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The Heart of the Nata

Updated: Oct 10, 2021



"the charred skeletal outlines of a slavery boat, with a golden line of a poem on each burnt bone of the ship"




If you read the previous blog post, you may remember that I made some observations of Portugal based on what we saw in Porto and Aveiro, such as the beautiful individual tiling we saw on the buildings everywhere. But it wasn’t until we came to Lisbon and Sintra that I was able to make some connections between what I saw in relation to Portugal’s distinct character, creativity and beauty and the historical influences that have shaped this. As a history teacher, I’m almost ashamed to say how few of the details I know of Portuguese History. In fact, Luciano, as a Brazilian, knows far more than I do of the key figures and details of Portuguese History. But as a broad sweep of historical themes, Portugal has it all; although it is less well studied in the UK. I think partly because many of its themes are akin with or less extreme than elsewhere in Europe. Islamic conquest and influence by the Moors (as was Spain), a prominent conqueror of the New World, participant in the Slave Trade and later, colonial ruler (as were many other European Nations) and 40 years under a Fascist regime, yet without the participation in World War II or equivalent of the Holocaust. Yet as we entered Lisbon through the River Tejo, Portugal was broadcasting its history loud and clear. In this post, I would like to share with you how we experienced the history of Portugal, not in chronological order, but through the places we visited. In any case, this is how Portugal presents its history, with multiple historical periods and themes occupying each space.


We timed our entry to Lisbon badly. We had sailed for 24 hours, Luciano taking the entire dayshift to help me continue to recover from my mysterious illness and shield from the sun; then we took one hour shifts during the night. As we entered the River Tejo, the strong current was against us and we proceeded slowly. As we sailed eastwards, inriver towards Lisbon, we passed by the district of Belém. Belém was the primary departure point of Portugal’s pioneering maritime exploration in the fifteenth century, discovering sea routes to Brazil, East Africa and India. An imposing monument titled Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument of the Discoveries reaches out from the northern bank of the river. It shows 33 prominent Portuguese explorers, including Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first European to discover Brazil and Ferdinand Magellan who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. As we approached the marina closer to Lisbon, we passed under the 25 April Bridge, renamed after the death of dictator Salazar in 1974 to celebrate the date of the Carnation Revolution which ended the dictatorship. This 2,277m reddish bronze suspension bridge is reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge and was built by the American Bridge Company. Across the bridge on the South side of the river looms a giant Christ figure, inspired by the Cristo in Rio after a visit there by the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon. All of these monuments serve to remind us that, unlike the rest of southern Europe, Portugal is an Atlantic rather than a Mediterranean country. As we later stretched our legs by walking back along the seafront, we came across a different perspective of Portugal’s past. A work by the Portuguese (of São Tomé e Príncipe and Angolan descent) artist, writer, feminist and psychologist Grada Kilomba, served a stark reminder of the dark side of those maritime endeavours. Depicted as the charred skeletal outlines of a slavery boat, with a golden line of a poem on each burnt bone of the ship in several languages. This artwork, which stands alone and as a performance, seeks to subvert the premise of the Monument of ‘Discoveries’ under which it lies.


The following day, we visited Lisbon, taking in the sights along the iconic number 28 tram route. We visited the Carmo Convent and Archaeological Museum. Housed in the ruins of the convent which was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, it was preserved as ruins due to the taste of the Romantics. It also houses nineteenth century religious artefacts which were rescued from various locations following the abolition of the Religious Orders in 1834. This Act dissolved the monasteries in Portugal and nationalised religious property at the end of the Portuguese Civil War which divided liberals and absolute monarchists. Our next stop was the Castelo de São Jorge. This site displays its human occupancy from the 8th century BC and has served as a site of defence through several empires - the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, with the main walls being built in the 10th century by the Moors - Berbers from North Africa.


Our last stop of the day was a former prison and previously a Roman settlement, now the Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. We entered first to the Women and Resistance exhibition, which focused on the case of the Three Marias, who were imprisoned and tortured by the fascist regime for writing ‘New Portuguese Letters’. This collaborative book of poetry, essays, short stories and letters posed such a threat to the patriarchal regime that it had to be destroyed and the women tried in secret. This actually became considered the first international feminist cause by liberal Second Wave feminists at the 1973 National Organisation of Women Conference (NOW) held in Boston in 1973 after the book was smuggled out of Portugal to three prominent French feminists, including Simone de Beauvoir. Worldwide protests in France, the US, Sweden and the Netherlands followed. The exhibition also focused on other brave women who were imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, for highlighting issues such as the provision in the Portuguese Penal Code that allowed a man to murder his wife if she committed adultery; most women were unable to vote and had many other kinds of restrictions, such as those related to work and labour, reproduction and requiring permission from their husband to travel. Thousands of women contributed to the downfall of the regime through protests in factories, in fields and in universities across Portugal.


The conditions of all political prisoners and the torture and suffering they went through was recreated through testimony and the presence of the cells. The Third Floor was dedicated to that other ugly facet of the Dictatorship - colonialism. Portugal was one of the last European countries still hanging on to its colonies in 1974. The anti-colonial war between 1961 and 1974 in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique was so hard-fought by the fascist regime that thousands of soldiers were conscripted. This museum only opened in 2015, but Portugal is starting to come to terms with its past. Recent racist murders and denial of their racial motivation by some prominent politicians prompted a call from the European Council this year for Portugal to do more to confront its colonial past. Prominent internal voices, such as Grada Kilomba, Rui Braga and Cristina Roldão have articulated the historical legacy that continues to shape power relations today. Researcher Rui Braga argues that Portugal’s Luso-tropical narrative which has celebrated Portugal’s embrace of being multicultural, multi continental and the more liberal attitudes towards "miscegenation" compared to other European colonial nations has been self-deceptive. He cites the Portuguese sociologist of Cape Verdean descent, Cristina Roldão who argues that “At every level of society there’s a convergence of different systems of oppression that interline to shape our daily life - be it through racism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, anthropocentrism - structurally benefiting Whites over Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, men over women, rich over poor, cisgender heterosexuals over LGBTQ and humans over animals, plants and the earth.’*

These structural issues of power, inequality and consumption visible through centuries of Portuguese history, are ones that are of course not confined to Portugal, but applicable throughout our world.


The following day we visited Sintra, a UNESCO world heritage site and short train ride into the mountains just outside Lisbon, where the rich, including the royal family built fabulous palaces to escape the stifling Lisbon Summer. We first visited the Moorish Castle, which offers incredible views of the forested mountainous surrounds. It was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. This castle is a powerful symbol of the Islamic conquest of Portugal. The crusades which eventually established Portuguese Christianity in its place in 1147 worked hard to imprint christianity on Portugal in opposition to Moorish influence. However, the Moors had a huge impact on Portugal’s culture. I didn’t really see this until I saw the Pena Palace. This Romantic palace was built on the site of a monastery and takes inspiration from seemingly everywhere! In fact the decor has been restored to reflect 1910, the time when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil. However, what really made the connection for me was the very Islamic look of the tiles. I hadn’t previously connected the beautiful unique tiles on Portuguese buildings everywhere from Porto to Aveiro, grand churches to suburban houses and shops to the influence of the Moors. It seemed so obvious afterwards. Portuguese tiles are known as Azulejos, and were influenced by the Moors, but were put into even more widespread use in rebuilding and beautifying following the 1755 earthquake. They became a form of public art. This is why we saw Azulejos representing individual fishing vessels when we stayed in the marina in the Gaia fishing district of Porto. In the beautiful shady grounds of the palace, we saw the Chalet of the Countess of Edla, bolthole of King Ferdinand II and his second wife. The chalet looks like the house of the seven dwarves, but what we thought was decorative bark, was actually cork. Many of the ceilings in the chalet were also inlaid with cork in beautiful designs.


I was already familiar with Portugal’s cork industry as Luciano had bought me a ‘vegan’ bag several years ago made from Portuguese cork. Cork is indigenous to Portugal and present in its history as a wine and port producer. Now cork, like bamboo, is one of the materials at the forefront of sustainable material and product design and a mainstay of the Portuguese economy, representing 2% of their exports. In fact, we have found Portugal to be very environmentally aware. The whole marina in Porto was covered in awareness of reducing waste to preserve the oceans and sealife. Our first stop in Lisbon was actually to a vegan nata café, not only with entirely vegan nata, but the coffee cups were also made from edible wafers. When Luciano needed to buy new trainers, we stepped down to the LX factory, the historical industrial quarter of Lisbon which is now host to independent cafés and creative outlets. There we visited a sustainable shoe brand chain which makes shoes from cork, pineapple and recycled plastic bottles. Nata is not just the name of the eponymous custard tart, in Portuguese it can also mean the crème de la crème. In terms of sustainability, Portugal seems to be framing itself as the cream of the crop, a step in the right direction for the conquistadors of the Amazon.


There is a large Brazilian expat community living in Lisbon and elsewhere in Portugal. Our last day trip was a coastal train ride to Cascais, another traditional escape for Lisbon’s elites from the Summer heat, this time for some sea air. We ate our lunch under the shade of a palm tree while watching on in awe at the impressive footvolley skills of some superfit Cariocas (Brazilians from Rio) on the main town beach. We then recovered from this visual ordeal by lying on the fine sandy Queen’s Beach surrounded by rocks and walls in the heart of the town before braving a freezing swim! Our final evening in Lisbon, we came across a huge anti Bolsonaro protest. We were drawn initially by the complex sounds of the Maracatu - an Afro-Brazilian percussive music, originating from northern Brazil. The performer-protesters danced and grinned, but they had a serious message: “Fora Bolsonaro” - “Bolsonaro out”. We have seen the posters around Portugal accusing Bolsonaro of genocide for the suppression of indigenous rights, including more than a thousand deaths and this accusation was made officially on August 12 this year at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Also prominent in this protest was the face of Marielle Franco. In fact the whole protest was framed as “Marielle presents” - her face on a large banner at the head of the performance. Marielle Franco was an Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ politician - a single mother from a Rio favela, who campaigned tirelessly against police brutality. She was murdered by two former police officers with ties to Bolsonaro, who idolises the 20 year Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960s to 1980s. In her death, she has become a figurehead for those in Brazil who want Bolsonaro out. The roots of Maracatu actually stem from the inauguration ceremonies of the so-called ‘Kings of Congo”. During the slavery era, these powerful men were given the title of kings by the Portuguese administration as a way of reinforcing slaving hierarchies. Maracatu, when performed in northern Brazil has a combination of influences from pre-colonial African traditions to an imitation of the Portuguese royal court in the Baroque period (1580-1750). It felt very fitting that here on the streets of Lisbon, to the beats of Maracatu, these Brazilians were publicising their protests.


* Braga, R., 2021. Portugal, colonialism and racial justice – From denial to reparation. [online] openDemocracy. Available at: <https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/justicia-racial-colonialismo-portugal-negacionismo-reparaci%C3%B3n-en/> [Accessed 3 October 2021].



This week's Vlog.




Video of the Brazilian anti Bolsonaro protest in Lisbon.



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