Lisbon versus the Orient

The idea to make a trip to Portugal derived mainly from tasting some delicious self-made pastéis de nata in the Netherlands, however quickly the main focus of the trip became unraveling Portugal’s colonial past. Portugal emerged as one of the main European maritime powers in the middle of the 15th century. The Portuguese sailors established trading posts along the African coast and colonized parts of India and South America. It was Portugal that started with transporting enslaved Africans to sugar plantations elsewhere. Portugal furthermore had a lasting presence in contemporary Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tomé and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde until the 1970’s. Many countries that once were great empires have a perception of decolonization as something only taking place in former possessed territories. However, Portugal’s need to decolonize its society became clear by visiting the Museum of the Orient. During the visit to the museum, Margaret Lindauer’s approach of “The Critical Museum Visitor” was applied in order to examine spoken and unspoken messages by the museum.

Portuguese territories
Overview of all the territories belonging to Portugal at some point in time

A really short history of colonial Portugal¹

Firstly, a short introduction of Portugal’s colonial past will be discussed, in order to understand the observations made in the Museum of the Orient.

Pioneering Colonization 

In the 15th century, Portuguese navigators were the first to understand the Atlantic winds, which enabled them to reach the Southern point of Africa, India and the Americas in an early stadium of European colonization. As a matter of fact, Portuguese sailors were pioneers in applying gunboat diplomacy during the 15th and 16th century. The force of Portuguese gunpowder was no competition against the weaponry of the peoples in the coastal areas of Africa and India. The goods of the Portuguese explorers did not impress the indigenous people of rich and vibrant places like Calicut and Zanzibar. Therefore, the Portuguese needed to coerce trading agreements with violence, enabling them to establish beneficial trade relationships. The way the Portuguese demanded ownership of the sea was new to the civilizations around the Indian Ocean, where trading connections were established by paying tribute to rulers rather than by applying force.

Portuguese Atlas 1519
The Map of India, Arabia, the Horn of Africa the and Indian Ocean by Pedro and Jorge Reinel (Miller Atlas)

Portuguese navigators 

The first Portuguese navigators are mentioned as European heroes in history books, talking about men like Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan. Throughout the 15th century, Portuguese ships explored the African west coast in order to find the doorway to India. Hereby they encountered valuable trading goods along the African west coast (gold and enslaved Africans), furthermore it gave Portuguese sailors enormous amount of knowledge about the winds and streams of the Atlantic. Throughout these decennia, the Portuguese became experts in observing and collecting information about winds, streams, weather, latitude, and other elements necessary to master the sea. This resulted in excellent cartographic knowledge, and an excessive amount of information about major ports, monsoons, and ocean connectivity. Hence it was the Portuguese Bartholomeus Diaz who reached Cape of Good Hope (nowadays Cape Town) in 1488; Vasco da Gama the city Calicut (nowadays India) in 1498; Pedro Álvares Cabral who stumbled upon the Brazilian coast in 1500; and Ferdinand Magellan Malacca (nowadays Malaysia) in 1511.

Atlantic Ocean Currents
Atlantic Ocean Currents, taken from Richardson, David, and Filipa Ribeiro da Silva (e.d) Networks and Trans-Cultural Exchange: Slave Trading in the South Atlantic 1590 – 1867. Brill, 2004.

Trade and Religion 

The aims of these explorations were very clear from the beginning: trade and religion. During the 15th century, the Islamic Ottoman Empire was at its peak, including the expansion into Europe. Catholic kingdoms, as Portugal, saw it as their duty to expand Christianity by reaching out to other Christians in the world or to convert people. Furthermore, such justifications would give the Pope’s blessings to overseas endeavors, which was important for the competitive European monarchs. These legitimations resulted in the spread of Christianity to East-Africa (Mozambique), South India (Goa), China, Japan, and East-Asia (Malacca).

Besides the sacred activities, Portuguese sailors also indulged in the lucrative trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, it were the Portuguese who invented the trans-Atlantic slavery by purchasing enslaved Africans and forcing them to work on sugar plantations in the Algarve, thereafter on islands before the African west coast, and finally on sugar plantations in territories across the Atlantic ocean (Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. Simon & Schuster, 1999.). Elmina castle built by the Portuguese, in nowadays Ghana, functioned as trade hub to forcefully move approximately 4.86 million Africans to Brazil in about 300 years time (Richardson, David, and Filipa Ribeiro da Silva (e.d) Networks and Trans-Cultural Exchange: Slave Trading in the South Atlantic 1590 – 1867. Brill, 2004.).

Not only were millions of people killed due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, diseases also functioned as serial killers. The Portuguese have most likely introduced syphilis in South-East Asia. Hereby killing thousands of native peoples, who had no cure for this unfamiliar disease. This is similar to what happened in South-America where Europeans -amongst others the Portuguese- brought diseases like tuberculosis and yellow fever, hereby wiping out entire civilizations.

Due to the tremendous knowledge of navigation and diplomacy, the Portuguese were able to build a global empire, hereby establishing intense networks. Although trading routes in these areas already existed for centuries, the intensity of the emerged connections was new. A result of these intensified connections was the Columbian exchange: the crossing of commodities, people, and diseases from one continent to another. This is the background information necessary to understand the context in which Portugal “explored” the world.


Pre-visit observations

The Museum of the Orient is located in Lisbon. The museum has a permanent exhibition on Portugal’s connections with Asia. The permanent collection consisted of objects and paintings from the heyday of Portuguese colonialism. Before going to the museum I already had certain expectations, due to my professional background in colonial history. I wanted to visit this museum because I was interested in the way Portugal’s colonial heritage was depicted. In other European museums, I had noticed how museums were nationalistic and uncritical on the colonial past. I perceive museums as public spaces that try to tell visitors a story, perhaps even convince the visitor of a certain retelling. Most of the times museums are places that support or even contribute to the master narrative existing about a particular event/object/ region. This particular museum connected to my expertise in the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, as Portugal was the initiator of this exploitation. I wondered how Portugal would display their colonial imperium, knowing it had contributed to such immense human tragedy for more than 300 years. Apart from Portugal’s actions in the West, there was also the “discovery” of India at the end of the 15th century. Before the arrival of the Portuguese, centuries-old trading networks flourished among the Indian Ocean, driven by amongst others cherished textiles from India. I was especially curious how the museum would incorporate that story into the narrative about empire building. I kept these thoughts and questions in the back of my mind when I visited the Museum of Orient in Lisbon.

Museu do Oriente
Museu do Oriente in Lisbon

The building 

First of all, it was rather a challenge to eventually find the museum as it was located in an industrial area on the outskirts of Lisbon. The building used to be a warehouse but was refurbished into a museum in 2008. On the walls outside were two sculptures that supposed to give the building a somewhat ancient character. The depictions, of the sculptures, were hard to interpret: some figures were clearly working while others -in the middle- seemed to be supervising. The building supposed to refer to Greek temples, consequently glorying Europe’s civilization while housing exhibitions from other parts of the world. This transmits the idea that the exhibition will show European history or something related to (bringing) European civilization. The building already gave away the narrative that would be used to tell the story of the places invaded by Europeans. On the ground floor of the museum was a conference center, on the first floor was the exhibition about Portuguese overseas connections, and the second floor focussed on a form of Chinese opera. The walls were painted black inside the museum, hence it was very dark. The objects were highlighted with lights, making the signs rather hard to read from time to time.

The display 

The objects were displayed in different regional sections.  The objects were the main attractions, because of the darkness in the building. An ideal museum visitor would admire the artifacts from and about these far-away places, without questioning the story of the objects. The display of the astonishing paintings, carpets, and pottery created a celebratory representation of Portuguese activities in Asia. The objects were presented as a one-sided quick journey through these regions. This was because of the lightning that made it hard to read the signs, consequently impossible to interact with the object. When I visited the museum there were only a handful other visitors. The other visitors were white and middle-aged,  therefore their eyes might even have more trouble reading the signs.

Unspoken and spoken messages 

When one takes the time to read the signs next to the objects a clear narrative emerged. I was rather stupefied by the outspoken master-narrative of the Portuguese as civilizers. The first example is the painting of Macau (Portuguese territory until 1999) by George Chinnery. The painting shows a view of Macau focussed on the nearby ships, hereby clearly intentionally conveying a message about trade and maritime power. The sign next to the painting exactly replicates this conscious message without problematizing it: “… Portuguese trading post still living the last days of a splendorous period as the great cosmopolitan center of trade between China and the West”. Questions that arose in my mind were: for who was this such a splendorous period? At what cost came this trade between China and the West? What was the reason this painting was produced?  The museum “forgets” to mention that China was not eager to trade with the West, therefore designating special territories for Western countries to establish trading posts, like Macau for Portugal (Bitterli, Urs. Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492 – 1800. Stanford University Press, 1989.).

Painting Macau
Painting by the English painter George Chinnery 1846 at the Museum of the Orient in Lisbon
Text Painting Macau
Sign about the painting by George Chinnery

Another example is the section about India, after all, “discovered” by the Portuguese Vasco da Gama. One of the objects is a scale model of the city Bassein, which was located on the lucrative east coast of -nowadays- India. In 1584, the Portuguese invaded the city with the help of their gunpowder, forcing the Sultan of Gujarat to retreat. The city had an ancient past, created more than 1000 years before the arrival of the Portuguese, due to its key location for spice trades. When looking at the scale model of the city, it seems as if the Portuguese were the ones founding this city: what is the purpose of the scale model? What is the aim of showing this ancient old city? The sign, next to the scale model, elaborated on the Portuguese victorious invasion of the city, which apparently caused the flourishing of the city during the subsequent two centuries. This contradicts with other information available about Portuguese presence in the city Bassein. An example is the fact that Portuguese settlers had made a business of enslaving Indian girls,  teaching them to sing and dance in their taverns to entertain guests in any manner possible. Once these enslaved girls reached adulthood, they were to be sold to temples (R.J. Barendse. The Arabian Sees. The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century. New York 2002.). Again, the narrative of the museum is one-sided and trying to educate the visitor rather than encouraging a critical conversation between object and spectator.

Scale Model Bassein
Scale Model of the city Bassein in the Museum of Orient in Lisbon
Display Vasai
Sign about the scale model of Bassein

In sum, the exhibition demands the visitor to appreciate Portuguese connections with these far-away places, as this created the rich variety of fine objects in the museum. The visitor is a tourist partaking in a quick journey around the world through European eyes. There is no attempt to criticize the violent Portuguese explorations in these places. There is no engaging dialogue with the visitor whatsoever. One walks away from the museum wondering what peoples from the conquered regions would think of this.

Beyond the display 

The exhibition in the museum is clearly intended for a European public, who want an uncomplicated overview of Portuguese colonial endeavors. The museum supported and even created a master narrative that is all too familiar in European countries. The retelling of the colonial period as a rich, diverse, profitable, friendly, grateful period in time. The narrative of the oppressed peoples is entirely overlooked and silenced. Another point of discussion, regarding museums displaying artifacts from former colonies, is how they obtained their displayed objects. For instance, the beautifully woven carpet made in Gujarat in the 18th century; how did the Portuguese obtain this carpet? Was it stolen? Given as tribute? These are valid questions to be discussed or encouraged by the museum. After all, the mission of the  museum is:

…to build links between civilizations in the West and in the East that have became indispensable to guarantee a peaceful future in the 21st century.  Its legacy is the spirit of the bygone Portuguese, the navigators who invented the union of the world.  Its purpose was and is to guarantee the actuality of that extraordinary vision that every day continues to be put to the test. (Directly copied from:

Tapestry India
18th-century carpet from Gujarat at Museum of the Orient in Lisbon

The museum should depict the links between the West and the East accurately in order to fulfill their mission, consequently discarding the notion that Portugal “invented” the union of the world. Rather, the museum should give an honest account of the ways their displayed artifacts came about, hereby including the perspectives of the ones at whose expense the wealth and prosperity were generated. For improvement, the museum could embrace distinct interpretations by creating multiple personas through which one visits the museum, hereby looking at the objects from different standpoints. Or providing debatable questions on signs to encourage multiple interpretations of the objects. Of course, it is a risk for the museum to take a different approach as this could cause them to lose their regular visitors, who feel comfortable with the master narrative.



The master narrative in the museum shows that decolonization is something that still needs to take place in former European colonial powerhouses.  This essay started with describing Portugal’s colonial past, whereby negative impacts were examined of Portuguese hegemony over the Indian and Atlantic Ocean during the 15 and 16th century. This historical context formed the base for a critical visit to the Museum of the Orient in Lisbon. The museum clearly perpetuated the master narrative common in most post-colonial European society; lacking a critical examination of the so-called “Golden Ages”. The museum and society at large would benefit from embracing multiple perspectives on Portuguese endeavors overseas during the heyday of European imperialism.

  1. Most information from this part of the essay is derived from Roger Crowley’s book about Portugal’s early conquers of overseas territoriesCrowley, Roger. Conquerors. How Portugal Forged The First Global Empire. Faber & Faber, 2015.
  2. For this critical museum visit, the approach by Margaret Lindauer is imitated.  Lindauer, Margaret. “The Critical Museum Visitor”. New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction Edited by Janet Marstine, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, Pp. 203- 225.

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