilities of life.

Figure 2: Capturing monuments in Lisbon.

The photos I have chosen to depict my three sites have been taken by me either on 35mm film or digitally through my phone camera. They are a mix of wide landscape scenes and closely cropped shots. These photos are not simply just a record, but an attempt to bring forth details within my chosen sites that may otherwise go amiss. In doing so I use the frame of my camera(s) and norms of photographic composition as tools to circumscribe my focus. In ‘enframing’ these specific snapshots, my aim is to convey the dissonance I felt moving through these spaces with the knowledge of what had happened there. As a popular tourist destination, Lisbon is highly photographed and tagged on social media, with both visitors and local governments investing time and money to take photographs that depict Lisbon as an aesthetically pleasing, vibrant tourist destination. In the aftermath of the downturn of the Portuguese economy and its austerity policies, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has become a vital contributor to the economy and a key source of employment. In May 2022 alone, more than 1.5 million tourists visited Portugal, with a significant proportion going to Lisbon. In Eslava’s words, this is an example of ‘how the promise of development can occur today at the local level.’ 

The Lisbon seen in my photos is not a different Lisbon from those depicted in the curated shots you will find on Instagram travel blogs or on the Portuguese Ministry of Travel and Tourism account. In many ways I have photographed the same places, but with vastly different intentions. The Lisbon that is seen in my photos is at the intersection of the quiet presence of international legal history as colonial history and the noisy eyerydayness of international law as a vehicle of commodification.

Emblematic of this intersection is the Praça do Comércio, currently a bustling public square, the largest in Lisbon, facing the Rio Tejo (River Tagus).

Figure 3: The bustling Praça do Comércio.

In the centre of the square is the statue of Jose I, King of Portugal during the period that the large-scale earthquake of 1755 occurred, which continues to define Lisbon’s character. The visualisation of the square, both in its original construction in the early 16th century and following the earthquake in 1755, demonstrates the centralisation of power and authority.  As it is located on the banks of the river Tagus, the square would act as a great reception hall for visitors, including royalty and the heads of state that would disembark at the Cais das Colunas pier. The 16th century iteration housed shipbuilding facilities, the administrative quarters of imperial companies such as the Casa Da India and Casa da Guinea, and other administrative buildings that managed the commerce between Portugal and its colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Today you can find the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Maritime Affairs, and the Court of Appeals flanking the square.

Like most spaces built for the administration of national activities, Praça do Comércio was central to the Portuguese slave trade. While Lagos operated as the point of disembarkment for all slaves entering Portugal, Lisbon became the centre for regulating and administrating the trade in kidnapped humans, under the watchful eyes of the royal authorities. In 1512, Manuel I decreed that all ships bringing a cargo of enslaved Africans would have to disembark in Lisbon, eventually making it the physical centre for the trade.

Figure 4: Cais das Colunas, likely amongst the first sights enslaved Africans arriving in Lisbon encountered.
Figure 5: The Pillory of Lisbon, flanked by the Lisbon city hall and the Court of Appeal.

For those enslaved and being shipped to Portugal on the caravelas, it is likely that the pillars of the Cais das Colunas would have been amongst the first sights they saw. Once the caravelas would dock at the river, we can speculate that some of the enslaved people would walk up the same steps as royalty and heads of state did, or where today people sit to enjoy the panoramic views across the river. They would be taken to the Praça do Comércio, most likely to an administrative building, to be counted and physically assessed. They would then be led to the Casa dos Escravos (house of slaves) prison nearby where they would be separated from their kin and organised for auction. These auctions would take place at the bustling slave-market adjacent to Pelourinho Velho (The Pillory of Lisbon).

Figure 6: Rua do Poço dos Negros is now lined by vintage clothing shops, coffee and tea shops, and Airbnb.

A short walk from the Pillory, which is near the Praça do Comércio, is the parish of Santa Catarina, established in the fourteenth century. It is part of the wider Bairro Alto district popular for its vibrant nightlife, the historic 28 tram route, and its narrow weaving pathways. Under one of these pathways lies a mass burial site of African slaves. Rua do Poço do Negros, literally translating to ‘street of the pit of blacks’, was established as a site for the mass burial of enslaved humans neglected by those who claimed property in them. In 1515, King Dom Manuel I ordered the opening of the burial ground to combat the health hazards caused by rotting African corpses abandoned in various places across the city.

While the mass burial pit was gone by the eighteenth century, the neighbourhood of Mocambo where the thoroughfare was and is still located became a place of black life in the face of such extreme duress. Mocambo was designated from the Kimbundu word (an indigenous language of Angola) for hiding place, and eventually became associated with quilombos (outlaw slave communities) in Brazil and most of the Portuguese Atlantic world.

The neighbourhood’s other streets are named after Jews, ship-builders, boilers, and fishermen, which indicates the labouring and cosmopolitan history of the neighbourhood. Mocambo was also widely known among its residents, especially freed and enslaved Africans, as a place with spiritual power – perhaps due to the embedded and communal memory of the dead Africans who were buried there. In fact, native African slave Jose Francisco Pereira buried several mandinga talismans at the crossroads of São Bento. These talismans were used to invoke the powers of the spirit world for purposes of safeguarding, healing, and divination. There exists no public record of memory for this sacred site for the African communities in Lisbon; nonetheless the area of São Bento is a thriving and diverse community of people from the African diaspora and new migrants from parts of South Asia.

Figure 7: Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the man it memorialises, Henry the Navigator, towering over Lisbon.

Unlike these last 2 sites, Padrão dos Descobrimentos is an explicit statement of Portuguese colonial nostalgia. Located in the district of Belém, popular for pastéis de nata and the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, it’s a towering monument to Henry ‘The Navigator’ and Vasco Da Gama amongst other ‘notable’ agents of Portuguese colonialism. Its construction followed a lengthy debate regarding what would be the best design to memorialise Prince Henry. Finally, it was Salazar’s intervention which solidified the vision of the monument. The fascist Portuguese leader chose a sculpture depicting a highly idealised vision of the men that were made heroes by their overseas expeditions during the so-called ‘Age of Discoveries’. At a time when European powers were taking fitful steps towards decolonisation, Salazar was clearly unwilling to confront the approaching demise of Portuguese colonial power. It was finally inaugurated in 1960. A year later Angola would begin its armed struggle for independence from Portugal, followed by Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.

Figure 8: The northern facade of the Monument allegorising the Pope’s two swords.

Architecturally, the monument conveys the characteristics visible in the public art and architecture of European right-wing dictatorships. The sword of Avis depicts force, but its positioning could be read to represent a cross, a reminder that the colonising mission was also a Christianising mission. Thus, the monument’s edifice can be seen as a literal depiction of the two swords, temporal and spiritual, held by the Pope.3  This notion is reiterated in the many figures: monks and clergy standing beside swordsmen and navigators. The lateral view of the monument is inspired by the front of the ship with Henry ‘the Navigator’ at its top, seemingly in charge of it and looking ahead – as if seeing new domains to be ‘discovered’. It is a perfect illustration of what Mirzoeff calls the ‘viewpoint of imperial visuality’. The plaza surrounding the monument is a compass rose within which is a medieval era map of the world, detailed with Portuguese caravelas and the years in which Portugal invaded and colonised territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Figure 9: Camoes with the text of his epic. This part of the epic details Da Gama’s fleet arriving at Calicut.

On the western side of the monument is Camões, holding a text referencing paragraph fourteen from the seventh section of The Lusiads. The design of the monument forces the viewers gaze upwards toward the figure of the prince, reinforcing his centrality to this entire structure and the specific visuality of Portuguese national history – recapitulating the past as present, and posited as timeless and enduring.

All three of these spaces, and many more encountered  through Gaglo’s walking tour, make it impossible to avoid the vision of a Portuguese national history premised on colonial nostalgia, even when it’s not as brash as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. Through disappearing from public eyes and therefore from the public consciousness the violence wrought by slavery and colonialism, it disappears the past-present experiences of African, Asian, Latin American diasporic communities and forecloses the futures that can be imagined. The desire to obfuscate is so strong that the Portuguese census does not ask questions regarding race or ethnicity, making it impossible to find statistical data on the degree of racial discrimination.

Figure 10 : ‘EU Flag’ by Iranian-American artists ICY and SOT. The European flag is made out of steel fence and barbed wire, the materials evoke the physical barriers that migrants face while trying to enter Europe.

The long durée of Portuguese colonial rule, a bit more than five centuries, and its recent end – the handover of Portugal’s last colony, Macau took place in 1999 – has made it historically and ontologically central to the present landscape of how race and racial inequality are understood. Enumerating various instances of racial violence, Joana Gorjão Henriques dispels the myth of a non-racist Portugal and exposes the vast extent of institutional racism in universities, schools, healthcare, and policing. 

As Mirzoeff notes, ‘to appear is to matter’, and Afro-descendent Portuguese are making their pasts and presents visible, as part of the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter. Naky Gaglo’s tour, Henrique’s UNESCO award winning book, and the tremendous effort of organisations such as FemAfro and INMUNE, amongst other Black activists, artists and educators striving to expose and eradicate racial inequality in Portugal, are for me exercises in counter-visuality. By resisting the institutional pressure of disappearance, exacerbated by the international and domestic rise of the far-right, they have insisted on their right to exist – and not solely through the liberal frames of international human rights law or domestic legislation on racial violence. 

Considering these structural inequalities gives sociologist Mariana Valverde’s comment of ‘starting from where we are’ on the second day of LSA 2022 a new meaning. Mariana’s comment was a reflection on the ongoing climate crisis and the Anthropocene, made just a few days after a wildfire ravaged across various districts of Portugal. Reframed by panellist Tasniem Anwar as an acknowledgement of the hidden labour of conference organising and infrastructure maintenance, it pushed those of us in the room to consider what was hidden from view.

But what if we further push that statement to include the structural inequalities obfuscated by the visual of a picturesque, diverse and vibrant city like Lisbon? It opens our eyes to the local realities which are being continuously shaped by the tension between national imaginations and international demands and its unpleasant reverberations. It makes apparent the impact of international debt entwined with local fiscal policies that hit the already socio-economically marginalised the hardest. We can then see the role that tourism plays in gentrifying entire neighbourhoods, generally inhabited by poorer migrants who are pushed further and further away from the centre of Lisbon to the outskirts. Over one in three properties in central Lisbon are AirBnB or other short-term/holiday lets, making Portugal the tenth-most important AirBnB market globally and driving rents to unsustainable heights. Thus, cities like Lisbon, which are at the forefront of ‘touristification’, have become conduits of transnational capitalism. As Eslava notes, the manifestation of international aspirations in national and local jurisdictions leads to an intensification of global inequalities, interrupted realities, and global dreams that are only half-way realised.

Returning to the intersection of international legal history as colonial history and of international law as a vehicle of commodification, we find ourselves at the intersection of a particular way of seeing both the world and Europe, and how Europe distinguishes itself from the world. So, the challenge becomes to usurp this visuality and cultivate a different modality of looking, what Ariella Azoulay refers to as a ‘disobedience to imperial shutters’. This disobedience demands developing a different grammar, because humans, as Wynter reminds us, are ‘words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire’.4

  1. I am currently a PhD candidate and Modern Law Review Scholar at Kent Law School working on a Wynterian analysis of the category of the human in international humanitarian law. I teach at Bristol Law School and have held teaching positions at Kent Law School and the Grotius Centre for International Law at Leiden University. I was a part of the Decolonise University of Kent collective until 2020.
  2. I am thinking here of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s formative work on the production of history, titled Silencing the Past. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press 2015, originally published 1995).
  3. I am borrowing this phrase from Francisco di Vitoria’s lectures regarding the relationship between the Crown and the Pope in colonising the Indigenous population of the Americas. For further understanding on this see : Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrence (eds), Vitoria: Political Writings (Cambridge University Press 1991), 90-94.
  4. The complete quote by Sylvia Wynter is “Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities. And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms.” "The Pope Must Have Been Drunk, the King of Castile a Madman: Culture as Actuality and the Caribbean Rethinking of Modernity." Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada in the Hood. (McGill-Queen's University Press 1995) 17–42, 35.