Exploring Portugal’s Dark Past

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carnationsoldiers Chapter 5 – Lisbon Day 2 – Part 1

Waking up in a city you love so much, feels good. Yesterday, it was amazing arriving in Lisbon, but there’s just something about waking up, already in the city. Maybe it’s just my over-imaginative mind romanticizing the whole scenario, but who cares. I love waking up in Lisbon.

Normally, I’d just hop to a small pastelaria (bakery/cafe) nearby somewhere and grab uma bica e uma tosta mista (an espresso and a grilled ham & cheese sandwich), and then be on my way, but I think I’m falling into a routine of using the morning to write my blog about the previous day’s events. I tell myself I’ll do it at night, at the end of each day, but I never end up doing it… usually because I’m either too tired, or my internet just isn’t cooperating with me… or I’m still trying to finish off the one that I started in the morning and never got around to finishing. I find it difficult to just knock out an article quickly… probably because I write way too damn much. But then again, I do so much each day, there’s so much to tell! So, you’ll just have to tolerate my long-winded posts…. I’ve got a lot to say about my 2nd day in Lisbon, and a lot of really important info to give, so I’ll be splitting day 2 into multiple articles.

I started off my day by taking my computer to the nearby Starbucks (the only one in the city, and is located in one of my favourite locations… the art deco designed Rossio train station), use their better wifi, get a large coffee, and start writing.

After my wifi time limit ran out and I’ve had enough writing for the morning, I hiked back up the steep steps to my apartment to drop my gear off, and headed into the Largo do Carmo (cargo square) at the end of my street. Aside from this location being defined by the presence of the ruined Convento do Carmo, this now pretty public square has very important significance… it was the site of pinnacle point in the Carnation Revolution, the moment when everything changed for Portugal in modern history.

Largo do Carmo

Located right beside the ruins of the convent, on the east side of the square is the GNR museum…. I don’t even know the real name. It’s a military building turned into a museum about Portugal’s military during its more modern history. This was a little bit of a heavy way to start off the day, because Portugal’s modern military history include the colonial wars (as it’s called her in Portugal, but called the wars of independence in the colonies which fought for it). Colonialism was a huge part of Portugal’s history, but it was also a dark part of it.

Slavery has existed throughout most of history, and was certainly a big part of Europe for over a thousand years, used by various civilizations…. even throughout Africa, slavery was in use, but “classical slavery” as it’s referred to, was more like indentured slavery, or serfdom. What historians refer to as “chattel slavery”, instituted a much more cruel form of slavery, as it turned people into property to be bought or sold as if they were not people. In 1441 that modern slavery as we know it in the west, all began. Portuguese ship captains captured 12 Africans from the area now known as Mauritania to take them back to Europe, thus, effectively launching the beginning of modern European slave-trading in Africa. This museum wasn’t about slavery however, but it was about Portugal’s military history, and the colonization of various African countries, as well as Brazil, and some countries in south-east asia was a huge part of that. Military uniforms and weapons were proudly displayed throughout the museum…. normally, I would find this cool to see, but this time there was something uncomfortable and disturbing about it. Perhaps because there was also unintentional context attached to these displays, as they also displayed items and styles from the colonies in which they were fighting. Instead of making me think of the proudness of Portugal’s military might, this made me think of the people in the countries that were being suppressed – the people who were fighting for their independence, literally with their blood, sweat, and tears. As I came to the area displaying the uniforms and weapons used during the colonial wars, from 1961-1974, it made me think of my father-in-law.

My wife and her family are from the island of Sao Miguel in the Açores islands. They lived in a small town called Lomba da Fazenda in the Nordeste region (north east) of the island. Her dad was a delivery guy, delivering goods to businesses all over the island (if you see the terrain there, and understand that was before main roads were built, you’d be super impressed!)  He, like the majority of Portugal’s army was conscripted to fight. At the beginning of the Colonial Wars, the army was only about 58,000 strong, and it was standard practice to send the older and more obsolete into battle because they were deemed expendable. Most of the actual strength of their military came from using native warriors in the countries they were in. Needless to say, their army was ill-equipped for rebellion, and used conscription to drastically swell their numbers. After WWII, most of Europe started pulling out of their colonies in Africa, but from the 1920’s, Portugal was run by the Estado Novo, a facist military dictatorship run by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar… a name that still haunts many older Portuguese today. This was a time of true oppression, not only throughout the colonies, but within Portugal as well. Countless thousands of Portuguese were imprisoned, exiled, or simply disappeared. So, with a large family of children at home (and still growing!), Norberto Pacheco was conscripted into the Portuguese army, and sent to Africa. He doesn’t like to talk about his experiences during that war, so no one in the family (as far as I know) has a ton of detailed information about it, but I gathered that he fought in Angola and Moçambique. To the surprise of Susete, who he tells nothing to, every now and then when I ask, he’ll tell me a thing or two about it… I suspect it’s because he knows I don’t really understand what he’s saying anyway. Even though we don’t speak the same language, I can still gather small details… I know that he had to actually fight… shoot people, and that it was a dark period in his life that weighs heavy on his soul and haunts him to this day. I can see the pain that is still there when he talks, or even thinks about it. He didn’t choose to be there, and he isn’t proud that he was part of that. I’m pretty sure it’s a stretch of years of that he’d simply like to forget ever happened.


1800s Colonial era military accessories

60s uni

Gear used during the period of the Colonial Wars in Africa. Perhaps this is what my father-in-law had to wear


Although the facist government was stubborn in trying to hold onto its colonies and suppressive ways, the people of Portugal didn’t support it. In the end, it was army itself that turned things around, as the soldiers took it upon themselves to out the Estado Novo in a bloodless coup known as the Carnation Revolution. It was here, in the Largo do Carmo, on April 25, 1974, where the armed forces ousted then leader, Marcello Caetano (Salazar’s successor), and changed the course of history in Portugal, and helped secure independence for all of it’s colonies.

I’m now skipping through the day to later in the afternoon, because that’s when I visited the Museu do Aljube – Resistencia e Liberdade. This is a museum that’s dedicated to the revolutionary and independent movement of the events I described above. It’s a museum dedicated to the opposition of Salazar’s regime, as well as to Portuguese colonialism. In a small bout of poetic justice, it’s housed in what was formerly the main jailhouse used by the facist secret police. I think it’s also important to note that this is one of the few museums that is FREE to get into… that’s how important it is to them that people learn more about these times. They don’t even want money for it, they just want us to learn.

The museum consists of 3 floors, which are divided up by periods in time. It’s beautifully put together, even though it’s cold and evokes a dark and unconformtable feeling. I think they nailed it there. On the first floor, we learn about Portugal in between WWI and WWII. This is when the Estado Novo began (it started out as simply, the Military Dictatorship 1926-1933, Estado Novo was officially from 1933-1974). Political justice was shifted to military courts, and and sort of detraction was heavily censored. Opposers to the regime were imprisoned in the private jails or sent to the various concentration camps that were spread across the Empire. Basically, freedom ceased to exist in Portugal for 50 years.


Display of a former jail cell

The second floor is dedication to the beginnings of the resistance movement. There was strong opposition to the military regime right from the beginning. There was constant intense struggle, clandestine operations and numerous revolts, up until WWII. After WWII, an official anti-fascist political party was set up. Throughout the dictatorship, prisoners suffered from continuous physical and psychological torture during imprisonment. People could be taken away for the smallest murmur, or even the wrong look.

The 3rd floor is dedicated to the anti-colonial stuggle at home and abroad, as well as to the Carnation Revolution that finally claimed freedom back for Portugal and it’s former colonies. The wars throughout the colonies lasted for 13 years, and received heavy opposition from the majority of the international community. Heavy embargoes were placed upon Portugal, sending it into economic ruin (a poor economy that persists into present-day Portugal). In the end, determination and the need for freedom won out, as The Portuguese soldiers who spent so many years forced to fight on behalf of their fascist government, are the same men who put an end to the oppression. They decided they were tired of being forced to do something they didn’t want to do. They were sick that they had to kill the people in the African colonies. They took it upon themselves to begin working with the Africans and to go home to Portugal, and with the support of the civilian community, kick out Caetano and his supporters, and usher in a new era of freedom at home and abroad.

Almost no shots were fired during the revolution, and soldiers placed carnations in the barrels of their guns, as well as on their uniforms to signify that they were fighting for peace and freedom, not for more blood. It was the will of the people that won out… soldiers forced to fight, like Norberto Pacheco, and all his comrades, fought oppression and won freedom.

carnation wall

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