Rewriting the history of Portugal
If you were to judge La Rampa by the swimming costume clad babe on its cover, you would write it off as a big, generic travel magazine. Open it up and the very first page hints at something strikingly different: a close-up shot of a stone relief, carved into the Botanical Tropical Gardens in Belem, Portugal.
La Rampa comes out annually, and is devoted to providing an alternative history of a country, with a particular focus on race. This issue is devoted to Portugal, and editors Chantal James and Ines Beleza Barreiros wanted to begin by alluding to the passing of time and the erasure of African and black peoples and their contributions from official historical narratives.
The central focus of this issue is to rewrite the story of ‘The Discoveries’, the maritime expansion in the 15th Century that marked the beginning of Portuguese imperialism. Monuments to the ships that held the bodies of enslaved Africans are painted onto tiles and sculpted into fountains around the country, mythologising colonialism as a kind of civilizing mission.
La Rampa provides a clear-eyed counter narrative. One of the most painful pieces tells the story of the 2009 discovery of 158 skeletons — the remains of fifteenth century Africans — under a carpark in Lagos, Portugal. The bodies had been discarded onto what would have been a garbage dump, just outside the medieval walls of the city, which was the first landing point for enslaved people in Europe.
Over email, Chantal and Ines talked us through the motivations behind this beautiful, deeply researched project.
Each issue of La Rampa is dedicated to providing an alternative history of a certain country. Why did you choose Portugal?
The Portugal issue was serendipitous. We had moved to Portugal from Brazil for an extended period and as we began to enjoy the wild natural landscapes and small-town Lisbon vibe, we kept coming up against the glorification of the so-called Age of Discoveries. As Brazilian women, that didn’t sit well with us. We discovered that Santos, our neighbourhood in Lisbon, had been a ‘quilombo’ (a counter-colonizer community established by Africans resisting slavery and cultural genocide). These are communities normally associated with Brazil. Coincidentally, there was an exhibit about the trans-Atlantic slave trade (a taboo subject) which we went to and where we met some academics and activists. Shortly afterwards, we formed a decolonial activism group, and from there the project took off.
The statues on the inside cover of the magazine are incredible. Also, the mural by the contents page. Why did you want to open the magazine with these images?
The statues on the inside and outside flaps are stone reliefs from the Botanical Tropical Gardens in Belem. The mural near the contents page is in Santos in Lisbon, part of a larger mural depicting workers from the city sanitation department. Unfortunately, the artists behind both works are unknown. We decided to open the book with these images because we wanted to start with historical representations of black people in Portugal; to allude to the passing of time and the erasure of African and black peoples and their contributions from official historical narratives. Like a palimpsest with multiple layers, what is beneath the surface comes out and is part of the story.
The story about the car park was very moving. What did that story mean to you?
This story is haunting. Some of the first captive Africans to be taken to Portugal were sold in a market in Lagos in the south of Portugal. The incident was registered by the King’s scribe who writes of African families weeping as children were separated from parents. Yet the subject of slavery in Portugal is taboo. The myth is that slavery happened in Brazil and the African colonies but not in Portugal. The skeletons that were found outside the walls of the old city of Lagos tell a different story. There were 185 skeletons, and many show markings associated with trauma. Some were thrown alive and bound into what would have been the city’s garbage dump. In 2009, the skeletons were removed with little media coverage and taken to an archeological office in Lisbon, where they remain to this day. There is nothing to commemorate them; only a small plaque in the underground parking lot with a short description of what was found there.
You have devoted much of the issue to covering the demands for reparations. Can you talk a little about that movement?
While the movement for reparations is growing, it remains a complicated political issue because of the major financial implications for most of Europe and the West. It’s an issue of denial: a refusal to accept the magnitude and enduring legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In 2015, the British public was still paying its debt to reimburse British slave owners who lost “property” after abolition. It’s very difficult and painful to accept this logic.
The feature on Little Guinea, and Kola San Jon are beautiful. Was it important to you to illustrate the joy as well as the pain of black experience in Portugal?
Yes it was. The black experience is often tied to stories of struggle and suffering and it was essential for us to also share stories of resistance, celebration and joy. Kola Sao Jon and the community of Little Guinea are examples of how Africans and peoples of African descent have persevered. We hope that Black and African descendants from other parts of the world recognise cultural similarities and feel empowered seeing that they are part of this larger diaspora.
Do you feel hopeful about Portugal’s future?
Yes I do feel hopeful about Portugal’s future. Three black women, Joacine Katar Moreira, Beatriz Gomes and Romualda Fernandes have been elected to Portuguese parliament since we made the issue. There has already been a racist backlash; during the summer they received death threats. But there is an ongoing police investigation and there was a historic Black Lives Matter demonstration attended by thousands of people. Also, because of the political and economic situation in Brazil, many Brazilians are moving to Portugal and that’s changing the racial dynamic. Black and anti-racists movements are well established in Brazil, so many Brazilians are strengthening these groups in Portugal.