The House of the Students of the Empire in Lisbon

Published

How does a common home initially founded by mostly white students and supported by the Portuguese government birth one of the most fiery and radical Pan-African publications? In this text, Ana Naomi de Sousa and Sónia Vaz Borges explores the history of the Casa dos Estudantes do Império in Lisbon. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

De Sousa & Vaz Borges Funambulist (2)
Hommage to “the students of the Empire.” / Data and illustrations by Ana Naomi de Sousa & Sónia Vaz Borges; artwork by Léopold Lambert (2020).

“I could never have dreamt of things such as this — it is sublime […] infinitely human […]. This book brings me so much, including the certainty that the Black man is awaking in the world.” These are the words written in 1948 by a young African agronomy student in Lisbon, upon reading the Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poésie Nègre et Malgache (Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry), published that year. The young writer was Amílcar Lopes Cabral, the revolutionary intellectual who would go on to lead the Bissau Guinean and Cape Verdean independence movement until his untimely death. At that time, however, he was still a university student, and one of the regulars at Lisbon’s Casa dos Estudantes do Império, an association for students from Portugal’s many colonies that was to play a crucial role in the downfall of the very regime that created it. 

With Portugal already 20 years deep into the oppressive rule of Antonio Salazar, the first “House of the Students of the Empire” was founded in 1943 in Lisbon, by mostly white, African-born university students, who were closely connected or outwardly sympathetic to the Estado Novo regime. Suggesting that their distinct experience as children of the empire needed its own space in the metropolis, they were supported by the Ministry of the Colonies, who believed the Casa would reflect and nurture the colonial and ideological values of “Portugalidade.” This was related to the way in which Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia were rebranded in the mid-1940s, henceforth referred to as “overseas provinces” (“provincias ultramarinas,” or simply “ultramar”), as if part of a single Portuguese nation that spread across the continents from Europe to Africa to Asia under the slogan “Portugal is no small country.” Assimilation had been introduced throughout the colonies under the Estatuto dos Indígenas (Native Charter), meaning racialized colonial subjects could apply for the near-white status of being “assimilated” (understood as having been “europeanized” and thus “civilized”), and gain access to the colonial city, to employment and, crucially, to higher education in Portugal. Becoming assimilated meant denouncing indigenous language, religion and social customs in favor of the Portuguese and it was a system that both ensured a favored, educated, creole elite to administer the colonies; and helped to market Portuguese colonialism as a benevolent endeavor that would implement a kind of “racial union.” A side effect of this racist system of segregation (built on the foundations of Lusotropicalismo), a small but growing number of Black and brown students began to make their way to Portugal in the mid-1940s to attend university from Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé, Macau, Mozambique, and Goa. It was the three casas dos estudantes do império, located in the university cities of Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, that brought them together under the same roof. 

De Sousa & Vaz Borges Funambulist (2)
Cover of Mensagem:no.
1 (April 1963).

This first generation of “students from the empire” would later come to be known as the “Cabral generation,” named after its most famous proponent, Amílcar Lopes Cabral, who arrived in Portugal from Cape Verde in 1945 to study agronomy. His contemporaries included the medical student, António Agostinho Neto (the future President of Angola) who came in 1947; Angolan philosophy student Mário Pinto de Andrade (founding member of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, MPLA, movement); and others such as the São-Tomense student teacher Alda do Espirito Santo, and geography student Francisco José Tenreiro, both of whom already lived in Lisbon. Not to mention many familiar names such as Mozambicans Noémia de Sousa and Eduardo Mondlane, who passed through the doors during those decisive years. The casas functioned as social clubs, providing cheap meals and reading rooms, hosting football tournaments, live music, social dances and, increasingly, staging literary and political discussions. Geographically, the students may have been located at the heart of a repressive regime that had colonized their homelands; but the casas became an oasis that thrived with the sounds and experiences the students brought with them. 

For, although Portugal in the 1940s was impoverished, highly illiterate, oppressive, and isolated, a whole new world was on the horizon for Black and brown students arriving at the Casa dos Estudantes do Império. In the face of colonialism, slavery, apartheid and oppression, Black intellectual and literary production was flourishing around the world — from the The New Negro of Harlem’s Rennaissance to Cuba’s negrismo movement, from Haiti to Brazil, to Kwame Nkrumah flying the Pan-African flag in London, to African Europe. In Paris, writers had been cultivating a new francophone movement of Black consciousness rooted in Pan-Africanism, including the magazine Présence Africaine. A number of Pan-African and Black internationalist associations and publications (not always in agreement with each other) had already emerged in Portugal from the 1920s, and W.E.B du Bois himself had accepted an invitation to visit Lisbon in 1923. Unwittingly, the casas provided an ideal location for these publications and ideas to be shared, for new expressions of their own to find a common tongue; and for the early seeds of resistance to Portuguese colonialism to be sown years later, Mario Pinto de Andrade would recall: “To the Portuguese, we African assimilados, had adopted their living habits and trappings and sociality. Yet we had not had the chance to think about our own cultures.” Not, that is, until they encountered each other in the casas.