A Privileged Source of Information


João Cosme


Europeans have seen themselves as being at the centre of the world since the beginning of civilisation, and in many ways that notion still remains today. Two examples are the fact that we refer to Europe and to a minority of other countries with white settlers as the ‘First World’ and refer to the rest of the countries as belonging to the ‘Third World’, and we literally put ourselves in the centre and on top on a world map.

When the people of the ‘old continent’ -another designation which implies the ‘original’, ‘the first’ - started to have systematic contact with populations from other parts of the world, with the beginning of a period of so-called ‘discoveries’, it would seem logical to think that the situation might have changed. Euro-centrism could lose some of its strength once Europeans became more aware of the vastness of the lands and peoples from other parts of the world. However, what happened was the opposite. Europeans created a whole range of myths which denigrated non-Europeans and in many ways they stripped them of their humanity. Anyone with dark skin was not considered to be human and this ideology was used to justify Europeans’ alleged superiority and therefore legitimise their conquests and the cruel practices associated with them, such as slavery. This supposed superiority would also give the imperialists a sense of purpose and destiny, which was intimately linked with a romantic vision of greatness associated with conquest and moral purposes. The colonisations were justified in many cases with the supposedly noble principles of civilising or Christianising the people of other cultures. This greatness of the imperial status was an extremely important feature in the world view of European countries, such as Portugal and Britain.


However, after World War II, there was a political gust which brought with it huge political and social transformations which revolutionised the geo-political face of the planet: anti-colonial movements, especially from Africa and Asia, acquired an unprecedented force and started to win over world public opinion. This was the beginning of the process which would put an end to formal colonial empires, and by the mid-seventies, apart from minor exceptions, that process was complete.


The independence of the colonies and the end of the imperial status had a tremendously traumatic effect on the people and institutions of the former imperialists, who were used to seeing themselves as rulers possessing vast territories and were now of equal status with their former colonies and confined to their exiguous European borders. Looking at the cases of Britain and Portugal, it is clear that the world view of imperial status remains a fundamental part of their identities as nations today. School syllabuses, films, media news, government institutions continue to enhance the ‘glorious past’ of conquests and discoveries.


In fact, after the loss of their colonies both these countries sponsored the creation of associations which clearly perpetuate colonial ties: the British Commonwealth and the CPLP (Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa), an association of nations with Portuguese as their official language. From a European perspective, the discourses which justified these associations implied a patronising humanist purpose of fighting recurrences of racism and of helping the former colonies to stand on their own two feet. However, on several occasions the Commonwealth has been an embarrassment for Britain, precisely for contradicting these values. The most important example came when thirty-one countries boycotted the Commonwealth games of 1986 because Britain opposed sanctions against Apartheid South Africa (it was against the ‘national interests’ of Margaret Thatcher’s government) and this drew great attention from the international media. In recent decades several groups from both left-wing and right-wing political spectrums have questioned the purpose of the Commonwealth and asked for its abolition, and even politicians would not know exactly what to do with it. On one occasion the British Prime-Minister John Major even stated that if the British could not find a purpose for this association, it would eventually disappear and acknowledged that he did not know what that purpose should be. However, and despite the fact that a proper role for this association has not yet been ‘discovered’, the Commonwealth remains.


On the Portuguese side, ever since Portugal lost its colonies, the importance of the Portuguese language has been constantly emphasised in many speeches both from academic and political circles as the national pride and legacy the Portuguese people spread into the world. For that reason the ‘Instituto Camões’ (in a similar fashion to the British Council) belonging to the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs still pays language teachers to teach in universities all over the world. The Portuguese government has also shown great enthusiasm in promoting the broadcasts of state-sponsored television and radio networks in lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African countries, and the concept of lusofonia-a notion of a united cultural identity shared by all Portuguese-speakers of the world- gained strength both in the political and intellectual arenas.


Some people have convincingly argued that lusofonia and all the paraphernalia of devices created to support it were indeed put in place to somehow restore the former colonial links. In fact, a report from the British NGO ‘ActionAid’ from 1995 stated that the Portuguese government usually sees cooperation with the former African colonies as a way of ensuring a Portuguese presence and that everything concerning language gains priority over other issues, which contradicts the humanist discourses which Portuguese politicians claim to be at the core of the links with their former colonies.


What is extraordinary about the relationships between Britain and Portugal and their former colonies is the fact that, in an era where the logic of capitalism and economic relations seems to dictate every single aspect of relations between states, there are elements of these relations which for affective and emotional reasons do escape that logic. Sometimes these emotional factors are associated a great deal more with the imperial ghosts of European countries than with genuine affection towards the people of the former colonies, but those links do exist. This does not mean in any way that Portugal and Britain do not on many occasions benefit economically from their privileged relation with their former colonies, but there are a great number of situations in which they don’t. In fact, from a purely pragmatic economic point of view the Commonwealth and CPLP do not always make sense and it would be easier to maintain the economic ties and forget about all the rest; however, these nations refuse to do this.


The reasons are related to the fact that both Portugal and Britain suffer from a type of ‘post-imperial syndrome’ and there is in the world view of their people and rulers a desire for greatness which is not shared by the countries which never had an empire. For example in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Bulgaria and many others, there is absolutely no concern about the fact that no one speaks their languages outside their countries and that does not seem to pose any problem. However, in Portugal and Britain the strength of the imperial past is strong enough to make governments commit resources to causes which will have no economic return and influence foreign policies.


While the English language is already expanding and mostly due to the United States, thus leaving the British with no real leadership in the world, the Commonwealth appears to be an international space where that leadership can be obtained, and despite appeals for the association to end, no British government seemed to have even seriously considered letting it go. In the case of Portugal, language is the only way the Portuguese could retain traces of their imperial legacy. Ironically, both these countries have been surpassed by their American former colonies (U.S. and Brazil) which, through their private sectors and with hardly any efforts from their governments, manage to exert more cultural and economic influence than their former colonisers. Brazilian soap operas and music are extraordinarily popular in lusophone African countries (and in many other areas outside the lusophone region) and the American dominance in the world cultural arena is undisputable.


There is one important difference between the roles of Britain and Portugal in their new associations though: while Britain can lead the Commonwealth and do without some of its members if they decide to leave the organisation, the CPLP would not make sense without Brazil, since it accounts for more than 80% of the total of native Portuguese speakers, which is, after all, the justification for the CPLP’s existence.


Although the focus of this article has been on the negative aspects of the relationship between the Britain and Portugal and their former colonies, it must be stated that there are positive aspects as well. On many occasions, because of this affective link, economic and logistic help from Britain and Portugal have allowed many social and cultural projects from their former colonies to be implemented.


In any relation, and in order to truly broaden our horizons, we have to think less of ourselves and more about the ‘Other’ which is in front of us. If the governments of European countries continue to think of themselves as being at the centre of the world and forget that the Earth is round and that there are no centres at its surface, we will continue to be prisoners of our own ignorance. Institutions like the Commonwealth and the CPLP can only make sense if, among other things, there is a real desire and curiosity from Europeans to truly learn about and share knowledge with the other countries, rather than merely trying to perpetuate their influence in them, and in global politics this attitude has severe consequences. We have to bear in mind that because of the economic dependency of most former colonies on the West, the actions of European governments have a real impact on the lives of many people in the southern hemisphere, and the primary focus of these actions should always be the real needs of the people rather than European colonial ghosts.