Uncovering Lisbon’s Forgotten History of Slavery

View of Lisbon and the Tejo River (Credit: Susanne Nilsson, Flickr).

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.

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Yesenia Barragan

Yesenia Barragan is a historian of race, slavery, and emancipation in Colombia, Afro-Latin America, and the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. She received her Ph.D. in Latin American and Caribbean History from Columbia University. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. Her forthcoming book, Frontiers of Freedom: Slavery and Emancipation on the Colombian Pacific, explores the gradual abolition of slavery on the Pacific coast of Colombia, once the gold mining center of the Spanish Empire. Follow her on Twitter @Y__Barragan.

Comments on “Uncovering Lisbon’s Forgotten History of Slavery

  • Avatar

    thank you Yesenia Barragan for this fascinating posting which I have posted on to FB, and which people have found really interesting.

    One notable thing for me is the extent to which the trade in enslave Africans was embedded in Portugal before the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Columbus in 1492. I do think Atlantic slavery was formative of modernity. But the timeline jars with or unsettles this a bit.

    Be interested to know if others have thoughts, or can give references on this.

    But thanks again, great posting.

    Bill Cooke

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    Thank you, I’ll take Naky’s tour the next time I’m in Lisbon.

    I’m an American living in Seville, another city with deep ties to the Atlantic slave trade. Many Spanish people I’ve met refuse to believe there was slavery in Spain despite vast evidence to the contrary. But they’re quick to point a finger at Portugal.

    K. Hawkins

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    Great post!

    It’s important to note, however, that since Diego Cão didn’t arrive in Kongo until the 1480s, the Kongo diplomatic missions did not pre-date the 1440s.

  • Avatar

    thank you for this — this work is a great model /incentive for all the other studies of almost all major european cities, including in regions that are commonly not even remotely connected to the plantation orbit…

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