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  • ‘Portuguese’ Style and Luso-African Identity: precolonial Senegambia, sixteenth-nineteenth centuries
  • Patrick Chabal
‘Portuguese’ Style and Luso-African Identity: precolonial Senegambia, sixteenth-nineteenth centuries.. By Peter Mark. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

The comparative study of colonial history has long debated the question of how distinctive the contact between different European countries and Africa was. Most historians today would probably emphasise the common features of, rather than the differences in, the various types of colonial rule, however diverse the justification for colonisation originally given by the Europeans. It is nevertheless a well-rehearsed argument that the Portuguese were truly dissimilar, either for the better (as Salazarist ideology had it) or for the worse (as British public opinion has long held.) This contrast has in my view often been overplayed, sometimes with detrimental consequences for historical analysis1. There is, however, one area in which the nature of Portugal’s connection with Africa is unmistakeably singular, and that has to do with the role played on the continent by those who came to be known as Afro-Portuguese or, as Peter Mark calls them, ‘Luso-Africans’.

‘Portuguese’ Style and Luso-African Identity is an enquiry into the ways in which the Afro-Portuguese community, first established in the Senegambia region in the late fifteenth century, maintained their own separate identity throughout the centuries that preceded the imposition of formal colonial rule by the French, British and Portuguese. The author, who is an expert in the history of the region, approaches this question by way of a study of the architectural style of the buildings (houses, shops, trading posts) erected by the Luso-African community during that period. The focus on edifice, though apparently paradoxical since none is left to behold, makes very good sense, for two reasons. First, there is solid documentary evidence on the subject, stretching back to the sixteenth century. Second, the question of architecture is without doubt crucial in the affirmation of Luso-African identity.

Peter Mark demonstrates skilfully, and with the use of impressive evidence, that the concept of ‘Luso-African’ was not rooted in race, or skin colour. For well over three centuries, and to some extent even under colonial rule, people who claimed such ancestry identified themselves as ‘white’, regardless of the fact that most were physically indistinguishable from their ‘African’ neighbours. During that period, and this applies to other regions of Africa where such communities were established — either in Angola or along the Zambezi river — the Afro-Portuguese community maintained with the utmost steadfastness a distinctive ‘Portuguese’ sense of identity based primarily on linguistic, cultural and religious characteristics. Although most European travellers, particularly the British, found it difficult to accept that ‘black Africans’ could be ‘Portuguese’, not least because they frequently held rank (as chiefs or kings) within local society, there is not the slightest doubt that such identity endured over centuries.

Luso-African distinctiveness was asserted, and maintained, in specific ways, which the author explains most clearly. It turned on three key attributes: language, religion and lifestyle. The Afro-Portuguese spoke Portuguese (even if they could not always read or write), Portuguese-based Creoles as well, of course, as the local languages. Wherever they settled, therefore, they acted as intermediaries, most often as traders, between their neighbours and the Europeans. Second, they considered themselves to be Catholic, even if their practice of that religion did not readily conform to European demands and even if they were also involved in other local religious activities. They had Portuguese names, professed Christianity and followed the main rituals of the Catholic Church. Finally, and this is where Peter Mark has provided unrivalled evidence, this community sought to sustain a ‘Portuguese’ lifestyle, which meant in fact that they lived in distinct ‘Portuguese’ houses, possessed Western clothes, and used European furniture, including at times crockery and silverware.

‘Portuguese’ Style and Luso-African Identity, however, focuses more specifically on the design and architecture of the Afro-Portuguese buildings. Peter Mark has done a remarkable job in researching the widest range of existing sources on the question of ‘Portuguese’ style in the Senegambia region from the earliest possible records. He provides noteworthy documentary evidence of the construction of square...

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