Recasting Symbols, Healing Portuguese Post-Colonial Memories

Recasting Symbols, Healing Portuguese Post-Colonial Memories

João Figueiredo

Consider the following conundrum: while the Portuguese left has been reasonably effective in promoting the deconstruction of old fascist or corporatist representations of colonial aggression as legitimate imperial expansion or self-defense; it failed miserably in upholding the kind of historical consciousness needed to successfully accommodate former subjects of these violent acts. Can a greater hospitality be promoted, without imperiling or belittling past progressive victories? I will present a couple of examples to flesh out this puzzle, explaining how it presents itself to contemporary anti-racism activists intent on promoting decolonial agendas in Portugal. These cases will allow me to consider the emancipatory limits of a dialectical understanding of popular representations of the colonial past, while commenting on the merits of alternative historiographical methods.

Instead of suggesting a rewriting or correction of the historical narratives under consideration, I will take stock of a different metaphor. Following Catherine Malabou’s reworking of the concept of ‘plasticity’ (2010: 65-74), I will show how our collective historical consciousness is becoming increasingly sclerotic or aplastic. Seen from this angle, current mainstream representations of Portuguese colonial past cannot be said to be totally wrong or ill-intentioned, but destitute of a plastic capacity for metamorphosing into more inclusive narratives. Augmenting this attribute can be easily defended as a completely positive decolonial undertaking, a kind of healing or rejuvenation of our collective historical imaginary.

The main case study I wish to address is the rebranding of the armored vehicles used by the Portuguese Army during the last years of the War of Liberation of three former African colonies. In an educational book for teenagers, recently published by the Official Press of the Portuguese State, these vehicles are non-ironically relabeled “freedom tanks”, because of the role they played in the Carnation Revolution of 1974. It needs to be stressed that these are the same armored personnel carriers (APCs) which were responsible for prolonging the colonial war, and were one of the main symbols of Portuguese late colonial oppression. Officially designated ‘Bravia Chaimite’, the APCs existed in several models or variants, and were deployed in the war theatres of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau from 1967 up until 1974.

While ‘Bravia’ plainly stands for the manufacturer of the armored vehicles, Bravia S.A.R.L. a Luso-Brazilian firm operating in Portugal since 1964, the second half of their name needs further clarification, in order to expose an additional layer of historical irony. The ‘chaimites’ were the last of a series of vehicles designed and manufactured by Bravia, with the Portuguese colonial ‘counter-insurgency’ operations in mind. Every single one of their predecessors had either kitsch animal names or undescriptive designations, such as ‘Bravia Leopard’, ‘Bravia Elephant’, ‘Bravia Tiger’ or ‘Bravia Commando’. The ‘Bravia Chaimite’ was a different case.

The toponym Chaimite designated, until the last decades of the 19th century, a sacred fortified Ngumi village, part of the independent Gaza Empire (1824-1895) (Hughes, 2008: 22-74). When Bravia technocrats picked this name for their state-of-the-art APC they did not intend to celebrate this once proud African State, but to evoke the Portuguese victory over the emperor who ruled it: Ngungunyane, the ‘Lion of Gaza’.

The episode of the ‘capture’ of Ngungunyane by wayward Portuguese cavalry officer Mouzinho de Albuquerque is at the center of a constellation of densely historicized events. Taken together, these are often mobilized by historians and propagandists to signify the threshold of a new ‘Era’, when Portugal finally began its hasty and violent shift towards ‘modern’ forms of colonization and white settlement in Africa. This historical cycle is usually divided into two phases, always adopting the point of view of the Portuguese elites: a first one of escalating frustration and humiliation; a second one of differed retribution, and brutal reaffirmation.

Starting with the international incidents leading to the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, and culminating in the 1890 British Ultimatum to Portugal, the first period is represented as one of ‘antithetical’ degeneration, when the old Portuguese empire seemed to be quickly unraveling. Tellingly, one of our national symbols, the Portuguese anthem, was composed during this period. The second phase symbolically starts at Chaimite, when Mouzinho de Albuquerque, in disobedience to his superior and after committing a number of war crimes, imprisons Ngungunyane and sends him to his perpetual exile in the Azores.

In dialectical terms, Chaimite is represented as ‘synthesis’ that relaunches the empire. This is the symbolic wellspring Bravia technocrats and lusotropicalist propagandists wished to tap, capitalizing on the success of a popular Portuguese cinema production: Jorge Brum’s colonial epic Chaimite – A queda do império Vatua (1953). History didn’t unfold as the Estado Novo dictatorship planned, and after more than a decade of agonizing counter-insurgency operations, the Carnation Revolution was the unpredictable outcome of the widespread militarization of Portuguese society.

Despite this rupture, the teleological evolution of the representations of our collective colonial past proceeded: the ‘Bravia chaimites’ did contribute to a new ‘synthesis’, albeit a left-wing pro-democratic one. Rebranding them as “freedom tanks” can thus be understood as a final step in a long historiographic tradition of understanding History as a dialectical process, discarding the need to fully preserve the memory of past sublated ‘theses’ or ‘antitheses’. The same process assured that the old G-3 rifles, the cause of innumerable deaths and countless suffering, once decorated with a red carnation – the emblematic sign of Portuguese revolutionary ‘synthesis’ – became a symbol of peace and progress.

This linear representation of our colonial past as one of continuous and progressive overcoming of pathologic imperial and militaristic tendencies is undoubtedly appealing, offering a hopeful vision and an affective rallying call for white progressive democrats. Nevertheless, as each previous step of the dialectic is partially repressed and forgotten, the old subjects and perpetrators of imperial violence are left with an uncanny feeling of being ‘unrepresentable’. This denial of historicity causes suffering, burdening both war veterans and young Afro-descendants with an additional layer of trauma.

When a short manifesto was published last 17 July 2016, four signatories proposed a decolonial agenda that has ever since been pursued by a number of anti-racism, pro-migration and Afro-descendent organizations. The concrete measures demanded ranged from the demilitarization of the Portuguese police, to the creation of diversity quotas and the rewriting of racist passages in high school textbooks. Portugal was characterized in this manifesto as a “country whose national anthem and flag celebrate the conquest and victory over our ancestors”. Unsurprisingly, this acknowledgement was not followed by the proposal of concrete measures addressing these problematic symbols. No new national anthem was wished-for.

This takes us back to the conundrum I began this article with. Some of the symbols causing harm to our veterans, and undermining an atmosphere of hospitality to our fellow Afro-descendant citizens and African, Asian or South-American migrants are deemed untouchable because they are the last iterations of a long dialectical line of representations of our collective past. A G-3 rifle with a red carnation on its muzzle; a “freedom tank” toppling with revolutionaries; the national anthem around which the Portuguese republicans rallied against the late-Victorian British Empire. Every single one of these representations signifies both white freedom and liberal progress – and as such are officially upheld – and the oppression of countless black Africans and other colored subjects of the Empire.

Since discarding these symbols is both an unpopular and unpractical plan, I suggest that the best way to resolve this puzzle is to develop historiographical tactics that sidestep dialectics altogether. This can be done by adopting a ‘plastic’ metaphor as a “motor scheme” (Malabou, 2010: 13), abandoning traditional academic post-colonial epistemologies based in ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ metaphors, in favor of methodological approaches inspired by the accretion and molding technics of the plastic arts.

Considering the case at hand (1), the work of Mozambican filmmaker Yara Costa Pereira can be pointed as a good example of this approach. Still a work in progress, her Os Desterrados proposes a narrative about the capture of Ngungunyane which emphasizes the connected history of the descendants of the Gaza Emperor, the Portuguese King D. Carlos I, and Mouzinho de Albuquerque. Yara Pereira manages to interweave these narratives horizontally, effectively sidestepping the Portuguese tendency to present recent post-revolutionary events as the ‘end of History’ – without ever being confrontational.

One historical irony contributes to this feat: Ngungunyane’s heir lives in Portugal, and at the time of the interview had never even been to Mozambique, while the descendant of D. Carlos I whom Yara Pereira portrays is a Mozambican hunter. This surprising shift provides the basis for a narrative that molds in new directions the previous historical representations of the tragic events which took place at Chaimite in 1895, using wonder and artifice to turn sclerotic readings of old nationalistic symbols into lively and welcoming tales of interconnectedness and belonging. If academic historiography can follow this lead, the denial of historicity afflicting both our veterans and our Afro-descendent fellow citizens and migrants can be finally overcome, in a truly positive and healing fashion.

Note and References:
(1) Similar examples can be discussed if the focus is on traumatic war memories.

Hughes, David McDermott (2008) From Enslavement to Environmentalism – Politics on a Southern African Frontier, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Malabou, Catherine (2010) Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing – Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, New York: Columbia University Press.


João Figueiredo is a postdoctoral research collaborator in the Centre for 20th Century Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Coimbra. His doctoral research focused on the political manipulation of witchcraft accusations in the Portuguese colony of Angola in the 19th century. His current research interests include the history of lusophone anthropology, symmetrical and historical-anthropological readings of Portuguese colonial rule, and decolonial critiques of these imperial legacies.