This post originally appeared at the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog on 15 January and has also been republished at ESC Insight.
It has taken sixty-one editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, and fifty-three years of Portuguese participation, for any Portuguese city to have the chance to host the annual song competition and show the contest’s reputed 200 million viewers its own interpretation of Europe’s cultural identity.
Portugal’s reputation as one of the longest-running Eurovision entrants never to win meant that the victor’s privilege of hosting the next Contest has never until now fallen on Portugal and its national broadcaster Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), even as early twenty-first-century Eurovision became famous for more and more first-time winners emerging across a seemingly ever-enlarging Europe.
Indeed, Portugal had spent years not even qualifying for the Eurovision grand final before Salvador Sobral, whose song ‘Amar pelos dois‘ (Love enough for two) harked back to the orchestral European popular music culture of Eurovision’s earliest days, won a surprise victory at the contest in Kiev in 2017.
The wave of new winners in the early 2000s saw Eurovision hosted for much of the decade in cities like Tallinn, Riga, and Kiev—capitals of countries that had not even participated in Eurovision before the end of the Cold War, indeed had only recently become independent. Other host cities, such as Istanbul, Athens, and Helsinki, represented countries often perceived as peripheries of Europe and which had competed for years without a win. The metaphors, symbols, and historical narratives with which these contests’ local producers emphasized how deeply their countries and cities belonged to Europe turned places often imagined to be on Europe’s margins into the continent’s “symbolic centre” for a night.
Eurovision researchers are accustomed now to interpreting entries as literal performances of national identity and European belonging, embodying how a nation appears to have mastered transnational popular culture, national cultural tradition, or contemporary modes of combining the two. Hosting Eurovision, however, takes these identity performances up an extra structural level. Like the Olympic Games, Eurovision allows a broadcaster and city to make a certain narrative of their nation and its relationship to Europe into the frame through which millions of viewers see the whole event, making every contest a fresh exercise in nation (and city) branding.
The historical themes that Lisbon and Portugal might communicate to a transnational audience in 2018 were perceptible as early as last July, when RTP confirmed Lisbon as the host city with a promotional video that proclaimed, “Portugal: 500 years connected to the oceans; Lisbon: city of convergence; Lisbon: a bridge between Europe and the world.” The contest’s slogan, fans found out in November, would be “All Aboard!”
The same myth of maritime heritage and global connectivity underlies the stage design concept revealed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in December. The narrative behind Lisbon’s first Eurovision, reflecting how important maritime heritage has been in Portugal’s and Lisbon’s myths of identity, will perhaps unsurprisingly be “inspired by navigation, the sea, ships and maps.”
These four themes, the designer Florian Wieder explained, combined like the four points of a compass to symbolize the history of discovery and exploration that had shaped Portuguese culture and made Lisbon the maritime metropolis it became.
Yet to historians of slavery, sociologists of “race” and postcolonialism, and many people among the world’s African diaspora today, to talk of discovery and exploration—or even to celebrate Europe’s relationship to the sea—is to evoke memories of the mass enslavement of Africans that Portuguese traders and sea-captains began, knowledge of the violence of colonial dispossession that Portugal was among the first European powers to perpetrate, and the legacies of racism and oppression that still permeate European and global societies today.
Reading the planned Eurovision stage’s “four points of inspiration” with a postcolonial eye reveals silence after silence within the historic symbols that have inspired its design.
The voyages of exploration sponsored by Portuguese rulers, including by the country’s most famous prince, Infante Dom Henrique (known in English as Henry the Navigator), were driven not by high-minded curiosity but by the search for new imperial territories and new sources of goods to trade. Portuguese merchants quickly discovered these “goods” could include human beings: it was under Henrique’s direction in the 1440s and 1450s that Portuguese captains first brought back enslaved Africans from raids in Mauritania, then struck deals with local rulers to institutionalize a trade in slaves, while the government regulated this expanded economy of slavery in Portuguese trading-posts and ports. By 1486, the slave trade had grown so large that King John II made the House of Slaves a department of the royal trading house. (The place was destroyed with almost all its records in the earthquake of 1755.)
At first, slave traders’ primary market was Portugal itself, which was already part of the Mediterranean system of slavery (where most of the enslaved were North African Muslims who had been captured at sea). Pope Nicholas V, as the moral ruler of Christendom, sanctioned Portugal’s monopoly of the West African trade and Catholics’ right to enslave non-Christians—including North African Muslims, black Africans, and indigenous people in the Americas—with a papal bull in 1454. As Portuguese merchants began to sell Africans on across the Atlantic, to Portuguese colonies and sugar plantations in Brazil, they created the first routes of the transatlantic slave trade.
Other European imperial powers, plus thousands of Europeans whose nations did not have their own empires, would join Portugal in sustaining a system of domination and brutality without parallel in world history, where the ideologies necessary to justify Europeans’ enslavement and repression of enslaved Africans and their descendants would become the hierarchical modes of classifying human beings by presumed biological descent from “more civilized” or “less civilized” areas of the world that we know today as classifications of “race.” From a postcolonial perspective, the very concept of “Europe” as a symbol of modernity—an idea which celebrations of belonging to or becoming part of Europe almost always take for granted—is inextricable from the history of how modernity (in the shape of “civilization”) and “race” were imagined together during the age of empire and slavery.
If Portuguese navigation and discovery are inseparable from this history, how does such knowledge affect what the symbols inspiring the next Eurovision Song Contest appear to mean? The armillary sphere that distinguishes Portugal’s national flag and will give Lisbon 2018 the “visual key element” of its design is unambiguously, according to its designer, “associated with the Portuguese discoveries during the Age of Exploration.”
“The Portuguese have been masters in crafting ships since the ancient times,” the narrative continues, and “were able to explore the world because of this outstanding skill.” But where did these ships go, and what did their Portuguese crews do in the places they explored? Portugal, after all, was the first European power to conquer territory in India and the first to ship enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.
The sea, whose waves have inspired the sweeping form of the Eurovision stage, supposedly “gives us a sense of freedom and clarity, making it one of the most peaceful places on earth.” Yet how peaceful is the sea to the migrants and refugees who risk capture in North Africa and shipwreck on unsafe rafts to wash up on Mediterranean coastlines because the European Union affords them no legal means to travel?
Even the map, Lisbon 2018’s fourth point of inspiration, is in its modern form an instrument that postcolonial scholars know as a colonial technology. European mapmakers recorded the geographical features that their empires’ traders, soldiers, missionaries, and officials needed to know, and abstracted or erased those they did not. The ethnic or tribal divisions between peoples and territories that European maps of Africa and Asia recorded at the height of the colonial period created lines of demarcation that would later become social and political realities because of how colonial power had translated a more complex demographic reality into metropolitan knowledge.
Narrating Portugal’s history of maritime discovery and exploration without the history of slavery and colonialism leaves—to those who know and do not choose to unknow that silenced history—a yawning gap. The silence resounds throughout Wieder’s explanation of why Portugal’s maritime history is so well suited as the narrative of a Eurovision Song Contest held in Lisbon:
The rich history of the Portuguese as a maritime nation reflects, without any boundaries, all of the values that make the Eurovision Song Contest unique today. Portugal and especially Lisbon are historic melting pots enriched by the impressions of newly discovered cultures that were brought back to the home port. This is mainly due to the Portuguese sailor men, who traveled the seas with courage and outstanding skills of navigation.
We do not hear of how cultures were newly discovered and then subjugated, nor how the people who lived some of those cultures were brought back in chains.
European cities have only recently begun publicly acknowledging their complicity in slavery, and it has taken sustained pressure from their black residents plus committed historians and heritage professionals for them to do so. What historical narratives are privileged or marginalized in the commemorated, what forms of recognition campaigners seek, and how slavery reverberates through a society’s racialized categories of identity all vary from country to country, and even city to city. Nantes became the first European port to officially commemorate its role in the transatlantic slave trade in 1989, and it opened a permanent exhibition on the slave trade there in 1992, whereas Bordeaux, with a similar history, took a decade and a half longer to do so. Among British cities, Liverpool led with an official public apology for the slave trade in 1999, and the city’s International Slavery Museum, which opened in 2007, incorporates Africans’ resistance and agency as well as the legacies of slavery behind contemporary racism into its narrative more integrally than many other such museums.
Projects to make visible the public memory of slavery are intensely local—often, as in Bristol, turning on the microhistory of sites built to honor slave-owners or used in the slave trade—but also transnational. UNESCO launched its own Slave Route project, which aimed to “break the silence” about the heritage of slavery around the world, in 1994. Campaigners and curators often translate parallels from comparable cities abroad into their own local contexts in identifying contentious sites and imagining how slavery could be better remembered there. Since the 1990s, Ana Lucia Araujo has written, a “resurgence of the public memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade” has connected sites in Europe, Africa, and Latin America as well as the USA.
Europe’s Atlantic ports would not have become so prosperous without the wealth the slave trade brought them. To make and keep the slave trade and its legacies a part of public memory means making knowledge of these things undeniable, even to white majority publics who would prefer not to know.
To remember and acknowledge that a city’s and nation’s grandeur came from the horrific kidnapping and deportation of millions of people, and the systematic dehumanization of their descendants, does not inspire the pride on which relations of belonging between individuals and nations are supposed to depend. More openly activist forms of commemorating the slave trade, as opposed to the more celebratory, less destabilizing commemorations of its abolition, seek to make remembering necessary. They seek to make it impossible for white inhabitants and visitors, above all, to still be able to contend they did not know.
Lisbon, the historian Yessenia Barragan observed last year, “remains largely silent on its legacy of white terror and black captivity.” No museum or memorial there acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion that accompanied it were constitutive parts of the city’s history. Lisbon has no analog to the Liverpool or Nantes slavery museums, nor to the museums of African diasporic history in São Paulo or Washington, DC. Elsewhere in Portugal, the old customs house once used for slave auctions in Lagos on the Algarve, thought to be the first town where enslaved Africans were brought to Europe, reopened as a slavery museum in 2016. Otherwise, to see Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade commemorated, one must go to Brazil, the place where so many captives enslaved by the Portuguese were sold. As Araujo reminds us, Brazil imported many more enslaved Africans than the United States and now contains a larger population of people of African descent than any other country in the world except Nigeria. The presence of this diaspora and the racial politics of contemporary Brazil are both consequences of the trade established by the Portuguese.
Lisbon, too, has a globally significant black history. A census of Lisbon in 1552 revealed that 10 percent of its population was enslaved, and the historian A. C. Saunders estimated in 1982 (in a book on black slaves and freedmen in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portugal, republished in 2010) that 15,000 mostly black slaves were likely to have lived in the rapidly growing city by 1633. Saunders not only notes that this black population represented “one of the greatest concentrations of black people in any European society before our own time” but points to the Portuguese enslavement of Africans as a key moment in the transition between slavery customs around the Mediterranean and the racialized system of transatlantic deportation and enslavement that Europeans went on to establish.
[T]he form taken by relations between black Africans and white Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was, with some modifications and exceptions, that which was to prevail throughout the Atlantic world until the nineteenth century, and we still suffer from its consequences today. The salient feature of this system of relations were the Atlantic slave-trade and the relegation of black people to servitude or positions of inferior status in countries ruled by whites. The triangular slave-trade was organized by the Portuguese and it was in Portugal that considerable numbers of blacks first came to experience white domination and whites first decided what place blacks should hold in society.
The sixteenth-century Portuguese argument that “enslavement was an effective method of bringing blacks to a knowledge of Christianity” (even though, as the friar Fernão de Oliveira wrote in 1555, few Portuguese slave owners even allowed their slaves to go to church) prefigured the “civilizing mission” with which European powers in the nineteenth century would justify their conquests of most of Africa.
To historians of early modern Iberia and researchers like the historical tour guide Naky Gaglo, whom Barragan credits for many of her insights into Lisbon’s past and present black history, these legacies of enslavement in Lisbon and their connections to racism and inequality in the present are already established knowledge. For outside communities with no professional or personal reasons to know about how enslavement in Lisbon and present-day racism are connected, they are not.
Whether this knowledge is pushed aside or not even consciously considered, they remain absent when navigation and connectivity across the sea are turned into myths detached from Portugal’s and Europe’s implication in colonialism and slavery.
Does any of this matter for making sense of the pan-European party that the Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be?
The “Europe” that Eurovision maps and celebrates today is geographically larger than the “Europe” of colonial maps, extending as far east as the Caucasus or Russia’s Pacific coast (plus, since 2014, Australia). Its eastern “peripheries” have given twenty-first-century Eurovision much of its energy and symbolic meaning, with broadcasters and even governments investing in Eurovision as a site for realizing their “return to Europe.” On the other hand, their access to the apparent center of Eurovision’s imagined transnational community appears more conditional when commentators in the West begrudge the so-called bloc voting they attribute to the East. Perhaps postsocialist enlargement is one way through which “Europe,” in Eurovision and even outside, might have been redefined.
Or perhaps not. Even before postsocialist assertions of identification with European “civilization” and, implicitly or explicitly, whiteness, the parallels between anti-colonial struggle and east European national liberations that state socialist regimes often drew could still go hand in hand with paternalistic attitudes towards development and with stereotypes of “Africa” and blackness that had originated in Europe’s colonial past.
Even nations without any history of their own as imperial powers, nations that spent centuries ruled by other empires instead, produced individuals who participated in colonialism as a system. There was the Croatian explorer Dragutin Lerman, for instance, who shortly before joining the Stanley Expedition to Congo wrote to a friend, “I am especially happy to represent my dear homeland Croatia in this kind of international expedition.” Lerman mapped large parts of southwestern Congo for the Belgian colonial administration and acted for several years as commissaire-general of Kwango Oriental. Imaginatively, even if not geopolitically, members of central and eastern European peoples—as my forthcoming book Race and the Yugoslav Region argues—have still been able to identify with the “Europe” colonialism made.
Since the collapse of state socialism, this has been ever more the case. The European Union that, during the 1990s, almost all postsocialist countries aspired to join as part of their symbolic “returns to Europe” (another such symbol was participating in Eurovision), was already implementing racialized migration policies that afforded the least legal mobility to migrants from the Global South. Yet many of the reasons the migrants’ countries of origin were so much more insecure and environmentally degraded than the European destinations where they sought to live were results of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
Today’s EU border security project, in which the EU has obliged Southeast European countries to play frontline roles and where the Central European Visegrád Group leads opposition to imposed refugee quotas, rests even more visibly on the logic that the public of member states will not accept Muslim and African migrants settling in their countries in large enough numbers to potentially change national culture. The ideologies on which present-day xenophobias and racisms in the EU depend—which are even sometimes turned, as in Britain, on East European migrants within the EU—stem ultimately from the ideologies of “race” that white Europeans had to internalize to justify their enslavement of Africans and their colonization of indigenous lands. Such continuities between past and present racisms are often not even drawn in the commemoration of slavery and abolition, but they are at the very foundations of what critical race theory “knows.”
The condition of not needing to know about racism or the histories and legacies of race is the privilege of whiteness—or of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” the asymmetry of knowledge that enables white supremacy. To live untroubled as a white inhabitant of a society that gained its wealth through colonial exploitation indeed requires displacing the knowledge that your predecessors, whose history supposedly gives you your cultural identity, obtained that wealth by impoverishing and enslaving other human beings. The dominant institutions of society, Mills argues, are structured so that whites do not, need not, and must not ever know.
The memory of slavery and the knowledge that present-day racism is a legacy of colonialism and enslavement are what Araujo describes as “wounded” memory. They are also wounded knowledge—knowledge that is painful for a historically dominant group to absorb. And they are dangerous knowledge—knowledge that threatens to upend the meanings of cherished collective myths and symbols, and change the emotions they arouse.
Eurovision host cities, for a week or a night, are cast temporarily as the “symbolic center of Europe, tying a certain narrative of their own histories into what they imagine as the continent’s heritage. In all its sixty-two years, Eurovision has never come from a city as tied to the history of slavery as Lisbon. The four Contests held in London are probably as close as it has come.
The historical narrative of Portugal, Europe, and the sea that has been designed for the next Eurovision Song Contest is, like many European countries’ public celebrations of their imperial pasts, the product of an exceptionalism that does not want to know that the curves of a masterfully constructed carrack are also the curves of a slave ship.