Apologies, Recognition and Reparations

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CDS Africa

Administrator . Updated June 4, 2024

In April 2024, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa acknowledged Portugal's historical responsibility for crimes committed during transatlantic slavery and colonialism and expressed support for reparations.

He emphasized Portugal's significant role in the transatlantic slave trade trafficking nearly 6 million Africans who forcibly transported and sold millions of Africans into slavery.

Despite this history, Portugal often glorifies its colonial past, overlooking the atrocities committed. Rebelo de Sousa emphasized the need to confront this past, acknowledging the costs of colonial massacres and injustices. He suggested actions such as reparations and the return of looted goods to address these historical wrongs.

This statement aligns with growing global calls for reparations and efforts to address the systemic inequalities stemming from colonialism and slavery. President Sousa's stance reflects a shift towards acknowledging and taking responsibility for historical injustices rather than offering mere apologies.

However, in a rather unexpected turn, the Portuguese government has kicked against President Sousa’s stance and have rejected the idea of paying reparations for the country's involvement in transatlantic slavery and colonialism.

Several nations particularly Brazil and many African countries have supported Portugal acknowledging its role in slavery and colonialism and considering reparations. Advocates for decolonization welcome Portugal's acknowledgment, urging action against historical injustices.

The debate surrounding acknowledgment and payment of reparations for past "crimes” has been reignited after the president's remarks with the right-wing government dismissing the notion and the far-right Chega party seeking to condemn the president's comments in Parliament.

Despite this, there have been past discussions by some anti-racist groups and far-left parties on returning looted items by some government officials but President de Sousa, with his personal history tied to colonialism, has been influential in shaping the debate.

The Portuguese Colonial Empire was one of the longest-lived empires in European History. Starting in the beginning of the “Age of Discovery”, with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, it lasted until 1999, with the transfer of Macau to China.Portuguese traders not only acquired captives for trade but also sourced a variety of West African goods, including ivory, peppers, textiles, wax, grain, and copper.

Portugal was a major player in the Atlantic slave trade, which involved the mass sale and transportation of slaves from Africa and other areas of the world to the continent of America. It is estimated that around 2,000 black slaves were traded annually after 1490. Most Africans served as domestic workers, though a select few were regarded as dependable and accountable slaves.

Portugal was the world's richest country when its colonial empire in Asia, Africa, and South America was at its peak. Because this wealth was not used to develop domestic industrial infrastructure, however, Portugal gradually became one of western Europe's poorest countries in the 19th and 20th centuries.

European powers such as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Belgium were prominent colonial masters who exerted control over vast territories in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. They established colonies for various reasons, including economic exploitation, strategic military interests, religious missionary work, and the spread of their cultures and ideologies.

The relationship between colonial masters and the indigenous populations varied widely depending on factors such as the colonial policies of the ruling power, the level of resistance from local communities, and the particular circumstances of each colony.

In many cases, colonial rule involved the imposition of foreign governance systems, exploitation of natural resources and labor, cultural assimilation efforts, and suppression of local autonomy and identity.

The legacy of colonialism continues to influence global politics, economics, and social structures today, with many former colonies still grappling with the effects of colonial exploitation, including economic inequality, political instability, and cultural fragmentation.

The knee-jerk reaction of the Portuguese government and the increasing demands for acknowledgment of colonial crimes indeed highlight a pressing issue that many former colonial powers have to face. The historical legacies of colonialism often entail deep wounds that continue to affect societies today. Calls for reparations stem from a desire to address these injustices and provide some form of redress for the enduring impacts of colonial exploitation and oppression.

Reparations can take various forms, including financial compensation, infrastructure development, educational initiatives, or cultural restitution. However, some argue that reparations are necessary to rectify historical injustices and promote reconciliation, while others have opposed due to concerns about practicality, accountability and the potential for exacerbating tensions.

Ultimately, addressing the legacy of colonialism requires sincere engagement with the past, acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and meaningful efforts to address the ongoing consequences. While the idea of reparations may be contentious, it underscores the importance of confronting historical injustices and working towards a more just and equitable future.

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CDS Africa

We lead research, advocacy and initiatives to advance democracy and policies to bring about socio-economic development.

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