A few weeks back I innocently posted a travel blog I had written (a while ago) on Portugal to 2 travel and expat pages on Facebook. What followed was a storm of anger, from both Portuguese and non-Portuguese, calling my article outrageous and an example of cancel culture. It ruptured into a discussion of perceived attempts to erase history, and the unfairness of the facts and the insight I had offered. My post was on fascist monuments hiding in plain sight in Lisbon, and mostly about the celebrated Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, a draw to so many Lisbon tourists.
In fairness, I had written the blog as context that is so missing on many travel websites on Lisbon, part of an issue of a lack of understanding Portuguese history. In the blog, I wrote:
“The original monument was designed in 1939 by Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo, and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, for the Portuguese World Exhibition. As propaganda, it represented a romanticized concept of 15th and 16th century Portuguese exploration. A stone version was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry.”
So, look at the monument with a clear head, compare it to similar pieces designed under fascist regimes in Italy or Spain in the same timeframe, and the similarities in style are clear. The Estado Novo was a brilliant propaganda machine, and the violent reaction to my blog shows that more than 40 years after the death of António Salazar, the warped myths it churned out about Portuguese history still not only cloud the perception of some Portuguese, but now cloud the minds of some foreigners who want to see Portugal as something it is not.
I say this because I too was a victim of this fog of memory. As a kid, raised in the US, I discovered a very different Portugal in the 1980s. Poor, backwards, and wonderful – Portugal was just finding the ground beneath its new republic- and all the glorious noise and mess that that brought.
I read older books of Portuguese history, explored castles and towns, and looked in wonder at the Monument to the Discoveries. Reading Camões and Pessoa, I came to see what Saudade was: Portugal has been a great nation – it had a footprint on four continents, and I could only look up at statues of Da Gama, Albuquerque and Dias and feel like a true failure. Portuguese forts, churches, and ideas still stood strong all over the world. But to a drive to Lisbon on the crappy EN1 took 5 hours in 1984 from Coimbra. The past was far from dead – it surrounded us, and put the modern mediocrity we lived in, into context. We had failed, we had been great and then we lost it all. I wanted to return to a place in time that had never been.
Nothing symbolizes that lost greatness better than the Monument to the Discoveries. There they were, our greatest and bravest – hand in hand, with banners and a padrão supporting Infante Dom Henrique as he launches a caravela.
I don’t think I figured out the truth until I was in my 40s, and I have my wife to thank – We were taking our kids to a place that I loved in Coimbra, Portugal dos Pequenos, and we were exploring the 1960s “Overseas Portugal” section. In the Brazilian pavilion, a film was on loop, showing the glorious arrival of the Portuguese to Brazil in 1500.
And she pointed out what came next: Conquest, mass slavery, and death. I got it.
To understand the problem you need to go back to 1939 to the Portuguese World Exhibition. My family exhibited their olive oils there. It was like a world’s fair - it was grand, modern - and all in the shadow of the tower of Belem. It was designed to send a message: one mirroring what would be called Luso-Tropicalism. This eugenics-one-off was cooked up by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre to celebrate the unique character of Portuguese imperialism, praising the Portuguese as better colonizers than other nations.
Portugal was an enlightened Christian nation, that brought science, faith and light to a pagan world. This crap would be used to justify Portugal’s refusing to decolonize the 1950s, and the horrific colonial war of the 1960s and 70s that cost so many lives. My uncle and father fought in that war.
Luso-Tropicalism was racism, and it was wrong. But for 2 generations, Portuguese were brought up with twisted myths – and even today the roots are hard to pull up.
Today, the legacy of the Estado Novo litters Portugal like sirens, luring young Portuguese into the rocks of false dreams. People who are moving to Portugal seem, in some cases, not to want to look below the surface at times. Some don’t want to acknowledge the Salazar regime was nuanced - but not in any way good for Portugal. Dissent was squashed, people were silenced and killed, education was minimal, elections were rigged – and Portugal stagnated.
In the recent film Fatima, these old falsehoods rise up as we see the First Republic cast as the villain, almost a set up for “why we needed” Salazar.
But let me be clear, I would never advocate removing or destroying any of this legacy. We need to add context. Today's Portugal is a wonderful place: Multi-ethnic, diverse, and inclusive. Strides have been made to repair relationships with former colonies, come to terms with the violence against Portuguese Jews, and to help all Portuguese, not just the rich ones. But there needs to be a place, or memorial to slavery, and an acknowledgment of the millions of Africans taken and forced into slavery. There needs to be context at the Padrão - that was put up by fascist regime, with a dark agenda. It may be wonderful today, but that was not the way it began.
There is no need to hide the past, we need to talk about what really happened. And that is no detriment to the Portuguese of the past. I would rather see Vasco da Gama as a man with courage and guile – than some cold and empty statue held up as a 2 dimensional cartoon hero. And, as far right voices start to rise in today’s Portugal, it is not a good idea to start to drink Salazar’s musty old Cool Aid. If we just offer the truth and the context, then we move beyond racism, colonialism, and fascism – and are true to who we are today.
So, YES, the Monument to the Discoveries is a big fat fascist monument- put up by a government bent on propping up a colonial empire. But that is not what Portugal is today, and we can feel very good about that. So don’t erase it, but let folks know the truth. This is not a fight for who we were, or who we think we were, but for who we want to be. And to get there we have to own what happened, along with slavery, colonialism, wars, and conquest. You can’t have the good, without coming to terms with the bad.
And you know who got all this – Pessoa. You just have to break down the Mensagem with his own metaphysical lenses to see a deeper meaning that we, as Portuguese, cannot grow or evolve until we stop worshiping a past that just never happened. He put Parece near the end of his amazing poem, for it gives such clear context on what we can be:
Senhor, a noite veio e a alma é vil. Tanta foi a tormenta e a vontade! Restam-nos hoje, no silêncio hostil, O mar universal e a saudade. Mas a chama, que a vida em nós criou, Se ainda há vida ainda não é finda. O frio morto em cinzas a ocultou: A mão do vento pode ergue-la ainda. Dá o sopro, a aragem, – ou desgraça ou ânsia - Com que a chama do esforço se remoça, E outra vez conquistemos a Distância - Do mar ou outra, mas que seja nossa!
Lord, the night has come and the soul is vile.
So much was the storm and the desire!
What is left us today, in hostile silence;
A universal sea and longing.
But the flame, which life has stoked in us all,
If there is still life it is not yet over.
Though cold dead ashes hide it:
The touch of the wind can reignite it still.
It takes breath, the breeze, - or disgrace or desire –
With which the flame of enterprise can be lifted,
And again we will conquer the Distance –
Be it of the sea, or some another, but let it be ours!