Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Politics of Apologies: Portugal, Slavery and the Politics of the World Order

I get extremely agitated when Portuguese academics express the need to apologize for, and attempt to undo the damage done during the colonial period, especially that of the slave trade that was conducted in part by them. It is not that there is no need to recognize that this slave trade, and other heinous practices under colonialism took place. There is such a need. An example of this need for recognition is the rather disingenuous manner in which in the course of a competition searching for the 7 wonders of the Portuguese architectural world, the history of slavery linked to a number of Portuguese architectural marvels was omitted. But this recognition does not necessarily imply the need for an apology. Even if it does, the fact of apology carries its own baggage; baggage that can further complicate relations between the colonizer and the formerly colonized.


When Portugal apologizes for slavery, it does not do so on a blank slate. It does this on a slate that is already loaded with a large variety of meanings. For example, it is understood that slavery was the slavery of ‘black’ people. Further, it is understood that this slavery was conducted by ‘white’ people. Thus when we apologize for slavery, we apologize not only as Portuguese, but as ‘white’ people who did grievous injury to ‘black’ people. What this apology does therefore, is to re-inscribe race back into international relations. It makes some people (not all) from the African continent black, and the people in continental Europe white.


This easy equation between white and black is also deeply problematic because the historical situation is not so cut and dry. When Portugal engaged in slavery, it was not only white people who were conducting this trade. The trade flourished also because there were other groups from the African continent (‘black’ and otherwise) who participated in this trade. Not just those in the African continent though; the slave trade was profitable also for a number of Goan families, whose current fortunes are built in part by their participation in the slave trade. For the Portuguese to ignore this complexity and shoulder the entire blame for the slave trade is sweet, but it results in another patently colonial act. It casts the (‘white’) Portuguese as responsible and the others (‘Black’ and African) as not. Classic colonialism rested on the distinction between the all-knowing, responsible, adult White, and the child-like, irresponsible, coloured native.


None of this is to suggest that the Portuguese are wickedly manipulating statements to re-inscribe a racial dimension to post-colonial relations. On the contrary, the urge to apologize comes from the more conscientious segments of Portuguese society, who are appalled by attempts to forget or ignore the barbarities committed in colonial times. However what they fail to realize is that given that the postcolonial world is already configured by certain practices established by the dominant powers of the world, their apology only goes to further complicate and worsen postcolonial relations.


What might these practices established by dominant global players be? Take for example the fact that when we speak of slavery we very often only speak of and imagine slavery in the Atlantic Ocean circuit (i.e. toward the Americas). The slave trade in the Indian Ocean is completely erased. Further it is imagined that only Africans were enslaved. Historians of Goa will know that there was also a slave trade in Chinese and peoples from the Far East. And yet one but rarely hears of this trade.


The reason for this bias is owing to the Anglo-American leadership of the debate. This stress leads to the whole imaginary that is created particularly for the US based Afro-American, that the continent of Africa is ‘Home’. There is the specific imagination of these Afro-descendants in the Americas as the African ‘Diaspora’. Some time ago, in the sixties and the seventies, the whole idea of a return to Africa, that was quite fashionable among Afro-American activists. The experiences of those who ‘returned’ were disastrous. The idea however still has some resonance. This longevity can be explained by the similarity of this construction with other racist and nationalist imaginations. It feeds from and in turn supports the whole idea of the State of Israel and the right of Jews to return to a land (that is imagined as originally being theirs). It buttresses the whole idea of Muslims in India being invaders and hence eternal outsiders to the country. The slave discourse that the Portuguese unwittingly enter into when they wish to apologize is loaded with such ideas. And to be sure, there would be some in Portugal, who would like to see Portugal as a ‘white’ space, with the Blacks knowing for sure that Africa is their space, to which they are more than welcome to return to.


As I stated before, there is a need for us to not ignore or forget the cruelties of colonialism. However this whole business of apologies seems to generate as many problems as it does benefits. For one it is similar to the whole idea of righting historical wrongs. When one tries to do that, one invariably gets into a larger mess than one started with in the first place. Have a look at the wars in the Balkans, the Basque demand, the Hindutva demand. Secondly, the apologies generate as indicated above a whole new system of relations between peoples and countries. The recognition of culpability generates the demand by African (and other Third World countries) for Western developmental aid. Once again, though we recognize that Western European and Northern American wealth is built on colonial exploitation, we should recognize that the demand for aid is not so innocent. It is the demand not of the masses of people of the African and Asian nations, but of their elites. The developmental aid that comes in on the backs of the recognition of responsibility is used to cushion these elites, and to push projects that invariably hurt the poor and the marginal of these countries. Finally, the politics of apologies push certain populations in the formerly colonized spaces into tight (and dangerous) corners. In the context where some segments blame Goan Catholics for the real and imagined attacks on Hindus during the pre-Republican Portuguese regime, does this politics of apology not further condemn the Goan Catholic?


The field of postcolonial relations is a mine-field. In the case of Portugal, which does not share the history of dominant world powers, the field is even more fraught with dangers. A case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are for sure however, ways in which we can recognize the sorrows of the past, not ignore them, and then go on to build relations that do not depend on apologies, especially when they involve the creation of further complications in our already troubled world. This route involves recognition of the combination of local and overseas elites in colonial domination. The route involves a refusal to allow any actions that would reinscribe racism and clientalism of formerly colonized States into international relations. The route involves getting on with our lives and not getting caught up in nationalist politics.


(Published in the Gomantak Times, 14 Oct 2009)

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was wondering: which Portuguese academics have been apologising for slavery and where?

Jason said...

Dear Anonymous,

If you had a name, perhaps I could consider formulating an answer for you. Without knowing who, or what you are, and why you are asking this question, how can I answer you?

Anonymous said...

As you may know, Jason, while in Goa I was subject to - how to call it? - demands for apologies for the Portuguese colonial past. Of course, it was not about slavery but about other wrongdoings. Needless to say, I refused to do it. Yet, as you point there are people among my countrymen that think apologies should be asked for. I look at this from a different perspective.

Let's consider that apologies are due and let's stick to your subject, slavery. Demanded by whom? Delivered by whom? On which account?

Who demands? Is there anyone that can claim to have been a slave under Portuguese masters? No. Is there any Portuguese that can be pointed to as being a practiser of slavery? No. Portuguese slavery disappeared some four or five generations ago.

Why am I asking this? It is not a minor historical matter. It's a civilizational issue and an issue of first importance. One of the cultural conquests of the Western world was a simple principle of Law and social structuring: Guilt and personal responsability is not transmited. What a person does is not inherited by his descendents.
This was not always this way, in Europe or elsewhere. Putting an end to the concept that sins (the capital sin, as was pointed to me by a very gentle, very intelligent, and very sensible Sri Lankan lady), guilt, responsibility are transmited from father to son was an underacknowledged but capital evolution in our society. The son of the Nazi cannot by accused of the holocaust perpetrated by his father; the son of the serial killer cannot be accused of the crimes of his father; the son of the man that condemns tens or thousands of people to misery just to appease his greed cannot be accused of the misdeeds of his father.
The son of the slaver cannot be accused of the slavery practised by his father.

When Western people claim we own appologies for slavery they are commiting a major felony. A felony against themselves. A crime against their own culture. They are debasing themselves.

Sergio Mascarenhas

Anonymous said...

Yet, there is more to it. There's an issue of power. People that claim that apologies are due don't just claim that. They put another claim, an unstated claim, and it deserves to be brought to light.

Consider person X, a Portuguese. He claims we should apologise for our slavers' past.
First, who are "we"? Not actual slavers - as I said before - because none of "we", the living Portuguese, was ever a slaver. It's not our slavers' past. It's the past of our nation.
Second, on which account can X claim a duty for apologies? On the account that he is Portuguese, in other words, part of the Portuguese nation. But why does being Portuguese grant him the right to put forward such a claim? This is the critical issue. On which account can any Portuguese citizen claim a duty for apologies from wrongdoings that were not done by that person or by any other living person - in other words, for which there is no clear personal responsibility?

The only answer is that as any citizen is part of the nation, any citizen represents the nation and is entitled to put forward in front of the nation an issue that is perceived as being a common issue. So far, so good. In a democracy anyone has the right to bring forward any issue. But the issue does not stop there. The demand for apologies is not rethorical, it is supposed to lead to action. In other words, it demands that apologies be issued.

By whom? Needless to say, those that demand are ready to utter the apology words. Or, at least, to demand from someone in power to issue those words (the President, the Parliement, a Minister, an Ambassador, etc.). Needless to say, this raises an issue. An issue of representation.

In fact, who is in position to claim to have a mandate to issue apologies on behalf of the nation (present, past and future)? This is never asked. Yet, it is a critical issue. An apology of this magnitude, an apology by our nation to other nations or to a whole section of the world society, is an issue of constitutional magnitude. It is squarely about our definition as a nation. It's up there, on top of the matters for which we require common institutions and strict representative procedures.

Still, person X never asks who is entitled to issue the apology. And there's always a lot of people ready to issue the apology whitout asking for permission to anyone.

And that's why this whole business of apologising is unacceptable. Because it is profoundly undemocratic. It's all about power. The power to claim the apology; the power to deliver the apology. A power that is never placed at the hands that should decide it: the nation. And is never attempted to be exercised in the only proper way: through democratic means, through democratic institutions, as a constitutional matter.

Sergio Mascarenhas

Anonymous said...

The issue demands a third comment. Apologies are useless. The claimants for apologies (and the willingfull providers of apologies) never question their right to demand for apology (or the right to provide the apology). Thus their claim is illegitimate and the apology is illegitimate. An illegitimate claim and an illegitimate act never appease, never achieve their purported aim. On the contrary, they acerbate the problem.

Besides, there will always be a new generation, and that generation will exercise its own claim to "represent the nation". That new generation will not be satisfied with past apologies. It will only be satisfied by a new apology, an apology issued to them. The thirst for power is never satisfied, it's a personal desire.

As a Portuguese citizen I can only say: I was asked by citizens of another nation to apologise for Portuguese wrongdoings. I refused to exercise a power I was not mandated to exercise. I refused to acknowledge the right on those people to demand for apologies since no wrongdoing had been done by the living Portuguese. I refused to accept that I had any responsibility for past deads not done by myself. I refused to accept that the claimants had any right to claim an apology - from me or from my living countrymen.

I don't recognize the legitimacy of any claim for apologies on the part of any of my countrymen. I don't recognize the legitimacy on the part of any of my countrymen to issue such an apology. I will only accept such a claim and such an apology if it follows the proper procedure: Since this is an issue of constitutional quality, it must be clearly placed in the Parliement and voted by a qualified majority. If this happens, I will accept it - even if I disagree with it. But only in that condition.

Sergio Mascarenhas

slave to the trade said...

oh, "the cultural conquests of the Western world"...

Jason said...

ha ha slave! you're too funny!

Anonymous said...

Well written...but what would this world be, if we (at the receiving end of enlightenment) could not have a little bit of nationalistic fun at the cost of our previous masters??? Demanding apologizes and threatening to reclaim stolen native antiquities are powerful tools in the hands of the native, while trying to pry open the citadel of Europe to a more coloured future. Tight visa regimes in the metropole insure that the spoils of colonialism- the liberalism of breast feeding fathers and Pamela Anderson - are still enjoyed by a tiny white minority.
To a future of less apologizes and more Portuguese passports to the natives!

Patricio said...

Slavery goes much deeper. It has lasting effects, that is why an apology is needed because it is affects society today. Although slavery was banned, the Estado Novo basically created slave conditions for Angola and Mozambique. Even though, European countries moved towards "good colonialism" during the winds of change. The Estado Novo wanted to keep African countries as part of its empire. Meanwhile, Portugal did not invest in any aspect in these countries and simply extracted resources to balance their fascist economy. Although a son of Hitler did not partake in his crimes, he STILL has to account for sins of the father and often carries the stigma. This is in all facets of society, not just the issue of slavery. Why do you think family members of Hitler live in seclusion and do not address the public? Every action carries lasting effects and carries on from generation to generation. To say no apology is needed or how to apologize is absolutely asinine. Portugal didnt leave Africa and its slave mentality until 1978.