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Review of The Last Empire: Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization


By Corrado Tornimbeni

The Last Empire. Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization. eds. Stewart Lloyd-Jones and António Costa-Pinto. Intellect Books, Bristol & Portland (OR), 2003. 156pp. ISBN 1-84150-109-3. £.19.95 (pb)

This book, published on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Portuguese revolution of April 1974, is in fact the result of a conference on Portuguese decolonization organised by the Contemporary Portuguese Political History Research Centre (CPHRC) and by the University of Dundee’s Department of Politics in September 2000. A number of experts were asked to debate the processes by which the Portuguese colonies gained independence, and the influence of these events on the future of these countries and of the Portuguese state, with a clear emphasis on the latter.

The first part of the book includes a chapter by Richard Robinson, which questions what influences the nationalist struggles in the colonies had on the development of the metropolitan revolution; and a second one, by António Costa Pinto, which is more concerned with how events in Portugal influenced the decolonisation process. Robinson’s basic argument is that while the liberation wars in the colonies contributed crucially to precipitating the revolution, its eventual outcome and the following political developments were shaped essentially by internal confrontations in Portugal. Costa Pinto instead explains how the particular socialist pathway followed by Africa at independence resulted from the interaction of events in Lisbon, in Africa, and in the international arena, although he adds little to the arguments in MacQueen’s outstanding book, The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa (1997). He concludes by examining what integration into Europe following the revolution signified for Portugal.

An example of the kind of arguments the reader would be looking for in a volume like this is represented by the chapter by Malyn Newitt on São Tomé e Príncipe, which, together with the following one by Arnaldo Gonçalves on the former Portuguese India, East Timor, and Macao, form the second part of the book. Newitt points out that the political situation in Portugal, the prevailing international position, and the resulting choices made at the time of decolonisation, did not lead to the best long term economic prospects for the country, and that other options for the future did exist. Gonçalves on the other hand conducts a brief and mainly chronological account of the decolonisation of the Portuguese oriental colonies as well as of their destinies afterwards. The reader might well wonder what is the rationale behind his reference to the ‘impeccable disinterest [...] and [...] feelings of solidarity’ (p.63) of Portuguese decolonisation.

One of the more significant themes of this book is raised by its third part, which addresses the relationship between Portugal and its former colonies after their independence. This represents an under-treated issue in academic and popular discourse, a fact having some relation with Michel Cahen’s argument in what the introduction of the book surprisingly describes as a ‘rather provocative chapter’ (p.viii): Cahen points out that the interest of the PALOPs (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa) in establishing privileged relations with Portugal has been rather weak. The chapter by Luís António Santos, on the other hand, proposes a discussion of the different ‘expectations’ in the creation of the CPLP (Comunidade de Países de Língua Portuguesa) deriving from the ‘weight of history’, before making an evaluation of its problems and delays. Finally, Martin Eaton discusses how a new ‘spatial division of labour’ has emerged out of the increasing presence of African immigrants in the Portuguese labour market.

The last part of the book includes the ‘testimonies’ of the distinguished historian Douglas L. Wheeler and of the well-known journalist and activist António de Figueiredo. Wheeler offers a document that he presented to the United States’ Department of State in 1974, on the eve of the revolution in Portugal in April. Its interest lies in the extent to which subsequent events effectively followed the path he predicted. Figueiredo, by commenting on facts and events that he personally went through, highlights delicate issues such as the nature of Portuguese colonial relations with the colonised societies; what were the driving forces behind the events of 1974-1975; the weight of the choices made by the revolutionaries in Lisbon and by the nationalists in the colonies; the legacies of the colonial state; Europe as a substitute for the colonial empire within the framework of the democratization process and economic development in Portugal.

The above themes evidently still represent a contested terrain today. This book addresses them in quite a comprehensive way, although, in general the reader would probably appreciate being given comments that contribute more directly to the debates that have emerged in the last thirty years on the decolonization process and its consequences.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 90-91]

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