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Slavery: Crime or Skills Development
Views from an American living in Portugal
The EU recently described slavery as “a crime against humanity” and President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said Portugal should apologize and take responsibility for its role in the transatlantic slave trade … meanwhile in Florida, children are to be taught that "slaves developed skills" that could be used for "personal benefit."
No Place is Perfect
A friend from Sarasota last week sent me a WhatsApp text (Chat) asking about politics in Portugal. She wanted reassurance that things are different here. As a former Floridian who has continued to keep tabs on its Governor, I understood her inquiry. And for the most part, I was able to reassure her.
Of course, we are not living in Utopia. The extreme right Chega party gained seats in the most recent election. Some SEF officers and police have been charged with abuses against immigrants and people of color. The EU Social Survey concluded: “Portugal is not a racist country, but there is racism in Portugal”. True…
Acknowledging its Past
But Portugal is also a country that seems to be grappling with its past. In 1444, 235 people were kidnapped from the coast of West Africa and put up for sale in Lagos.
Over the next four centuries, Portuguese vessels would carry an estimated 5.8 million Africans into slavery. Most went to Brazil — a Portuguese colony until 1822. — Politico
In December 2017, citizens in Lisbon voted to build a memorial to this dark chapter in Portugal’s past at the spot where slave ships were unloaded. (To the best of my knowledge the memorial has not been completed.) Earlier that year, the President visited Senegal and acknowledged the “injustice of slavery” but was quick to add that Portugal introduced limited abolitionist laws in the 1760s (i.e. before many other countries). Some criticized the President for suggesting that being among the first abolitionist somehow mitigated its harm. Others criticized the fact that he had not offered an official apology at that time.
In April of this year, Sousa said Portugal should apologize:
“Apologising is sometimes the easiest thing to do: you apologise, turn your back, and the job is done,” he said, adding the country should “assume responsibility” for its past to build a better future. — The Guardian
Discovery or Expansion
In addition to grappling with its significant role in the slave trade, Portugal is also grappling with other elements of its past. While its exploration of the world is a significant source of pride, graffiti has marred monuments and many now suggest a more nuanced view is required. During a tour of Lisbon’s Maritime Museum, our friends Mike and Mary relayed this reflection from their tour guide:
She went on to say that the period from the 15th to the 17th centuries, typically referred to as “the Age of Discoveries”, should really be called “the Age of Expansion”. Portugal’s land borders had been defined in a treaty with Spain, she explained. Surrounded by Spain on two sides, the sea was the only route for expansion.
“This is not being woke, trying to rewrite history like some people are trying to do in the USA”, she said, using a phrase that caught our attention. “It’s just being historically accurate”. —TheCookandtheWriter.com
I must admit I bristle whenever I hear a white American use the word “woke” in a sentence that is not related to sleep or rising. I suspect many don’t even realize they are using a term with African American roots. Somehow a term that originally meant alertness to racial and social injustice has been co-opted by the right and now is being used to attack acceptance and kindness.
If you are a long-time reader, you might recall that I am a big Bonhoeffer fan. It seems to me his theory of stupidity goes a long way toward describing much of what is going on today:
NOTE: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) on a six-acre site in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial has 808 hanging steel rectangles representing each of the US counties where a documented lynching took place. It is hard to leave this site unmoved.
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