Silencing the Embarrassments of Empire: Slave Trade, Slavery, and Abolition in Portuguese Education

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
Filipa Isabel Ribeiro da Silva , Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, Hull, United Kingdom
Portugal was the second most active sea power on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Brazil, Sao Tome and Cape Verde the Portuguese created societies and economies based on slavery. Also in Angola and Mozambique social and economic structures were highly shaped by the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades and slavery. Despite this direct and deep engagement of Portugal with slave trade and slavery, Portuguese political authorities have not expressed their sorrow for the ‘wrongs’ of Portuguese colonial past, unlike the French and British leaders of government have done recently. Also in contrast with these countries, the UNESCO Slave Route project reached only small fringes of Portuguese public opinion and museums and memorial sites for the remembrance of slavery and the slave trade were not built. In addition, the history of slavery was not made obligatory in the national curriculums at any educational levels. As a consequence, twenty-first century Portuguese society shows little awareness in regard to Portugal’s involvement in these historical processes and to Portugal’s responsibility for these historical phenomena. To understand this unconsciousness towards the embarrassments of Portuguese colonial past, in this paper I will try to explore the relationship between education and public memory. Firstly, by examining national curriculums and text-books for secondary school level, I will demonstrate that slave trade, slavery and abolition is taught mainly based on historical facts and with little or non reflection upon the ‘wrongs’ of slavery and the ‘responsibility’ of the historical actors involved. Secondly, I will compare these approaches to the dominant perspectives of Portuguese overseas expansion and empire taught at the same school level. Finally, I will reflect on the impact of the aforementioned approaches on the construction of a somewhat ‘distorted’ memory of the slave trade, slavery and the Portuguese Empire among students and civil society in Portugal.
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