Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘It’s deeper than slavery’: Lisbon street project reclaims Portugal’s unseen black history

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It takes just a short stroll around Lisbon’s Sâo Domingos church to get a sense of its centuries-long history; a monument bearing the Star of David commemorates the thousands of Jews killed by a mob in 1506, while the church’s scorched pillars hint at the 1959 fire that ravaged its interior, laying waste its gilded woodcarvings.

What has long remained hidden from view, however, is the church’s deep connection to the city’s African population, as the seat of a 16th-century black religious brotherhood.

Since the start of the year, the Batoto Yetu association, a Swahili name meaning “our children”, has been working to change this, installing a series of 20 plaques across Lisbon that aim to reclaim the city’s African history.

“This is Portuguese history,” said Djuzé Neves of Batoto Yetu, as he pointed to the small, ivory-coloured plaque near the church that tells of the black brotherhood and its efforts to advance the rights of black people in Lisbon. “This is history that has been erased, silenced, ignored and whitewashed.”

Believed to be one of the first projects of its kind in Europe, the plaques offer a glimpse into the mark left by a community whose presence in the city stretches back centuries.

A plaque in the city’s fashionable Cais do Sodré neighbourhood. Photograph: Maria Abranches/The Observer

“It’s deeper than just a focus on slavery,” said Neves. The plaques cover about 500 years of history, offering a tangible record of a community that included enslaved and free people. Some were pioneering doctors and journalists, while others had technical skills useful in the local shipbuilding industry. Others kept the city going with door-to-door sales of everything from food to coal.

In Terreiro do Paço, today a tourist-filled plaza facing the city’s harbour, a plaque marks the place where many enslaved Africans first set foot in the city.

It’s a starting point that speaks to the singular challenges that the community faced, according to historian Isabel Castro Henriques, who was a consultant on the project. “These men, women and children came stripped of everything, treated as merchandise and were dehumanised constantly and continuously,” she said. Despite all of this, they soon became part of the city’s rich fabric, whether through work, the Catholic church or participation in cultural events.

At the Terreiro do Pelourinho Velho, or Old Pillory Square, a plaque tells how it was once home to a 16th-century marketplace where enslaved people were sold, while another in the trendy Cais do Sodré neighbourhood notes that as much as 10% of the city’s population was enslaved in the mid-1500s.

In the central square of Rossio, tourists mill around a plaque that marks the spot as a longstanding meeting place for people of African descent, who would congregate in the plaza to sell their wares and skills.

For Batoto Yetu, a cultural organisation focused on youth, the project was partly aimed at fostering a better sense of belonging among Lisbon’s sizeable population of African descent. “The idea is to show that we are not just here because my parents migrated from Santiago, Cape Verde. We are here because this is our place, we were here,” said Neves. “And to show that we didn’t come as empty avatars: we brought knowledge.”

Djuzé Neves has more ideas for the future. Photograph: Maria Abranches/The Observer

After years of offering tours that delved into this history, association members began brainstorming about how to reach more people. They decided on a citywide installation of plaques, allowing them to directly challenge how Portuguese history – including colonialism and slavery – had remembered centuries of black lives in the city. “We didn’t learn anything about any of this in school,” said Neves.

They began pitching the idea in 2018. City officials soon signed up, helping them with some of the funding. As Batoto Yetu sketched out plans for 40 plaques – later whittled down to 20 due to costs – the pandemic took hold and elections ushered in a new mayor. As delays began to set in, the cost of the project grew, forcing the association to seek donations.

Six years after Batoto Yetu launched the idea, it has finally become a reality. “Shouldn’t we have got more help?” Neves said. “We don’t have power, we don’t have money, we don’t have the museums, resources, historians – this is not just something for Africans, this is something for everyone. This is Portuguese history.”

The project is coming to fruition as Portugal grapples with how best to confront its colonial and slave-trading past. Last month, the country’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, suggested Portugal should “pay the costs” for slavery and other colonial-era crimes, a suggestion swiftly dismissed by the country’s new centre-right coalition government.

For Henriques, the debate shows why the time is right for projects such as the plaques. “History is today giving a voice to black people, to Africans,” she said, describing it as a powerful tool to “help dispel the myths and prejudices that marked and continue to mark Portuguese society”.

With just one plaque left to install, Neves is already dreaming up other ways to make the city’s long-overlooked histories more accessible. “This is just a small contribution,” he said. “Now we need bigger goals. We need to think about concrete stuff, such as a museum or schoolbooks.”

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