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  • Selma Saik

A Presidential Apology: Overdue or Political Point-scoring?


President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal suggested his country should offer a long-overdue apology for its role in the transatlantic slave trade. This marks the first time a Portuguese president has proposed such a gesture. The furore, amongst those who believe their history is being hijacked for political point-scoring, that followed shows how necessary such an apology was and how far we have yet to go.

Portugal became the first European nation involved in the slave trade yet has largely disregarded the significance of its role within it. In 1526, 26 years after a Portuguese nobleman Pedro Álvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal, the first shipload of African slaves landed in the Americas, establishing the Atlantic slave trade.

This trade became triangular when merchants began exporting goods to pre-colonial African states. This was in exchange for enslaved Africans, as well as other valuable items such as ivory, gold, and spices. It was then from Africa that European ships would advance to the colonies in the ‘New World’ (The Americas). Here, African people would be sold as slaves to work on plantations in exchange for other produce and resources.

Between 1540 and the 1860s, 12 million Africans were forcibly captured and brought to the Americas. Of these, 5.5 million were taken to Brazil (a Portuguese colony until 1822). This horrifying number accounts for 40% of all the slaves that were shipped to the New World.

Today, a sense of glory and pride for leading the world in the Age of Discovery is a narrative that plagues Portugal. However, some have been critical, questioning whether Portugal really has an extensive colonial legacy. A cause for this view is explained by Evalina Dias (President of Djass, a Lisbon-based association of Afro-descendants) who cited that people wrongly see slavery as 'not an invention of the Portuguese or Europeans' because it 'predates the Age of Exploration'.

Overturning this national identity of pride and glory is an essential part of Portugal’s fight against racism. The importance of this has been put forward by Dominique Day (head of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent) who said Portugal “continues to be defined by its colonial past, as well as enslavement, and the trade and trafficking of Africans.”

Some believe that Portugal’s acknowledgement of its role in the slave trade is singling it out amongst the other European countries who did at least the same, if not worse. Historian João Pedro Marques told Politico that the people who want a more open and brutal discussion on Portugal’s imperial legacy “want to perpetuate a particular vision, which up to a certain point, is a myth”. He went on to argue that Lisbon only participated in the slave trade to a limited extent because it was a trade that was primarily managed by merchants in Angola and Brazil. However, he fails to mention that those merchants were absolutely encouraged by the Portuguese crown. As a result, Portugal's involvement in the slave trade is not a myth and he is wrong to see it as such.

Whatever the intention statements like this are made with, it must be said that they serve to deflect responsibility from Portugal. They remove the obligation government should feel to teach their people of the “barbarity” of slavery. All of this is in a country where there is very little existing teaching of the horrors of slavery in the first place.

In Portugal, racism acts much like it does anywhere else in the world. It is embedded into long-standing social policy, manifested into grossly unequal wealth distribution, and shown through incarceration rates and police violence. Therefore, acknowledging Portugal’s history and role in the trade is simply a step towards reconciling its legacy.

Meanwhile, the relevance of this debate to our own country should not go unnoticed. This is particularly in the context of a newly crowned King and a recent Guardian study outlining how British monarchs have benefitted from the slave trade. Unlike President de Sousa, both the newly crowned King Charles and Prince William stopped short of a total apology. Instead, they expressed 'profound sorrow' over the horrors of slavery. This was made during a speech in Jamaica which is a former colonial entity that saw nearly one million slaves brought to work on British plantations against their will.

The pompous affair that was the coronation served as a brutal reminder of a “form of government that is linked to a painful past of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade” said Jamaica’s former attorney General. One can safely assume that Britain won’t be offering up an official apology for its own role in the slave trade any time soon, given its beneficiaries are still our heads of state.

Perhaps more worryingly for the European nations involved in the trade, specifically the British state, is that an apology could spur talks of reparations. For example, Jamaican lawmaker, Mike Henry, proposed a £7.6bn package in compensation. This would match the amount paid to the slave owners.

Much like in Portugal, discussion on the legacy of our own slave trade seems to dwindle into politicised talk of a nebulous cancel culture. Some believe it seeks to present Britain’s history unfavourably. Those taking this view would do well to realise that Europe’s history in the Americas was barbarous, brutal, and more importantly has brought consequences that continue to develop today.

President de Sousa’s decision to put in motion an apology is no doubt unprecedented and long overdue. This is especially true in the context of racial justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. For other European nations, this may have just opened a pandora’s box of accountability and reparations.

Image: Flickr/ Address by President Rebelo de Sousa


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May 16, 2023

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