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Review of “Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity: Precolonial Senegambia, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries


By Malyn Newitt

 “Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity.  Precolonial Senegambia, Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries by Peter Mark. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis,  2002. ISBN  0 253 34155 8. £18.95.

Peter Mark’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the Creole communities of West Africa.  He focuses on the ‘Portuguese’ of the upper Guinea region and tries to answer some key cultural questions with regard to this and similar social groups.  Identity is one key issue – what did it mean to be ‘Portuguese’ – and cultural exchange another – exactly what did this group owe to its Portuguese and its West African connections.  The latter is dealt with through a detailed case study of the origins and spread of the maison à la portugaise.  Questions of identity have become almost an obsession with some writers on cultural history, though the inevitable conclusion, that people have multiple identities which can be defined either by themselves in terms of what distinguishes them from outsiders, or by others in terms of what is perceived as making them different, is now an almost predictable outcome of any discussion.  The understanding of what it is to be ‘Portuguese’ has changed over four centuries and  cannot be neatly ascribed to adherence to the Christian religion or the adoption of a Portuguese Creole language.  The cultural markers of Portuguese-ness were living in a maison à la portugaise and taking part in trade.  In short the Portuguese became a status group within local societies.

The central part of the book consists of a study of the origins and nature of the maison à la portugaise – defined as a square, whitewashed house built of mud bricks with a verandah or porch.  Mark tries to establish two theses – that this style was African rather than Portuguese in origin and that it travelled from West Africa to Brazil and thence to the Caribbean where it became a truly international style.  The problem with this section of the book is that there is almost no first-hand evidence of what houses looked like in West Africa prior to the nineteenth century.  There are no pictures and there have been no excavations.  Moreover the argument becomes very circular when the author admits that the use of verandahs is widespread in Europe and Africa (not to mention other parts of the world) and that in the nineteenth century Afro-Brazilians brought a number of cultural traits back to Africa including architectural styles.  In this discussion functionalism has to do battle with diffusionism – verandahs are developed to keep out the sun, houses or living quarters are raised off the ground to avoid damp, vermin and to catch breezes, whitewash is used as a protection against insects and there is no real reason to suppose that any of these features of a building have to be diffused from some central point.  Later in the book architecture returns as a theme with colonial administrators trying to confine building styles within the straitjacket of their imagined racial categories.

The book is interesting in looking at the whole Lusophone Atlantic and showing that West Africa has cultural extensions in the islands and in Brazil.  This is an exciting approach but it is surprising that there is so little in the book about the other Luso-African communities of western Africa (Elmina and Dahomey, São Tomé, Kongo or Luanda) let alone the Luso-African communities of eastern Africa.  Surely a look at these “Portuguese” would throw a great deal of light on the issues debated in this book

There are some excellent things in this book – the description of religious ‘flexibility’, for example (pp. 86-8) and the all too brief section on marriages (pp. 89-90) where we hear of one ‘Portuguese’ woman trader who, according to a contemporary skilled in the use of the double entendre, ‘spoke good Portuguese, French and English, a certain indication of the extensive commerce she had carried on with all these nations’.  But here is the rub.  This is not a comparative study of all the Creole communities of Senegambia nor is it really a comprehensive study even of the Afro-Portuguese.  To achieve that there would have had to be more detail on the history of the mainland settlements and the island trade. What role was played by the Cape Verdians who came to upper Guinea as seasonal farmers, ponteiros or just as refugees from drought but who returned to the islands? Moreover I would have liked more on the role of the fascinating women members of this community, the sinharas, who so often feature as the dominant figures in contemporary accounts, and I would like to have known how patrilineal Portuguese families interacted with matrilineal West African lineages.  How did this work in practice?  How was inheritance managed?  How successfully were the “Portuguese” able to live in both worlds?


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 76-78]

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