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Discovering Colonization, Decolonizing the ‘Discoveries’ | How the Padrão dos Descobrimentos can contribute to the decolonization of Lisbon’s memoryscape and Portugal’s internal process of restorative justice.
by Giulia Dickmans
August 2021, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in the neighborhood of Belèm, Lisbon, with critical graffiti “Blindly sailing for money, humanity is drowning in a scarlet sea”.

«The end of the empire has yet to be assimilated into Portuguese national identity» the historian and activist Elsa Peralta argued in 2017 (Peralta, 2017). Although Portugal’s imperial history has never been a secret, since the carnation revolution, and the contextual loss of its colonies, only the positive aspects have been integrated into Portuguese national identity, and celebrated in urban planning and tourist attractions. Only recently, the shift from a colonial to a post-colonial identity in Portugal has accelerated. Following a global trend started in 2015 with the South African movement “Rhodes Must Fall”, Lisbon’s memoryscape has started to change, but only partially [1]. If on the one hand, a new monument to commemorate the victims of the slave trade is being erected in the center of Lisbon, on the other, older landmarks, like the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), located in the utterly touristic neighborhood of Belèm, remain untouched as an ongoing celebration of the Portuguese empire and the age of discoveries [2]. The aim of this article is to do what stakeholders, afraid of affecting the touristic vocations of such a venue, seem unable to. It will acknowledge the oppressive historical process behind the Monument to the Discoveries, and the organized violence and power structures it celebrates  in order to encourage immaterial compensation based on the semantic reinterpretation of the site. Thus, this article is not only meant as an act of intellectual honesty but the first step toward social justice and the reconciliation of the different components of contemporary Portuguese society.


New and old landmarks

Since 2017, following civil society demands and campaigns, local authorities have agreed to reshape Lisbon’s memoryscapes. On the one hand, the aim seems to be the transformation of the city’s public space into a more inclusive environment for the different segments of society. On the other, to give more comprehensive representations of the colonial history of the country. While the controversial project of Lisbon’s former mayor, Fernando Medina, to build a new “Museum of the Discoveries”, shaped like a caravel, seem to have faded; in the heart of Lisbon, the construction through public funding of a memorial to remember the victims of slavery has started. This new landmark promoted by an association of Afro-Portuguese citizens – Djass – and created by the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda will be located right by the prominent waterfront. The plantation-shaped memorial carries a global and local meaning. It not only enshrines the acknowledgment by the local community of the crucial role the Portuguese empire had in the slave trade, and how the imperial economy profited from it. But it will also show to tourists from all over the world the dark sides of Portuguese colonial past. The creation of this memorial, and the public debate sparked from it, is part of a slow process of restorative justice undergone by Portuguese society. This is particularly felt in Lisbon which is home to many Afro-Portuguese people, mainly coming from the former colonies of Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Mozambique (INE statistics, 2009) [3].   

Project by Kiluanji Kia Henda for the Memorial to the Enslaved People in Lisbon. © Kiluanji Kia Henda.

The meanings and role of already existing monuments remain unchanged. This is despite the public debate surrounding the discoveries, slavery, and colonialism, and the multilateral confrontation on how these histories should be reflected in future monuments in Lisbon’s landscape. Around Lisbon, in fact, the traces of empire have remained untouched and still absolve their original role of symbolic glorification of the “age of discoveries”. A primary example is the Monument to the Discoveries, which since 1960, has become a monolithic integral part of Lisbon’s memoryscape. This huge white caravel, built during the Salazarian regime and dominating the right bank of the Tagus River, like many other sites around Belèm is not just a neutral space, but part of wider socio-political discourses which reflect the extent to which memory is contested through its continuous reactivation and discursive transformation (Steiner, 2009). However, when it comes to historical periods in which images and monuments were produced mainly by western colonial powers to celebrate and justify their brutal domination, images are not sufficient anymore, and interpretations are needed (Kader Attia, 2004). Therefore, instead of building new sites of memorialization and creating new images, it is urgent to clarify the meaning of the existing ones through the acknowledgment of their history despite the alleged negative impact this would have on tourism.

Branding the Padrão

Since the economic crisis of 2008, Lisbon has followed the path of other global cities like London, Barcelona, and Berlin and is undergoing rapid touristification and gentrification processes, which are changing the city (Sassen, 2005). In 2017 Lisbon welcomed 4.5 million tourists from all over the world, who contributed to Portugal’s economic growth (Nelson Garrido, 2018). For example, if we look at GDP, the relative importance of tourism’s contribution places Portugal 30th out of 185 countries, and the direct contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in 2016 corresponded to 6.4% of the GDP. This is forecast to rise. Maitland and Ritchie argue that the growth of tourism is intertwined with the creation and reiteration of a certain “brand image” of the city or country (Maitland and Ritchie, 2009). This branding is usually based on some site-specific characteristics: natural attractions, cuisine, nightlife, sports, music, or the culture in general. What is central in Lisbon’s nation branding is its mythical imperial history, visible all over the city through museums and monuments like the one to the discoveries. Although these sites have a more complex history and meaning, they are often advertised only as proof of the “golden age of the discoveries” (Peralta, 2017).

In fact, in Peralta’s opinionPortugal is commonly depicted as a pioneer of intercultural dialogue, and the Portuguese people as “discoverers” of the modern world, while the asymmetrical power relations of Portuguese colonialism are forgotten. The roots of this national branding will become more visible in the next paragraph when looking at the history of the Monument to the Discoveries. It sufficessaying here that these monuments and museums which attract visitors and sustain the local economy, celebrating the “glorious empire” and a benign project of cultural globalization, are offered to the visitors’ gaze for touristic consumption.

A mural criticizing gentrification in Lisbon’s neighborhood of Alfama branded as the Fado district because of its musical tradition © Giulia Dickmans

The Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which overlooks a limestone square featuring a Rosas-dos-Ventos and a Mappa Mundi showing the Portuguese routes of discoveries, was gifted by the South African government and rises in the neighbourhood of Belèm. This neighbourhood is described by Ellen Sapega as «…an urban area where successive versions of official, state-sanctioned memories of Portugal’s imperial project have been conflated with material remains» (Sapega, 2008). From Praça do Império (Imperial Square), the central square of Belèm, some of the main tourist attractions of the city can be found within a relatively small area. The foundation of the Portuguese national brand are the Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, the Monument to the Discoveries, the Belém Palace, and the Monument to the Overseas Fighters. The latter one is the last colonial addition to Lisbons’ memoryscape. Inaugurated only recently, in 1994, to commemorate the soldiers participating in the Portuguese colonial wars, once again it manifests the authorities’ will to celebrate, within the city’s public space, the empire and those who fought to keep it intact.

Among those, also the Monument to the Discoveries is one of these material remains and has a special meaning for the city of Lisbon for three main reasons. Firstly, for the economy over the years it has become one of the main tourist attractions in the city. Secondly, for historical reasons it is from here that the voyages of conquest and discovery departed more than six hundred years ago, and where Salazar decided to build the same moment twice (as explained below). Thirdly, the Monument to the Discoveries has a specific role in the representation of Portuguese national identity after the end of the colonial empire. In fact, according to José Manuel Sobral, two complementary themes emerge on the site. The nation, as a natural entity inherited by tradition, and the idealized notion of the maritime saga, which transmits the image of an empire without colonies: religious, humanist and universalist (Sobral, 2003).


The Monument to the Discoveries from 1940 until today 

Conceived at the beginning of the 1940s under the Salazarian regime on the occasion of the Portuguese World Exhibition, the Monument to the Discoveries was realized by architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida. The initial aim of the monument was to commemorate the nation’s “Double Centenary of National Independence”: celebrating the year 1140, when Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself the first king of Portugal, and the year 1640, when King John IV launched the war of independence from Spain [4]. This first version of the monument was dismantled after three years, then reconstructed in the same form between 1958 and 1960, when it was inaugurated “on the Fifth centenary of Prince Henry 1460–1960” [5]. Since then, this huge structure, populated by a total of thirty-three figures, among them warriors, navigators, monks, scientists, artists and clergy who were involved in the discoveries and colonization, has been untouched despite the carnation revolution and the contextual process of decolonization. The only changes have been inside the monument, where three new areas dedicated to exhibitions and screenings opened in 1985 under the name “Centro Cultural das Descobertas”.

In the 1930s, while in Italy and Germany totalitarian propaganda was spreading, in Portugal architecture was the main ideological vehicle. There are three main messages behind this monument, which correspond to the chronological history of the place. In 1940, the initial aim of the monument was to commemorate the discoveries and celebrate the empire. Salazar, at the height of his regime, wanted to create an invented tradition to legitimize his nationalist project, which was inextricably tied to the idea of a Portuguese empire made of continental Portugal and its overseas territories. Salazar’s project was to graft old identities onto new ones, and the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition was a great opportunity to present to the nation and the rest of the world as a powerful and centralized empire. Only later, in the 1950s, the co-optation and adaption of Gilberto Freyre’s Lusotropicalism into national propaganda began(Yves, 1997; Clàudia 1999; Cardão 2015). [6] It was indeed a reaction to the anticolonial challenges to European imperialism, which became much more visible and politically effective with the onset of political decolonization after World War II, and for Portugal with the beginning of the bloody colonial war in Angola in 1961.

The view of the Monument to the Discoveries from the seaside resembles those of a ship. It indirectly reminds the tourists of the original function of this area which was the imperial port. © Giulia Dickmans

So, in 1960, the idea of rebuilding the same monument in the same place was an anachronistic way to hold on to the empire, which was slowly but inexorably falling apart. Once again, Salazar tried to depict the Portuguese people as good colonizers bringing Christianity and civilization to the natives rather than diseases and exploitation (Sapega, 2008). In fact, the decolonization processes taking place all over Africa were about to strike continental Portugal, dragging the country into different conflicts. All in all, on the one hand, the creation of the monument in 1940 was understandable given the European constellation of totalitarian regimes, and rebuilding it in 1960, as Valentim Alexandre has observed, «[…] led to the ‘sacralization’ of the empire… [and] robbed anticolonial currents of any political space» until today (Alexandre, 1998). Finally, the importance of this monument for Portugal’s national branding and identity formation was renewed once more in the EXPO ’98, which was itself described as a “magnificent vessel” showcasing the ancestral Portuguese spirit of discovering and sharing (Power and Sidaway, 2015; Smits and Jansen, 2012).

Today the Monument to the Discoveries is one of the most visited around Lisbon, with a very high percentage of foreign tourists [7]. However, its original meaning remains unknown to most, let alone celebrated. As Stefanie Kappler argues, memoryscapes are relational and acquire their meanings through social discourses and practices (Keppler, 2016). Since these practices are not only a product of the relations between people acting around those artifacts of memory but also of the relations between people and such memory sites themselves, it is interesting to know what visitors think about the Monument to the Discoveries now. In a research done in 2019 on the travel platform TripAdvisor, which is a great tool to analyse user-generated bottom-up perspective of heritage sites, only 2 out of 315 comments point out the colonialist and Eurocentric narration embedded in the Monument to the Discoveries [8]. All the other positive comments either praises the view and the position within the Belém area, as well as the “bombastic” and “impressive” dimensions [9]. A few users comment on the meaning of the monument with enthusiasm and astonishment, admitting they were not aware of the “glorious past of Portugal”, and define Portugal as a “power nation”, and the monument an “epitome of bravery and determination” [10]. All in all, there is a general ignorance, or lack of interest, about the history and meaning of the monument. Some people associate the monument with Soviet or Gaudì’s architectural style, while others are not sure what it represents and why [11]. This is not surprising since there is no explanatory plaque outside the monument, and most of these comments are made by international tourists who are probably not familiar with Portuguese history and the Salazarian regime.


Tourism is colonialism?

«Blindly sailing for money, humanity is drowning in a scarlet sea» these words appeared on the base of the Monument to the Discoveries in the summer of 2021. The media depicted the graffiti as vandalism, and the inscription was immediately removed. Only a few months earlier, the socialist deputy Ascenso Simões had suggested, without any success, to demolish this symbol of imperialism. Once again, the chance of reseeding a prominent monument of Lisbon had gone lost. Sapega argues that the lack of public debate around the Monument to the Discoveries is because «it is often more comforting to celebrate beginnings rather than endings, just as it is easier to continue to celebrate the age of discovery rather than decolonization» (Sapega, 2008). Ten years later, small things have changed, and the project of building a monument to the abolition of slavery is just a small step toward Portuguese internal reconciliation. However, instead of building new sites of memorialization and creating new images, the most urgent action remains to clarify the meaning of the existing ones, like that of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which are yearly visited by millions of tourists. The history of the monument is in fact, only partially told in the public realm and while the new landmarks of Lisbon are more representative of an inclusive historical account, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos remains untouched and keeps on celebrating the “golden age of discoveries”.

This street art stencil comparing tourism to colonialism appeared in many neighborhoods of Palermo in 2018, during Manifesta, the European nomadic art biennale. During that period housing prices went up because of the many visitors/curators renting short-term accommodations on Airbnb. © Giulia Dickmans.

To reinforce an immaterial compensation based on the semantic reinterpretation of the Monument to the Discoveries, a few very simple actions could be undertaken by the stakeholders shaping Lisbon’s public space. First, place an information plaque outside the monument, where the history of its construction can be explicitly explained and contextualized within Salazar’s imperialist project. Second, provide free access to the monument’s interior, where critical exhibitions about the Portuguese empire sometimes take place. Third, take on the public and political debate surrounding Belèm by integrating newspaper articles about the ongoing decolonization of Portuguese colonial history into the monument’s official website. It is vital to merge different perspectives and political agendas, to gain a more comprehensive collective memory and avoid creating new sanctuaries of fragmented memories, something previous projects have risked. After all, dealing critically with  colonial history is not only important for social justice in Portugal, but could also be an economic opportunity. The decolonization of public space in Portugal could become an integral part of its national branding, as Germany did with denazification and the memorialization of the Holocaust, which has become an important tourist venture. If Portugal considers this path, the next step will be to keep in mind another risk: that of tourism becoming colonialism. However, tourism can be different from colonialism if it is about more than creating new images to exploit the city to the advantage of wealthy foreigners, and instead urges reflection on the meaning of its “national brand” and its memoryscape.


[1] Rhodes Must Fall was a protest movement originally directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that commemorates Cecil Rhodes, former prime minister of the Cape Colony. The campaign for the statue’s removal led to a wider movement to “decolonise” education and public space across South Africa and the world. Memoryscape (memory + landscape) defines sites that have a specific meaning for a community/city/nation. More about the topic can be find in Linda Steiner, “Competing Memories, Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies”, Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12(2): 214.
[2] According to the Portuguese Direção-Geral do Património Cultural (DGCP) in 2018, more than 4 million people visited the monumental area of Belèm, of which the Monument to the Discoveries is an integral part. LINK Accessed April 18, 2022.
[3] Restorative justice is based on restitution with input from victims and offenders. Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation, and the rebuilding of relationships. More about the topic can be find in Morris, Allison. “Critiquing the Critics: A Brief Response to Critics of Restorative Justice”. The British Journal of Criminology. 42 (3) (2002): 596–615.
[4] As also inscribed on the metal anchor on the bottom left of the monument: “AO INFANTE D. HENRIQVE E AOS PORTVGVESES QVE DESCOBRIRAM OS CAMINHOS DO MAR” (To Prince Henry and the Portuguese that Discovered the Roads of the Sea).
[5] As inscribed on a crown of laurel on the bottom right of the monument: “NO V CENTENÁRIO DO INFANTE D. HENRIQVE 1460 – 1960”.
[6]  Freyre’s complex concept of lusotropicalism inspired various stereotypes about Portugal and the Portuguese, namely the idea they were more adaptable to the tropics because of their alleged plasticity – materialized in an adaptation to different climates, mobility and the ability to miscegenate – and more successful colonizers than the rest of the Europeans. The regime adopted a simplified and nationalistic version of luso-tropicalism to justify its imperial project
[7] In 2010, 86% of the visitors to the Monument to the Discoveries were foreigners. “Visitantes estrangeiros por monumentos nacionais”, IGESPAR, accessed August 20, 2018.
[8] Juan V, Germany, December 31, 2016, comments on TripAdvisor “Sad to see how the slavery and colonialism ideas still are a thing here”; MaronnaSanta, Italy, February 6, 2015, comments on TripAdvisor “Orribile e bello allo stesso tempo. Il monumento”. Accessed August 18, 2018.
[9] AxelLinsay Hemiksem, April 10, 2014, comments on TripAdvisor “bombastic.in remembrance of the great discoverers”, ibid.
[10] Helen S, London, UK, July 16, 2018, comments on TripAdvisor “Impressive Monument. Stands as a testament to”; Kaya Ç, July 14, 2018, comments on TripAdvisor “Breathtaking symbol of the country.”; TravelWithRosy, Reading, UK, comments on TripAdvisor “One of the stops were to this Boat monument”, ibid.
[11]  Sid B, Northampton, UK, October 2, 2017, comments on TripAdvisor “Interesting, odd. A very large and imposing”; AngeleneFay, Brisbane, Queensland, March 10,2013, comments on TripAdvisor, “Nice monument, impressive. Not much”, ibid.


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Giulia Dickmans is a historian, writer, and activist based in Berlin, about which she wrote a feminist guide. Her main interests lay in questioning power structure, mainstream/subaltern narratives, the construction of memories, and oral history.