Durban: Portugal Ought to Lead the Apology Wagon. (Viewpoint)

By Figueiredo, Antonio de | New African, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Durban: Portugal Ought to Lead the Apology Wagon. (Viewpoint)


Figueiredo, Antonio de, New African


..."It is no excuse to say that they sell one another, for he who buys what is badly sold is still guilty and the laws of this land and of other lands condemn him, because if there were no buyers, there would be no bad sellers, nor thieves to steal for sale" -- Fernando de Oliveira, the Portuguese Franciscan priest, writing in 1551.

Writing as a Portuguese myself who is aware of Portugal's role as a pioneer and second only to Britain in the record total of African people traded as pieces I have pleaded in the Portuguese press that we should be the first to offer an apology to Africans for slavery, as we have done to Jews over their unjust expulsion from Portugal five centuries ago.

It seemed to me that the precedent, however, justified, also indirectly added insult to injury to Africans for the omission of their much longer suffering. My plea was published, but my subsequent articles to the same newspaper were rejected on the grounds that they were too "specialised" for a mass circulation newspaper.

In fact, despite all the bad news about post-colonial Africa, Africans have developed more in the past 40 years than in the previous 500 years under the so-called "civilising" order imposed upon them by Europeans. If anything, the emergence of so many thousands of African professionals in all fields of activity, only makes me think of the wastage of human capacity and talent that went on for centuries under the Europeans.

Even before the Durban conference, there were many official preemptive attempts to shift attention from the issue of transatlantic slavery and reparations, by overloading the agenda with a multitude of other issues which, incidentally, made white supremacy appear less relevant.

Moreover, the recent publication of a report compiled by 186 US embassies and consulates showing regional and localised contemporary forms of slavery, including in West Africa where the old slave trade took the most toll, seemed to ignore the fact emphasised in countless American academic books that transatlantic slavery, by its magnitude, duration and implications, is an historical phenomenon on its own that should not be confused with other previous, concurrent or current practices anywhere else.

It was also misleadingly self-defeating, as pointed out by the former African-American diplomat Andrew Young, that the US has had a decisively important role in leading the recent advancement of black people not only in the US but elsewhere.

This positive influence extends to the Community of Countries of Portuguese Language (CCPL) formed in 1996, comprising Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome, whose histories are intertwined with that of Portugal. This fact alone is related to the common experiences of transatlantic slavery which characterised Portuguese overseas expansion. This leads me to my repeated suggestions for a Portuguese apology.

Fernando de Oliveira

For Portugal, the question of reparations would not be a realistic proposition. For one thing, at today's values, financial reparations would certainly exceed Portugal's GDP many times over.

Moreover, if the duration of the old Portuguese empire was only achieved through the successive protection of the centuries-old Anglo-Portuguese alliance and more recently, under the Salazar regime, the US and NATO, small democratic Portugal would not be able to break ranks with Western diplomacy even if it wanted to.

I do sincerely believe that we, the Portuguese, owe black people an apology. Portugal could afford and should pay its moral debt by confronting the realities of its history and apologising for the hurt hundreds of millions of black people still feel.

I need perhaps go no further than quote from an old Portuguese text written at the time of the first shipment of slaves from West Africa to Brazil as far back as the 15th century. …

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