Thursday, 1 May 2014

Portuguese-Language African Literature Month

And so begins a month devoted to Portuguese-language African literature, that is, literature from Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. The Portuguese language arrived there along with the sailors who set out to explore the Atlantic Ocean along Africa, at the start of the 15th century. Before them no one had sailed past the Moroccan coast, the limit was Cape Non, named that way because European and Arab sailors considered navigation beyond it impossible. It was transposed in 1417. Then in 1434 Gil Eanes transposed another threshold, Cape Bojador, fabled to be guarded by sea monsters. Putting an end to the myth of the Mare Tenebrarum, the Portuguese mariners continued to sail southwards, discovering countless new regions, islands and archipelagos. For our purposes it’s only important to retain that they discovered Cape Verde in 1445, Guinea-Bissau in 1446, São Tomé and Príncipe in 1470, and circa 1482 went up the Congo River and made contact with the Kingdom of Kongo in what is now Angola. Bartolomeu Dias had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope (modern Cape Town) in 1488, becoming the first European to enter the Indic Ocean, but it was with Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage to India that Portuguese traders and miners began establishing settlements in modern Mozambique.

And those were high times for mankind. Multiculturalism and tolerance were on the rise; Europeans and Africans, imbued with brotherly love, exchanged impressions and knowledges that expanded each other’s understanding of the world. The Portuguese, astonished and humbled by these ancient civilizations, revised everything they though they knew and set out to learn much from them: their language, their culture, their history, their ways. And they invited African anthropologists to travel to Europe, to introduce them to other Europeans, thus helping destroy ignorant beliefs in European superiority and pave the way for a fairer, better, more caring world. Ha ha, I’m just kidding; actually the Portuguese invaded them, butchered them, dominated them, forced them into slave labour in their land, sold millions more into slavery abroad, and did everything in their power to hold their emancipation for centuries.

The colonies transformed Portugal into an empire, the first modern one, and this past is ever present in their literature. The history of the Portuguese Empire, however, is also a history of conquering something and quickly losing it to somebody else. Portugal was very good at discovering new territories but wasn’t very good at administering or defending them. Portugal never had enough people, resources and money to establish itself anywhere for long. I mention this in order to explain the shifting importance of Africa to Portugal. In the beginning, all that mattered was India, the spice trade. Afonso de Albuquerque, a bloodthirsty admiral, carved a nice bit of empire for the crown in the Indies in the 16th century, and things were great because the Portuguese had the monopoly on lots of valuable new products. But this control was short-lived partially because of Arab kingdoms and partially because the English and the Dutch thought it’d be a great idea to create their own empires too. Portugal was quickly overwhelmed technically and militarily. But it was alright because in the meantime gold was the thing, and in their Brazilian colonies they had just discovered huge gold mines. So Brazil became the centre of the empire during the 17th and 18th centuries. This ended with Brazil’s independence in 1822, and somebody said it was time for Portugal to fend for itself. But then somebody else remembered there were those rotting African colonies no one had ever paid too much attention to all these centuries, perhaps they could produce something. So throughout the 19th century the “Colonial Question” became a matter of the utmost importance to politicians and thinkers, considered essential to the survival of Portugal, a small, poor, retrograde nation without natural resources, that had missed the train to the Industrial Revolution (see what I just did there?), depopulated because everyone emigrated to Brazil or elsewhere for better wages, and torn asunder by systemic political crises. It was an article of faith that without the remaining colonies Portugal would cease to exist, probably swallowed up by Spain. That’s why the Republican Party, when it overthrew the monarchy in 1910, on the grounds that Portugal needed democracy to develop itself, failed to see the contradiction of continuing to deny it to the colonies. But the Republic was chronically bankrupt, and it was the dictatorship, under Salazar, that started exploring their economic potential. But although the regions were rich in diamonds, oil, gold, iron, etc., Portugal mainly explored them agriculturally, no differently than what happened in Portugal, I presume because Salazar understood the dangers of having an industrialized, that is, educated population. It should also be noted that although the Portuguese emigrated en masse, Africa was never a popular destination. The governments always had trouble stimulating an economy there because no one wanted to live in Africa. When the colonies achieved independence in 1974 and the Portuguese colonials came back home, they were but a few hundreds.

In the 1960s revolutionary movements began cropping up in every colony, intent on achieving independence. Salazar was still in power and he also believed that without Africa, Portugal was finished. And this time he was right perhaps. Portugal under his rule was a backward, impoverished nation, the oldest dictatorship in Europe, isolated from a continent that had recently emerged from a war won in the name of freedom. In the face of this, Salazar’s propaganda machine disseminated a self-aggrandizing myth to reassure the regime of its own strength. One of the funniest things to come out of this propaganda was a map of Europe superimposed with the African colonies, giving the impression Portugal was the size of the continent:
Portugal is not a small country.

I’ll be honest, I find this map very funny. The Africans probably didn’t. Realizing that their goals were going nowhere with diplomacy, African nationalists decided to force the Portuguese out. In 1961 the Colonial Wars started, fought on several simultaneous fronts, Africa, Mozambique, Guinea, pitting the Portuguese army against guerrilla warfare. Both sides took the war very, very seriously. Portugal didn’t do badly, for a small nation, with fewer soldiers and spread thin through three fronts, fighting in unknown territories under horrible conditions. By the end of the war it could be said they were almost on even ground with the revolutionaries, and the war could have gone on. But in 1974 the regime was overthrown by a military coup and months 
later the colonies were granted independence. Portugal did not end, and now we read the enemies’ books.
I think it’s extraordinary that African literature is so popular in Portugal. I once read an article I wish I could link to, about Chinua Achebe and his seminal novel, Things Fall Apart. The novel was a bestseller and remained a bestseller for years, and gave rise to the famous Heinemann African Writers Series, a collection that sought to introduce English-language readers to African writers. But according to the article, in spite of Achebe’s success, the collection lagged; the books were published but sold poorly. Achebe’s success had been an exception that did not repeat itself, and only the sales of his novel helped keep the series aflot.

To my mind, that never happened in Portugal. Many writers like Pepetela, Mia Couto, José Eduardo Agualusa and Ondjaki quickly became popular and it’s easy to find them in bookstores and common to see people reading them in public. This perhaps did not happen for the most benign of reasons. A bit of this has to do with colonial paternalism; some Portuguese just like to call Portuguese literature anything that is written in Portuguese, and I’ve seen some African writers mysteriously transformed into Portuguese writers because of this mentality. It’s clear from their writings, of course, that they very much do not consider themselves Portuguese at all. The effects of colonialism and the war are present in their books. Whatever the reasons, it’s easy for African writers to promote their work in Portugal. It is normal for their books to be bestsellers, for them to show up on television, and several write columns for magazines and newspapers.

This month we’re going to discover African writers: some I’ve written about before; some are writers born in Africa, others went there as children and took part in the creation of their adopted countries. There are women and men. There are white Africans and black Africans, and what we called the mestiços, descendants from European and African parents. Wherever the Portuguese went, they mixed their genes with the locals'. This was somewhat unique in the colonial system. The British, for instance, were obsessed with racial purity, as were the Dutch and Germans. Now if we were in the 19th century, we could suggest many theories for this: the warm climate of Southern Europe just gave the Portuguese a languid disposition to fuck everything. Or racial theories could explain that, well, the Portuguese descended from Africans who had invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century anyway, so there was a natural racial connection, an unconscious genetic kinship. Or something like that. Actually the reason was that the Portuguese didn’t have enough people to colonize a global empire. In the 16th century, Afonso de Albuquerque fostered a revolutionary policy of marrying settlers with Indian women in order to occupy the land and to tie Europeans to the land, the crafty bastard. This policy was repeated everywhere else in the empire, leading, amongst other things, to the famous Brazilian ethnic diversity. So keep that in mind, we were nicer than the British.

And I think this covers the basics. The literature starts tomorrow, well, sort of.


  1. That map is stunning, really.

    This is exciting - I will not have read any of the writers, I am pretty sure of that.

    1. Yeah, the map's a dozy! Portuguese propaganda is hilarious.

      I will not have read any of the writers...

      Well, that's one of the points of the project, to make people see what they're missing.