On the evening of April 24th, 1974 and the morning of the next day, radios across Portugal broadcasted a pair of songs that would bring about one of the most profound political changes the nation had ever seen. The songs—first Portugal’s 1974 Eurovision entry, “E Depois do Adeus,” then the traditional folksong “Grândola Vila Morena” by Zeca Afonso—signaled for the nation and the military to launch a coup that overthrew Portugal’s authoritarian right-wing government. The bloodless event ended over half of century of Fascist rule, bringing millions to the streets across the country. The city of Lisbon was covered in a sea of red carnations. The Carnation Revolution, as the event came to be called, placed a left-wing government into power and effectively ended the Portuguese Colonial War.
At the time of the Revolution, Portugal was experiencing its equivalent of America’s Vietnam War: thousands of Portuguese soldiers were entrenched in the jungles of Angola and Mozambique fighting pro-Independence guerrilla fighters. The war, which entered its 13th year in 1974, had swelled the Portuguese military to over 200,000 troops and resulted in over 20,000 casualties. The Portuguese and their allies controlled the cities and the coastline but lacked the capabilities to fend off the guerillas controlling the interior. The Carnation Revolution unceremoniously ended the war, forcing a Portuguese withdrawal that gave Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, and Mozambique their independence. The power vacuum left by the military destabilized the former colonies and plunged Angola and Mozambique into civil war, which resulted in the expulsion of millions of Portuguese. They fled predominantly to Canada, the UK, France, South Africa, and the United States. Profoundly affected, Portugal and its people turned inwards, exhausted of the world they once controlled and desiring to forget their recent experience in Africa.
Since the mid-15th century, Portuguese explorers had sought out trade routes to India and Eastern Asia, embracing Africa as both a coveted possession and a base for their maritime empire. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama accomplished the first voyage to India in 1499, the Portuguese found themselves leaders of the European world and for nearly 50 years embraced their status as the most powerful nation in Europe. As masters of the slave route, the Portuguese found themselves constantly in contact with African leaders, traders, and rulers. But the era of exploration and later the colonial era would bring an end to Portuguese supremacy and reduce it (after Brazilian Independence in 1822) to its African possessions and far-flung outposts in India and Southeast Asia. It was at this time that Portugal turned towards securing their African possessions against other European powers. The so called “Scramble for Africa,” which occurred from the end of the 19th to the early 20th centuries, threatened Portugal’s control of the area and forced it to seek solutions through extensive urbanization, development, and colonization. Unlike other European countries in Africa, Portugal continued to embrace its centuries-old policy of intermarriage, assimilation, and integration. This policy was further supported by large emigrations of Portuguese to the colonies from the European mainland. It was from then on (the early 20th century) that large Portuguese populations developed overseas and the nation became entrenched in its African identity. It was also at this time that Portugal transitioned from a monarchy to a democracy, with revolutionaries establishing the First Portuguese Republic. Poorly organized, the revolution faltered for over a decade and in 1926 fell victim to a coup d’état that placed António de Oliveira Salazar in control. A right-wing dictator, he embraced a conservative, imperialist policy that prioritized control and development of the African colonies and stressed that Portugal was a multi-continental political entity. Established as the Estado Novo (New State), the Portuguese embarked on their most ambitious project of the 20th century: to develop and transform its African possessions.
By the early 20th century, the city of Luanda was the wealthiest and most developed in all of Portuguese Africa and under the Estado Novo was set to become the Portuguese gateway to the continent. Dubbed the “Paris of Africa,” the city became a major industrial and urban hub, swelling from 50,000 people in the 1930s to over 500,000 by the end of the war. Dynamic economic growth swept through the entire Portuguese empire: millions were pulled out from abject poverty and a powerful African middle-class rose. As Luanda grew into a major African city, Portuguese and tourists alike flooded Angola and the other Portuguese possessions. The cross-continental contact gave the Portuguese an excuse to export European culture to the major cities, with the hopes that it would spread to the rest of the colony. This imperial relationship generated economic growth but subdued the influence of African culture.
Present Day (50 years later)
“The Angolans don’t trust the Europeans so they prefer to do business with the EU through us. You know, unlike other colonial powers Portugal prides itself on having a good relationship with its former colonies,” António Rodrigues, the Vice President of the PSD (the party currently in control of Portugal), explained to me. Citing linguistic and cultural similarities along with a general African distrust of Europeans and the Brazilians, he explained that the Portuguese had found an economic niche as the middlemen between the colonies and major International markets. This doesn’t mean that the Africa countries primarily do business with Portugal—simply that Portuguese companies and businessman can always be seen near their African interests. So if modern day relations between the colonizer and the colonies are significantly better, what happened? And how?
The first time I heard of Angola and Mozambique, they were referred to not by their formal political names but as the “colonies.” The first time I heard the world “Angola,” it was referred to as a “hell on earth and a place to never go to” and it was spoken from the lips of a former Portuguese soldier, a friend of my father, who lives with what I am certain is undiagnosed PTSD. Being ethnically Portuguese myself and having grown up in one of the largest Portuguese immigrant communities in the US, I had been given the opportunity to hear firsthand the stories of Africa and see what the immigrants thought of it. In short, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t pretty, and it held decades of Fascist ideology and deeply engrained hate. The more I became aware of it, the more I learned that many Portuguese lamented the loss of “their colonies” and they pointed to the post-independence civil conflicts as a sign that “the Africans can’t rule themselves.” This deeply embedded hatred and longing for the past was, for the longest time, the only perspective I got. I was fortunate enough to carry out trips to Portugal last year and two months ago that have challenged my opinions. Those visits have revealed how Portuguese-speaking Africans have reclaimed their identity and brought about dynamic cultural changes in Portugal.
In 2013, the musician Stromae, a Belgian of African descent, released a song titled “Ave Cesaria.” The song paid homage to the “barefoot diva,” a woman called Cesária Évora who struck a musical career in Portugal that brought African music to the European world. Évora, born in 1941 in the then-Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, visited Portugal in 1985 and gave the Portuguese a taste of the musical culture they had unintentionally created. Fusing traditional guitar-heavy fado music with elements of jazz and traditional African beats, her music pushed into every corner of Portugal, the now-independent African countries, and the many Portuguese immigrant communities spread across the world. I remember listening as a child to her major hits on the local Portuguese radio. “Angola,” “Sodade,” and “Tchintchirote” livened up my home. In 1992 she released “Miss Perfumado,” a CD that brought her major success not just in Portugal but also in France and Belgium, turning her into the “Voice of West Africa” and a culture symbol for immigrant Africans. It is fitting, then, that Stromae paid homage to her—and even more so that she is acknowledged as the woman who reignited Portuguese passions for Africa and ensured the nation’s colonial legacy wasn’t forgotten.
I spent part of my summer in the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands in the Atlantic owned by Portugal. It is not only where my father is from, but also so isolated from the rest of the country that it exists as a Portuguese “other.” I was surprised when I walked past a group of two dozen Cape Verdeans. In a conversation with my aunt, she said, “In the past few years we’ve had a lot of them come to the island and stay; they work construction and help on the fishing vessels.” As I quickly learned, the African presence was welcomed and my cousin acknowledged that “they’ve done a good job of embracing our culture and added a little of their own to the local cuisine.”
When it comes to the African immigrant presence in Portugal, the former colonies (including Brazil) edge out almost all other foreign resident groups: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and Brazil each have over 30,000 of their citizens living in the country. All those groups have brought their music to the table. At the time of my visit, the radio waves were saturated with Kizomba music, and “Jajão,” a song by the Angolan music star Master Jake, was the most popular in the country. Originating in the post-colonial war period, Kizomba was a movement that grew out of the remains of Portuguese ballads and traditional romantic fado. These styles owe their popularity in part to the Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), which upon its 1935 establishment became the primary source for radio and television broadcasted in the Portuguese language. Nationalist in nature, RTP produced government-sponsored news, promoted Portuguese music abroad, and ushered in the era of Portuguese soap operas.
As a network created by the Portuguese government, it initially addressed Africa but did not actually cater to it. But in 1998, RTP opened a new branch of its operations; titled RTP África, it was among the first continental networks that catered and operated exclusively from Portuguese-speaking African countries. The network is alive and well today, and in mainland Portugal it has become a major hit both for the African immigrant communities and for the Portuguese who have embraced African music and culture. As I flipped through the television channels, I was surprised at how constantly African news was covered, at many travel, food, and culture shows could be seen. Because of these new media outlets, Portuguese Africans have begun to play a major role in their former colonial overlord and have brought Portugal back into Africa but on new terms. Since the 2000s, Angolan, Cape Verdean, and Mozambican artists have found major success all throughout Europe, especially in Portugal. Artists such as Anselmo Ralph (Angolan) and Nelson Freitas (Cape Verdean) have continued to transform Kizomba music.
Music isn’t the only industry benefitting from the rise of Portuguese-speaking African countries; soap operas, long a staple of the Mediterranean world, have created a whole new industry. In homes across the Portuguese-speaking world, you are likely to find soap operas that were filmed both in Portugal and a former African colony; the essence of Africa is captured and then integrated into Portugal every day.
Emerging from its brutal and bloody colonial legacy as a relatively wealthy and powerful country, Portugal’s desire to distance itself from that legacy failed. While the older generations of Portuguese still have those memories in place, newer generations see Africa through various forms of media and engage with it in a much more positive way. With the growth of African economies and the integration of these countries into mainstream Portuguese culture, the former colonies are in many ways the new colonizers; their citizens and culture flourish in the country that once ruled them. Through economic partnerships and organizations such as the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP), the Portuguese-speaking countries are pulling together to become an even more influential geopolitical force. This is but the beginning of an auspicious path towards cultural integration, cooperation, and longer-lasting unity.