As early as 2016, shortly after publishing the first issue of this journal, we thought of making a dossier about the commemorative cycle of the “Portuguese discoveries” that took place in the late twentieth century. Many of us, historians today, had been educated during this long commemorative cycle: school materials and academic research, television programs and artistic productions, and even the city of Lisbon itself, were forms of commemoration largely sponsored by the Portuguese state, notably through of the National Commission for the Commemoration of the Portuguese Discoveries (in office from 1986 to 2002).
In early 2018, twenty years after the Expo ‘98 held in the Portuguese capital, we decided to organize a dossier in which we could critically review the policies to commemorate the so-called “Portuguese discoveries”, and thus begin to understand which stories had been told. We wanted to understand the various commemorative discourses, as well as the counter-discourses and controversies. Above all, we were interested in understanding how the historical events targeted by the commemorative initiatives – from Vasco da Gama’s sea voyage to India to the arrival of Pêro Alvares Cabral’s fleet in Brazil – as well as the Portuguese celebrations themselves had been interpreted in other national contexts, particularly in countries that had been part of the Portuguese empire. We would thus displace the historiographical discussion from the former metropole.
As a way of organizing the dossier, we launched in the spring 2018 a call for papers for the seminar “Discoveries” Politics, Memory, Historiography. At that time, there was a controversy about a hypothetical «Museum of Discoveries» that brought to the public debate the historiographical reflection on that period, starting with the very way to name it. The main narrative of Portugal’s history and the place of the history of the Portuguese maritime expansion in it have become the object of lively public discussion and we hope that this venture of ours can somehow contribute to this debate, both public and historiographic in its troubled relations. First, this will somehow dispel the misconception that once history is written it is forever set in stone, stressing instead that history is constantly being reconceived with the eyes of a present of which commemorative projects are the most visible expression. It will thus help us escape the naturalization of a type of history that, once told, is always ready to be celebrated. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, by shifting the center of the commemorations of the “discoveries” from the Portuguese metropole and the narrative of national history, this dossier allows us to consider and denaturalize who is the “we” who commemorates the history of Portugal today, when the inheritance of an imperial country is reflected in its population; who is the “we” that celebrates, when we think also of the descendants of the populations of the American, African and Asian regions affected by the Portuguese expansion.
The papers that we received allowed us to broaden the chronological scope of our proposal and to insert the commemorations of the “Portuguese discoveries” at the end of the twentieth century into a long-term historiographical category which, in this case, dates back to 1898.
The dossier opens with an article by Marcos Cardão addressing the television program “A grande adventura” [The great adventure], starring public historian José Hermano Saraiva, in order to study the mediatization of the topic of “Portuguese discoveries” in democratic and postcolonial Portugal. Through his analysis, Cardão shows how a realistic rhetoric, supported by formal audiovisual devices, construct-ed linear narratives centered on the achievements of great men that crystallized historical memory and thus helped to naturalize imperial benevolence. The problematization of the visual representation of the “Discoveries” continues in the following text, focusing on how visuality has also conveyed disputes and alterities of that historiographic category. Iara Schiavinatto, displacing the gaze from the colonial metropole, approaches the theme of slavery in the formation of the Afro-Brazilian art category, in a cycle of exhibitions that took place between 1990 and 2000, in Portugal and Brazil. This cycle made it possible to inscribe slavery in a politics of memory and, according to the author, to visually refute the narratives of luso-tropicalism and racial democracy.
The dossier also has two texts that take the commemoration of the “discoveries” to other geographies and temporalities. Stefan Halikowski-Smith and Benjamin Jennings allow us to look at how the “Portuguese discoveries” were celebrated internationally at a time when Portuguese decolonization was under debate in this arena. This third text of our dossier analyzes, through military, diplomatic and academic initiatives, in particular a 1960 exhibition at the British Museum on the 5th Centenary of the death of Prince Henry, how the commemorations of “Portuguese discoveries” promoted forms of cultural diplomacy and Anglo-Portuguese academic exchanges in a context of progressive deterioration of the relationship between Portugal and the United Kingdom. Going further back, to the time of the celebrations of the fourth centenary of Vasco da Gama’s voyage, the last article of the dossier, written by Jaime Rodrigues, focuses on a 1898 text of maritime history to draw conclusions about the figure of the sailor in Portuguese historical culture.
Outside the dossier, but seeking to contextualize the commemorations of the “Portuguese discoveries”, we also publish an article that returns to the empire’s capital to think about the colonial memory produced by the Portuguese state. Nuno Domingos analyzes how Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, considered the greatest African football player, born in Mozambique and celebrated in Portugal, became a national hero in the latter country and, after his death in 2014, experienced a process of patrimonialization that led his body to the National Pantheon in Lisbon.
In order to multiply the historiographical narratives that destabilize the assumptions that ushered and supported the commemoration of the “Portuguese discoveries”, we also publish an interview conducted by Barbara Direito and Elisa Lopes da Silva to a pioneer of African history in Portugal, Isabel Castro Henriques. Following her long career, we talked about the disagreements and struggles during the institutionalization of the History of Africa discipline in an academy still dominated by the history of discoveries and expansion. Finally, we publish a brief essay by Diogo Ramada Curto, in which he situates and defines the weight of the theme of slavery in the part of the work of historian Vitorino Magalhães Godinho concerning the expansion and construction of the colonial empire, finding complex and integrative approaches to the “Portuguese discoveries”.
The final words of this editorial were reserved to briefly honor the recently deceased António Manuel Hespanha. Member of the Scientific Board of our journal, an intellectual reference for all of us, Hespanha was the historian chosen to present the first issue of Práticas da História. The testimony we publish results from the text he sent to our journal on the occasion of his participation in the seminar that gave rise to this issue. His testimony as Commissioner of the National Commission for the Commemoration of the Portuguese Discoveries (1997-2000) offers us not only a review of that commemorative cycle, but also an opportunity to pave the way for a debate on the possibility of holding celebrations based on a critical history that questions the foundations of its doing. In his words:
“By devoting himself to describing the multiple forms of “pulverization” of Truth, Morality, Consciousness, Man, the historian is describing himself and his discourse as wounded by the same splintering and thereby refusing any scientism or essentialism and automatically questioning whatever he writes. Furthermore, by exposing such a shattering, he opens the door to new alternatives for social, political and cultural organization”.
Elisa Lopes da Silva and José Ferreira (ICS — University of Lisbon)
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