previous sub-section
9— 'We are all Portuguese!' Challenging the Political Economy of Assimilation: Lourenco Marques, 1870–1933
next sub-section

Challenging Assimilation: 'We are all Portuguese!'

In their study of plantation protest, Vail and White demonstrate how ideas for reinforcing, modifying and challenging practices which characterize social relations can be articulated in ritualized song and dance when those forms are understood by the participants to be the appropriate vehicle for such expressions.[68] The Lourenço Marques black elite of the turn of the century accepted the press and petitions to colonial administrators as their vehicles for such expressions, and they developed their press with a gift for allegory and mockery suggestive of the most effective ritualized song.[69] Their declamation, 'We are all Portuguese!', was often in that sense richly charged. In one breath it dared anyone to suggest that they were not the equal of any metropolitan middle class white and at the same time mocked Portugal with the contrast between the posture and reality of her much vaunted 'civilizing mission'.[70]

When the Grêmio published its first newspaper in 1908, the stage was set for struggle. Many whites were out of work, and hard times and heightened racism combined to make the crucial division in day-to-day relations between people one of race. The intensified struggle had a different impact at different levels, however, and such differences reflected the important divisions existing among 'those persons of the black race and descendants of the same'.

The challenge 'We are all Portuguese!' was itself situationally fluid, but it evoked an implicit order in the minds of the Portuguese-speaking, Catholic elite of the Grêmio, who were its principal proponents in this period. They perceived themselves as the natural leaders of the majority population, 'civilized people who are moral, principled and know how to civilize', and therefore deserving of recognition (and sometimes employment) as such.[71] At one level they asserted their identity as middle class Portuguese nationals and their conception of themselves as key figures in the extension of capitalist relations of production. At other levels they argued for the weight of shared cultural traits over different racial characteristics, thus stressing their own superior position vis-à-vis both working class, uneducated whites and educated blacks who were Muslims or did not speak Portuguese.

The Grêmio elite pointedly described white workers in the very terms whites frequently reserved for blacks: common, illiterate, filthy, and slothful. The mature elite was still sufficiently confident to allow much of the crude racism of the white press to slide off its back. They were not, after all, miserable, poor or filthy. They did not sing and dance at work, but rather dressed and lived for the most part like petty bourgeois Europeans. They no more identified with Portuguese peasant culture than did their Portuguese counterparts. They were just as appalled by the ill-clothed, frequently unwashed Portuguese immigrants who indiscriminately cursed, spat, and defecated in the town's streets as they were with similarly behaved Africans. They neither doubted nor sought to confirm their social distance from poor blacks or poor whites in this period.[72]

One must appreciate the class confidence of the black elite in these years to understand the extent of their subsequent disillusion. By the 1920s, as it became ever more clear that race, not class, was pivotal in colonial relations of domination and that that process would continue to erode the economic position of the


remaining black middle class, the elite increasingly faced up to the implications of the crude racism which they had formerly largely ignored. They could still maintain the distance necessary for effective mockery, however:

 . . . leave the native in a state of primitive ignorance so that the Negro only serves as manual labour under the yoke of a white man, illiterate though he may be, so that the white man can honestly issue his whip lashes if the black does not tip his hat or doesn't stand when [the white man] goes by. . . . All this would be tolerable if it were simply the case with bush country blacks, but Merciful Lord, this is spreading to the middle class![73]

Like their contemporary petty bourgeois counterparts throughout southern Africa, they portrayed themselves as the natural leaders of the majority who 'generally justif[ied] their authority by an ethic of service and by universalistic virtue of achievement by merit'.[74] They largely subscribed to free market values and the naïve belief in the role of the state as fair-minded 'referee'.[75] In keeping with their capitalist orientation, they condoned certain kinds of controls over all workers and in general advocated temperance, discipline and diligence at work.[76]

Their refrain 'We are all Portuguese!' reflected their identification with Vasco da Gama's idealized 'civilizing mission', and the Portuguese Republic's heralded 'Equality, Liberty and Fraternity'.[77] They thus rejected all notions of civilization which were rooted in white privilege and black servility. If 'civilization' meant that Africans be the pack horses, the rickshaw pullers and eternal slaves who were just literate enough to read the laws which raised their hut tax, they asserted, then surely savagery was preferable.[78] If whites alone were fit to hold colonial positions as full citizens, then what was all this nonsense about 'Equality' and 'Fraternity': 'What colour citizens did Portugal expect to find in her African empire after all, citizens côr de rosa ?'[79] By the 1920s, when the colonial administration began to pressure black children out of public schools to avoid 'mixing of different psyches', the elite's self-assurance had become strained and the Grêmio's response was angry:

Our youth will go to carry coal, rob and prostitute themselves. Throw them out of school, do away with passes and álvaras de assimilac'ão and simply brand them with an iron. Did someone say Portugal came to Africa to civilize?[80]

Despite their attack on Portuguese racism and hypocrisy, the Grêmio elite returned to the 'more Portuguese than thou' argument, particularly in hard times, in their struggle to rise to the mesa de funcionalismo (bureaucratic table)—to feed at the public trough as civil servants.[81] The Grêmio elite's self-promotion aggravated existing tensions within the black elite. Educated Muslim Makua, for example, competed with the local Christian elite for much-coveted positions as office workers at the port authority. Throughout this period both the white workers' press and the Grêmio's newspapers joined in periodically railing against allowing Makua to hold such positions. The Grêmio members felt those positions should be theirs as the 'most Portuguese' of the local elite. They ridiculed the Makua as 'vassals of the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid Khan', and alleged they 'roasted goats to Allah' and lived from the sale of drugs and the prostitution of their women.[82]

At each of these levels the Grêmio elite emphasized what they considered to be their own merits. They conceived of their status in a variety of terms but, clearly, cultural self-identification as Portuguese citizens was central to the manner in which they framed their assertions. It is difficult to judge the extent to which the elite's emphasis on a shared cultural and national identity was in part encouraged


by white workers tending to frame their demands for jobs and better treatment in similar terms.[83] It is evident that there were elements of manipulation for self-promotion and sincere internalization of sentiments involved throughout, but the proportions differed depending upon the writer and the period. As early as 1909, for example, Grêmio leaders realized that not only would the best educated, most privileged blacks in Mozambique be competing with better educated, better trained white immigrants, but that, all qualifications aside, whites would utilize patronage and political sympathies in seeking placement in better jobs, at higher wages, and with more social, economic and political privileges than 'people of colour'. José Albasini, an official forwarding agent, co-editor of O Africano, and one of the most prestigious Africans in the town, editorialized in 1909:

It is no longer by one's merits that a person's worth is judged, it is by one's colour. . . . What one needs in order to compete for a position today is to be white. . . . If you are coloured, live on a few crumbs of bread—the land is for the white man.[84]

Albasini's conception of the state as a fair-minded referee may have been shaken by increased racial discrimination in civil service hiring, but although such disillusionment fed a certain radicalization among the elite, in this period the elite never approached the insight that 'States were and are engines of oppression, not civilization.'[85] They were rather more likely to respond with a challenge to the state to live up to its claim to be guarantor of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Albasini's positivism, basic moderation and loyalty to the state overshadowed his consistent criticism of forced labour and racial discrimination. He was lauded by colonial authorities as 'a fine guide for the native masses, very considerate and never allowing any compromises in the prestige enjoyed by those who governed the colony'.[86]

Not every writer in the O Africano stable could expect similar praise, and there were limits of official tolerance for criticism framed in assurances of loyalty. One of the great strengths of the Grêmio press when it was strong, however, was its ability to argue issues in terms which the Portuguese administration would find both powerful and awkward to suppress. Brado Africano's editorial of 14 October 1922, written during the period of the League of Nation's hearings inspired by the critical reports submitted in cooperation with the Anti-Slavery Society and the Human Rights League, took that tolerance near its limit:


Every now and then our English friends, from simple bad faith, challenge us with being slavers and other nasty things. We must say, in the service of truth, that slavery as such does not exist at least in the Province of Mozambique. The police unconstitutionally seize peaceful citizens on the pretext of not having a [labour registration] tag, and then rent us out to anyone needing labour. This . . . isn't slavery. We don't really know what it is, but . . . it isn't slavery. Local administrators order citizens to be seized and rented to white planters, and the crops of these poor blacks are lost because while they are away working for the whites their crops are neglected. Clearly this isn't slavery, just as it isn't slavery to imprison women on the pretext that their husbands owe their hut tax . . . etc, etc.

But foreigners, those who aren't familiar with our administrative processes, see these things which we have mentioned, and other things which we haven't mentioned, and they think of it as slavery. . . . Our Consul, Sr. Alpoim, was correct to protest forcefully what these foreigners are saying . . . but it is not enough to protest this, we must change our attitudes and treat the black dog (the nigger) like a human being—he is.[87]


In sum, the Grêmio elite mustered their conceptualization of shared cultural characteristics in a variety of situations and at a number of levels. They argued that it entitled them fully to share the privileges of citizenship; they used it as a shield behind which sharply to challenge political practice; and they used it as a wedge to promote themselves ahead of others. The acuteness and confidence of the Grêmio's campaign periodically wavered as individual writers felt disillusion temporarily engender despair, but despair and apathy did not emerge as sustained intellectual currents undermining the Grêmio elite until the 1930s. It was then that a sequence of events transformed a confident elite which sought non-racial patronage links with the dominant group in the hope of ensuring their prosperity and leadership role into an apathetic, disunited and profoundly disillusioned generation.

previous sub-section
9— 'We are all Portuguese!' Challenging the Political Economy of Assimilation: Lourenco Marques, 1870–1933
next sub-section