Honour or horror? How a museum is making Portugal rethink itself
The Age of Discovery was also the age of slavery and colonialism
If you’re a relatively small European nation with a past most notable for your history of exploration and the opening up of the rest of the world to Europe in the 15th century under Henry the Navigator, then a museum to these achievements may sound like a reasonable idea.
However, the proposal for the Age of Discoveries museum to be built in Lisbon has sparked a fierce debate about Portugal’s colonial history, for while the period during the 15th century which saw Portugal claim territory from Asia to South America is considered a fundamental part of the country’s national identity,– some have pointed out that it’s also the darkest period in its history.
As Joacine Katar-Moreira, an academic and co-author of an open letter critical of the project, told The Guardian, the museum’s focus “would only reinforce Portuguese colonial ideology, which portrays that period as heroic and simply glosses over the glaring issues of slavery, mass killings and other abuses”.
Portugal was the biggest driver of the Atlantic slave trade, estimated to have transported half of the recorded 12.5 million slaves shipped from Africa. The country has claimed for years that in spite of this record, its conscience is clearer than others because of its more tolerant attitudes to inter-racial relationships which were widespread in Brazil and Cape Verde.
The idea of Portugal as the “bom colonizador” (good coloniser) is not supported by the historical record and the debate has divided the country with even the prime minister, Antonio Costa, weighing in, saying that the Portuguese “mustn’t have a complex, but rather pride in being able to deal, in Portugal, with that period in history when we undoubtedly made our biggest contribution to the world”.
Katar-Moreira and his supporters would rather see the money for the museum go towards a monument in memory of the millions of victims of slavery. The debate rages on and the city of Lisbon has proposed some alternative names including the Museum of Discovery and the Voyage Museum, but for now it seems that it may take a while for Portugal to constructively come to terms with the dark side of its past and the consequences of its exploration achievements to those who its citizens “discovered” and exploited.