Portuguese American Journal

As you make your bed, so shall you lie in it

By John Howard Wolf

— Not a hard-and-fast rule, but worth repeating in this particular case study of Portugal. There is another proverb that reads thus: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. As I said in Part I of this study, it is absolutely necessary to become familiar with the past in order to be better able to deal with the present situation, a very serious crisis. We need to know the origins. But this history is not known by the majority of Portuguese, at least in a full, fair and complete way. If we use a coin as an analogy, then we have not been equally exposed to both sides.

How histories are written

No one country’s history is entirely clean; there is always a corresponding dark side, even with skeletons hidden away in the closet. Certain events have been sanitized, censored, for various reasons, such as vested interests. Certain groups, it seems, are only interested in dominance, power and control. Certain aspects of the national life are omitted because they are not dignifying, or because they are seen to be unworthy and denigrating to the external image and reputation of the country. Yes, to one’s pride.

Many countries, not only Portugal, simply cannot face many aspects of truth about themselves, and so they conceal them. Those who attempt to shine light in the shadows, even in a patriotic effort, are themselves often persecuted, punished, and banished, and made into dissidents and enemies of the State. So, how is it possible to touch on taboos and rigid beliefs?  It must be remembered, histories are written by the rulers and the victors, the losers and victims are seldom represented in the tale. This will become evident in the following accounts.

The role of the discoveries

Portugal is most well-known, world-famous, for its Discoveries of almost all the continents of the world, which constituted its empire, later called colonies. In the past, among the reasons given in most school books were to take the Gospel to indigent and savage peoples, and to convert them. That is half the story. Very little attention has been given to what was the parallel search for imagined untold wealth, and the wish to dominate the lucrative spice trade.

Even less attention has been given to the major role of Portugal in the slave trade, to the subjugation of the native populations, to the suppression of their customs and language, almost to their extinction, almost a case of a holocaust for Muslims in Goa. Indigenous industry and trade was suppressed or taken over, and the Portuguese did not themselves develop sustainable infrastructures with an eye to the future.

The Church and the Inquisition

The riches from the Descobrimentos built many beautiful churches...

The Church was a major player on the continent and in the colonies, and left innumerable monuments and believers. Yes, it worked hand-in-hand with the Holy Office. The Inquisition, however, was established to eliminate “unbelievers,” that is, those who would not become devout Catholics. Even those who were forcibly converted against their will, would later be rounded up and punished or burnt, and accused of reverting to their former faith. Little of this is taught in the schools. With few exceptions, this Church could be considered, in retrospect, intolerant and single-minded, convinced, however, that it was doing the right thing.

New Christians, as they were called, those converted, were never to be free and full citizens. Jews, and those with Jewish ancestors, and the Muslims were, for the most part, expelled from Portugal, thus removing them from the national life, workers and professionals alike, on which the country had depended, from finance and science to agriculture.

In the XVI century, when “protesters” in Europe, and also in Portugal, objected to abuses in the Catholic Church, these nascent-Protestants were roughly prevented from making their voice heard in Portugal. This, up to the present time, has left a negative imprint, as I will show. It is perhaps necessary to state here that the Protestants such as Luther and Erasmus had been devout Catholics.

The origins of Portugal

The country was purified, as it were, to become a nation, and then unified following the expulsion of all of these “foreign” elements. That is, the country was partly built on exclusion, orthodoxy, subjugation, intolerance, a certain racial prejudice, and the maintenance of age-old obedience and ignorance. The common man, rarely respected, protected or educated was excluded from the nation-building team, which was controlled by an elite often based in birth, military support and service to the current ruler — rarely on personal merit.

Portugal survived in grand part through the importation of exploited colonial wealth and labor, causing certain abhorrence toward physical labor at home, under systems that were often feudal in nature. Many basic materials, including cereals, and some other food stuffs, at all times had to be imported.

Today in the shadow of yesterday

Unwise it would be on my part to make additional sweeping generalizations about Portugal, while at the same time realizing that I cannot avoid doing just that, and in the process of inclusion or exclusion someone will feel that justice has not been done to the country. That is the risk that is being taken. So be it!

Very few details of Portugal’s Discoveries are remembered today, except in cut-and-dry repetitive clichés.  Even in something as banal as culinária, only rarely does a sarapatel or a jindungo appear on a menu. Few are the Portuguese visitors, also, to the shops in the emblematic Martin Moniz area of Lisboa where there exists a veritable China/African/Indian Town, and living examples of where the Discoveries had gone.

Rua do Bemformoso in the Martin Moniz area of Lisbon, a neighborhood heavily populated by people originally from the former Portuguese colonies.

When confronted today with some of these and other revelations, many react with anger and hostility, repulsion and disbelief.

The Portuguese-Americans readers of this account will be aware that from living in the United States numerous studies are continuously published that do not hide from view aspects of the US sometimes shameful past: two such recent books are: Regeneration Through Violence (violence and its major role in the early years of the country); and Inhuman Bondage (a devastating account of slavery from governance to the corresponding life in the streets). All countries have to “bite the bullet” at one time or another, and in another metaphor, have to “face the music.”

A dynamic Commonwealth was created by the British from among their former imperial colonies, where obvious lasting bonds have been established in sports, art and literature, business, and even politics. On the contrary, Portugal’s PALOPS organization, some fabricated ONG’s [Non-Governmental Organizations], and the Acordo Ortográfico [Orthographic Agreement] are weak attempts at commonality and friendship, when a comparison is made with the British.

The Portuguese attempts were created tardily, perhaps, too late. In the concrete case of Mozambique, we now know it would prefer to cultivate the English language and bonds to the British Commonwealth. In economic development almost all of the former Portuguese colonies, now independent nations, are being heavily invested in by almost every other country than Portugal — China, United States, Spain, and others. Once again, Portugal “missed the boat.”

It is nothing less than shocking, if not tragically sad, that the Portuguese people (not a race, I should add), a rich and diverse ethnical mixture since its beginning, seem not to be proud of this like, for example, the Mexicans, who call the national proto-type “mestizo”, in pride.

After the 25th of April many so-called retornados did just that, as passport-possessing citizens, and came to the metropolis from the colonies where, even today, they still complain about how poorly they were received. Meanwhile, a strange turn of events has occurred – where at one time Portugal conquered and exploited; now many Portuguese are moving from the continent to the former colonies, where employment prospects are better. And in the latest turn of events, those former colonies, now independent countries and developing rapidly begin to exploit continental Portugal itself, with Angola in the lead, also Brazil, and little Timor offering to alleviate Portugal’s debt, sitting as it is on immense oil reserves since its independence. Yet, activists in Goa are now calling for the Fundação Oriente and the Instituto Camões to leave what is now an Indian State.

The 25th of April, suddenly opened the doors to Democracy and many freedoms for which there had been little or no preparation. While great progress has been made since then, many are still waiting for promises to be fulfilled, most notably just now, employment. Most of the promises are expressed in the Constitutions and in other codices and laws, but are slow in being implemented, and the men in the street are coming to the end of their patience.

This often leads them to surmise that certain “personalities” with connections and key professions are still privileged, constitute a ruling hierarchy that is not fully subjected to Law, and that they, the common people, are still treated as commodities, and made essentially to carry the burden of the current oppressive “debt” and “deficit.” These may be considered exaggerations, but people are now free to have their perceptions, and now, since the 25th of April, do express themselves.

That was an enormous freedom gained, but if only to say that they are discontented with their gains as the recent crisis is eating away at its base, a crisis that many believe is not created exclusively by the global situation, but largely from internal mismanagement, favoritism, and “exceptions.” What are called direitos adquiridos (acquired rights), such as a retirement pension, health care, after a life of work, are just now being cut back and causing much personal hardship.

If over many centuries the average man was basically ignored, controlled and directed, then it is not difficult to understand why still today there is a high degree of illiteracy. Illiteracy today is not of the old type, regarding the now old-timers, who had to go to work even before finishing Primary School. No, now it is a functional illiteracy, of those who can read and write, but who cannot understand, reason, follow simple instructions, nor learn with ease.

There is also a lack of curiosity to want to learn more, the persistence of old-time obedience and imitation lack of initiative, a deep-set ignorance of Politics as philosophy or ideology, instead simply as party. This is understandable when politics as such never existed, and there was only the party of the government.

Sports continues to be a modern-day “bread and circus” tranquilizer. If often the present-day governments and other public figures give a poor example of honesty to the average citizen, then they themselves do not feel encouraged to be any better or different. And then there is envy, brought up in the early days by Camões in his epic Lusíadas.

The Catholic Church has been basically the only religion supported and permitted to have a large influence on the national life. That, in itself, has great implications. Now, certain other religions are basically “tolerated,” sometimes not very enthusiastically. The constraints created by the Inquisition, also made Portugal into a kind of invincible fortress. The ideas and thinking presented by both Protestantism (in the XVI Century) and the French Enlightenment (in the XVIII Century) were not allowed to penetrate these barriers. Ideas of independent-thinking and belief, of personal choice, of liberty-equality and fraternity, relating even to dreams and imagination, were neither stimulated nor encouraged.

Most important in this atmosphere was the related suppression of the spirit of enterprise [empreendorismo], which died at birth [morto na casca do ovo]. The Bible itself was not read or studied at home for fear of free interpretations of its parables and other tales. Even novels of chivalry, the soap operas of those times, were prohibited on the voyages of discovery because they might lead the readers to think on their own. There is no doubt that all this was to leave its mark on the Portuguese character and psychology.

The Portuguese-American reader, and others, will be familiar with a certain attitude common in the United States that encourages one to “think big.” This has been systematically thwarted in Portugal, and only now begins to appear in some persons on the continent, if they have not already emigrated abroad, which I will touch on in Part 3.

John Howard Wolf, an American expatriate in Portugal since 1977, is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal.