Uncovering Lisbon’s Forgotten History of Slavery


By Yesenia Barragan | Black Perspectives

By all accounts, the Portuguese capital of Lisbon is a strikingly beautiful city, but—like so many entrepôt Mediterranean cities of its kind—it is one built on blood. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese launched what would become the modern slave trade off the coast of West Africa that eventually spawned the terror of the Middle Passage. Lisbon quickly became the center of slavery in Portugal itself, where wealthy Portuguese families and traders purchased enslaved Africans to work the opulent homes and bustling docks along the Tejo River.

Despite the importance of chattel slavery to the making of Portugal and its overseas empire, this terrifying history of black bondage is entirely muted in the public memory of Lisbon. In contrast to the (recently established and far overdue) National Museum of African American History and Culture in the United States or the Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo, Brazil, there are no such museums or reckoning public memorials in Lisbon along the lines of the Mémorial de l’Abolition d’Esclavage as in Nantes, France. More recently, however, a slavery museum was established in the historic “Mercado de Escravos” (Slave Market) of the southern Portuguese port of Lagos, which is said to be the site of the first trade in enslaved Africans in Europe. Yet, Lisbon remains largely silent on its legacy of white terror and black captivity.

Sometime between 1441 and 1444 (there is no historical consensus on the exact year), the first black captives from West Africa landed on the Portuguese beach of Lagos. Many, many more kidnapped captives would follow this first group of 240 enslaved Africans. While Lagos saw the creation of the first slave market in Portugal (and Europe as a whole), Lisbon soon became the administrative and later physical center of the human traffic. Over the course of two decades, the center of the Portuguese slave trade was redirected from Lagos to Lisbon, where royal authorities could closely monitor it.

In 1486, the Portuguese Crown created the Casa dos Escravos de Lisboa (the Lisbon Slave House), which was established to process the arrival, taxation, and eventual selling of African captives into Lisbon, thereby centralizing and formalizing the trade. Located near the shipyards and landing docks of the Tejo River, enslaved Africans largely from Argium, Benin, and the Congo were marched in chains to the prison of the Casa dos Escravos before their physical evaluation and auction in the public square known as Pelourinho Velho. In an attempt to solidify Lisbon’s hold on the trade, in 1512 the Portuguese king ordered that all slaves entering Portugal would be required to disembark in Lisbon—heavy penalties and fines awaited those who failed to follow. Historian John L. Vogt estimates that 10% of Lisbon’s population was black (both enslaved and free) during the sixteenth century.

Image courtesy of author.

Over time, a black neighborhood called Mocambo (located in the present-day neighborhood of Santa Catarina) formed in northwestern Lisbon as a place of black refuge. As historian James H. Sweet notes, Mocambo was named after the Kimbundu (an Angolan language) word for “hideout” and eventually became associated with quilombos (runaway slave communities) in Brazil and the greater Portuguese Atlantic world. Beneath the pavement of today’s Rua do Poço dos Negros (Street of the Blacks’ Pit) lies a mass burial pit of enslaved Africans in what used to be Mocambo.

In fact, as Sweet has found, Mocambo was “widely known as a spiritually powerful space, perhaps as an embedded, communal memory of the dead Africans who were buried there.” At night, the African-descended peoples of Lisbon gathered at the main crossroads of Mocambo at São Bento to “invoke the powers of the spirit world for the purpose of divining and healing,” such as the African-born slave José Francisco Pereira who buried several talismans at the crossroads in 1730. Today, there is no public memory of this sacred space for Lisbon’s African diasporic communities—it is simply a quaint corner with benches for jostling Portuguese teenagers.

But Naky Gaglo, a Togolese historical tour guide now based in Lisbon, is powerfully changing this story of public silence. Several years ago, Naky launched the “African Lisbon Tour,” which is a compelling four-hour-long historical walking tour of black Lisbon from chattel slavery to the cultural and political history of the more recent immigration of Lusophone African diasporic peoples from places such as Angola and Cape Verde (in fact, the tour includes a stop at an amazing Cape Verdean restaurant).

Naky Gaglo, founder of the “African Lisbon Tour.” Image courtesy of Naky Gaglo.

While doing archival research in Lisbon earlier this month, I was fortunate to take this tour with Naky and learned a great deal about Lisbon’s forgotten history of slavery and present-day black life. Naky begins his tour at the Praça do Comercio (Commerce Plaza), the heart of downtown Lisbon on the Tejo River, where enslaved Africans were marched to the Casa dos Escravos. But, as Naky importantly reminded me, there were Africans in Lisbon well before the emergence of the slave trade in the 1440s, particularly elites from the Kingdom of Congo who came to Lisbon to study theology, translation, and astronomy.

Much to my surprise, Naky’s tour showed me that there was actually one public statue in Lisbon dedicated to the abolition of slavery in the Portuguese Empire, a statue of the General Marqûes de Sá da Bandeira, a liberal Portuguese politician who decreed the abolition of the Portuguese transatlantic slave trade in 1836. Like many statues of its kind, the statue unproblematically centers General Bandeira in the history of Portuguese abolition, while a Roman-Greco statue of a shackled woman holding a small child sits below him in gratitude of the general’s decree. There is a fascinating story behind the real identity of this otherwise anonymous enslaved woman statue, a story tied to nineteenth-century black Lisbon—but you’ll have to take Naky’s tour to find out.

In unearthing Lisbon’s forgotten history of slavery, Naky is reckoning with and rewriting the history of Lisbon’s terrifying past. Amazingly, despite over four centuries of kidnapping and black bondage, there are no real public memorials in the city that seriously grapple with the longstanding meaning and legacy of Portuguese slavery. As Naky asserted at the beginning and end of the tour, this failure to acknowledge the African history behind the making of Lisbon was nothing more than a “political choice.” Naky is right, but until then, he is powerfully taking matters into his own hands.

One Reply to “Uncovering Lisbon’s Forgotten History of Slavery”

  1. Gonçalo Vicente says:

    It is more difficult to counteract a wrong idea, repeated as supporting a reading of the “ideologically correct” past, than to convey reality as it was. There are “lies” whose sails float to the blows of occasion, taking forums of undeniable “truths.”

    It is indisputable that slavery was a scourge that dominated the history of mankind for millennia (and, in many cases, it still is), but this does not justify that in order to carry it in the colors one “invents” erroneous readings. This is related to the Lisbon place name of Rua do Poço dos Negros. It is repeated without any criterion-and sometimes by those who ought to be more careful-that the designation comes from the existence here of a “well” where dead slaves were thrown like stray dogs.

    Before discussing the origin of the place name, it should be remembered that the first concern with the slaves was to baptize them, whether or not they understood the meaning, and then they were brought to serve in Lisbon. Therefore, the slaves were members of the Christian community. Now, as is well known, every Christian had to be buried in sacred ground, that is, then within the churches, when there were possessions for such, or in the respective chapels, for the most needy. Soon firing bodies of Christians to wells was not a legitimate practice, so this idea has no basis.

    However, in the sixteenth century, for example, when Lisbon was plagued by plague epidemics, it is known that King Manuel had opened common graves to collect corpse pests, either because the churches were overcrowded or to avoid contagion. It is even known that one of these ditches was opened not far from this area of ​​the present Blackhole, then an outlying area on the outskirts of the city.

    After the Council of Trent, the two branches of the Benedictines, orders hitherto confined to the rural world, installed convents within the cities. The Cistercians, called the Whites given the color of the cloak, open in the convent of the Desterro a “branch” of the mother-house of Alcobaça. As for the Cluniacans, called the Negroes, because of their wide cover, they came from Tibães and Santo Tirso to the capital. They acquired a huge property on the slope that we now call the Estrela, bounded below by the valley that was quickly called São Bento.

    At the beginning of the hillside, they constructed, from the end of the 16th century onwards, their enormous monastery, a clear example of St. Benedict, which still retains its name but whose “recollections” profess quite different orders: it is our Assembly of the Republic, which Was already Cortes and Nacional.

    As it is known the western zone of Lisbon was always devoid of water, at least until D. João V build the Aqueduct. So any spring was a blessing.

    It turns out that the Black priests, as they all called them, had, on the southern edge of the estate, a large well that quickly – perhaps even to win sympathies – made them available to the neighborhood. Then, grateful, the beneficiaries enjoyed the precious water that the priests offered them, calling it the Pit of the Black Fathers, or, to shorten, the Well of the Blacks.

    This is simply the origin of the toponym that so much indignation has generated in spirits, who are certainly sorry for the less human practices of their ancestors. But in this case there is no reason for it, because the Blacks are mere priests available to help the next one

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