The House of the Students of the Empire in Lisbon


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. 

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. 

In 1948, the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, published the ground-breaking Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poésie Nègre et Malgache (Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry) in Paris, consolidating the work of Black francophone thinkers (including Aimé Cesaire, Alioune Diop, the Nardal sisters, Léon-Gontran Damas, et. al) around conceptions of Négritude and with a fiery anticolonial foreword entitled Orphée Noir (Black Orpheus) by Jean-Paul Sartre. The collection challenged the European construction of the African, and responded by seizing the colonial language — in their case, French — to express Blackness in their own terms. Pan-African, anti-imperial, and written in resistance to the “civilizing” violence of European assimilationist colonialism, this radical expression of Black consciousness resonated powerfully among those subjected to Portuguese colonialism, among them Cabral and his peers at the CEI. The Angolan philosophy student Mário Pinto de Andrade, began to work earnestly towards an equivalent contribution in the Portuguese language, from what was quickly becoming a political home for Portuguese Negritude, at the Casa dos Estudantes. 

De Sousa & Vaz Borges Funambulist (3)
Cover of Mensagem: no 1 (July 1964).

That same year, amidst a flurry of poetry readings and exchanges, the Casa began publishing the literary newsletter Mensagem, a periodical of poetry, fiction, essays and interviews mostly about Africa or from African contributors — including many of white or of mixed African and European heritage. Mensagem alluded to, translated and conversed with other contemporary writings of Black Consciousness. Mario Pinto de Andrade, for example, edited a series of translations of Langston Hughes’ poetry; whilst Noémia de Sousa wrote a poem entitled “deixa passar o meu povo”, which clearly references Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson’s recording of “Let my people go”. The poets published in Mensagem spoke ardently and poetically of the lived pain of colonialism. The very first issue included the poems Canção de embalar meninos pretos (“Song for embalming Black boys”) by António Agostinho Neto and A sombra das galera (“The shadow of the galleys”) by Alexandre Dáskalos, as well as an excerpt from Baltasar Lopes da Silva’s novel Chiquinho. These writings challenged romantic Portuguese depictions of life under its colonial regimes, and asserted the diversity of experience — and the brutality — of Black life in the colonies. 

Se me quiseres conhecer / Noémia de Sousa 

Se me quiseres conhecer, 

estuda com olhos de bem ver 

esse pedaço de pau preto 

que um desconhecido irmão maconde 

de mãos inspiradas 

talhou e trabalhou 

em terras distantes lá do Norte. 

Ah, essa sou eu: 

órbitas vazias no desespero de possuir a vida. 

boca rasgada em feridas de angústia, 

mãos enormes espalmadas, 

erguendo-se em jeito de quem implora e ameaça, 

corpo tatuado de feridas visíveis e invisíveis 

pelos chicotes da escravatura… 

Torturada e magnífica. 

Altiva e mística. 

África da cabeça aos pés 

– Ah, essa sou eu! 

Se quiseres compreender-me 

vem debruçar-te sobre minha alma de África, 

nos gemidos dos negros no cais 

nos batuques frenéticos dos muchopes 

na rebeldia dos machanganas 

na estranha melancolia se evolando… 

duma canção nativa, noite dentro… 

E nada mais me perguntes, 

se é que me queres conhecer… 

Que eu não sou mais que um búzio de carne 

onde a revolta de África congelou 

seu grito inchado de esperança. 

If you want to know me, Noémia de Sousa 

If you want to know me, 

Study with well seeing eyes 

This piece of black wood 

Which an unknown Makonde brother 

With inspired hands 

Wielded and worked 

In far away lands up North. 

Ah, that is me: 

empty orbits despairing of possessing life. 

mouth torn in wounds of anguish, 

enormous flattened hands 

raised as if to implore and threaten, 

body tattooed with wounds visible and invisible 

by the slaving whip… 

Tortured and magnificent. 

Proud and mystic. 

Africa from head to toe, 

– Ah, that is me! 

If you want to understand me 

Come come to dwell in my African soul, 

In the groans of the Blacks on the docks 

In the frenetic beats of the muchopes 

In the rebelling of the machanganas 

In the strange melancholy evaporating 

Of a native song, night within… 

And ask me nothing more, 

if you do want to know me… 

For I am nothing more than a conch of meat 

where the African uprising froze 

its cry filled with hope. 

This period of intense literary and poetic output led, in 1953, to the publication of the Antologia de Poesia Negra de Expressão Portuguesa (Anthology of Black Poetry expressed in Portuguese), edited by Francisco José Tenreiro and Mario Pinto de Andrade, which included the work of Agostinho Neto, Noémia de Sousa, and Alda de Espirito Santo among others. These writings were extremely important within Portugal, but they also had an impact in the colonies themselves, where they found their way thanks in part to clandestine networks across the empire that were emerging around the casa. Literary and cultural movements in Angola, Cape Verde, and Mozambique, in particular, consolidated the growing need to push back against Portuguese imperial ideals, and helped sow the crucial first seeds of resistance to the colonial regimes. Amílcar Cabral, in Les Étudiants noirs parlent, an article for Présence africaine (1953), stated “it is fair to say […] that today the black student from the Portuguese colonies begins gradually to become aware of his position in the world: that of a Black man who must be fundamentally concerned with serving the cause of the emancipation of Black men, so serving humanity […] fighting for the liberation of the African masses, for his own liberation.” 

Up until this time, having all these students “from the empire” under one roof had seemed convenient for the fascist regime’s secret police, the PIDE, who believed they could be monitored with relative ease. By the early 1950s, however, the activities of students from the casa began to raise concern among the eyes and ears that followed them. Marcelino dos Santos and Agostinho Neto were among members who were arrested, and the running of the casa was brought under regime control. From 1951-53, the casa’s most significant political activities took place, instead, at the apartment of the Espirito Santo family, where the clandestine Centro de Estudos Africanos (CEA, Center for African Studies) was founded. Located at no. 37 Rua Actor Vale and also known simply as “37,” the CEA was to be a place where its disciples would learn more about Africa, and rediscover themselves as Africans within the colonial context: “We needed to become conscious ourselves of African culture in its globality, and of the diverse Black cultures on the continent and all over the Black world,” according to Mário Pinto de Andrade. His study plan for the CEA, drawn up with Francisco José Tenreiro, would focus on Land and Man; African socio-economics / the problems of the Portuguese ‘ultramar’; and Black thought, the Black man in the world and the Black man as a colonizer in the New World; and the central impediments to the progress of the Black world. 

Tactically, the CEA became another node in a small but important network of locations that included the casas in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra, and Lisbon’s Clube Maritimo Africano (African Maritime Club), across which anti-colonial political organizing was galvanized in the 1950s. The casas were, in the words of Helder Martins, homes in which a very special “friendship, solidarity, and camaraderie” were forged. 

And, of course, the PIDE were right to be worried; the literary movement of Black Consciousness had transformed into explicit anticolonialism, and to urgent political movement building. So the “Cabral generation” of the 1940s gave way to the “Utopian generation” of the 1950s; the final cohort of dreamers and radicals to pass through the doors of the casa before hitting the road that led, inevitably, to the armed struggle for liberation. The diverse members of the CEA and the casa had formed connections with underground political opposition movements in Portugal at the time, among them the MUD Juvenil (the youth wing of the United Democratic Movement, an initially state-sanctioned opposition movement which had become a trojan horse for the communist party) and the de-facto clandestine Portuguese communist party, both of which also served as conduits for important political influences, notably Marxism-Leninism, and as practical channels along which an armed resistance might be supported. 

In 1952, Amilcar Cabral left Portugal for Guinea Bissau at the invitation of the Portuguese Ministry of the Colonies, to continue his work as an agronomist. But this work was increasingly and inextricably tied to his independentist political trajectory, and he was forced to leave for Angola in 1955. Meanwhile, knowing he was at risk of being imprisoned, Mário Pinto de Andrade had fled Lisbon for Paris in 1954, where he became the editor of Présence Africaine. There he was in contact with other African independistas including Nelson Mandela and Senghor, and met his future wife, the French-Guadeloupean filmmaker Sarah Moldoror. 

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

Back in Lisbon, the students had managed to regain administrative control of the casa from the regime in 1957 — the year in which Agostinho Neto was released from another, two-year spell in prison; and the year in which Neto, Cabral, Pinto de Andrade and others penned a joint manifesto for the Movimento Anti Colonial (Anti-Colonial Movement or MAC), calling for the “total liquidation of Portuguese colonialism in Africa.” Cabral, Andrade, Marcelino dos Santos were among those who met frequently at Pan-African summits over the following years: Dar es Salaam, Accra, Tunis, Cairo, Rabbat, and Algiers, all played a role on this circuit of African anti-colonialism. Neto, meanwhile, remained in Lisbon, where he was still often seen at the casa until 1959, when he left with his young family for Luanda. However, as other European countries began to concede independence to their colonies, Portugal tightened its grip. In a wave of repression that was particularly violent in Angola — where the PIDE set up their operations — anti-colonial agitators were imprisoned and tortured, many sent to the concentration camp of Tarrafal in Cape Verde. Portugal began assembling a huge conscripted military force to fight across the empire; the armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism was by now unavoidable. 

At the same time, the Portuguese regime continued to pitch Lusotropicalism — the fantasy of a “multiracial utopia” — as an alternative to decolonization, despite growing international criticism of the violent realities in the colonies — brutality, forced labor, and de facto segregation, by now well documented. “In Angola 200,000 Portuguese rule by terror,” Frantz Fanon (already in close contact with Pinto de Andrade, Cabral and others) told the Positive Action Conference in Accra, in April 1960. The Pidjiguti massacre by the PIDE of at least 50 striking port workers in Guinea Bissau in 1959 only further undermined the Portuguese cause — and marked the official turning point for the PAIGC from non-violent to armed resistance — but the Salazar dictatorship was only at the beginning of its most violent and tyrannical stage. Meanwhile, the MPLA steering committee moved to Conakry in May 1960, shortly before the incarceration, in June 1960, of Agostinho Neto and other key Angolan organizers, which became an international cause célèbre — and one of Amnesty International’s first campaigns for political prisoners. These events were galvanized in December 1960 by the Baixa de Cassanje revolt in Malanje, Angola, which led to the outbreak of the Angolan war for independence in February 1961. 

For the politicized students of the casa, Lisbon was an increasingly hostile environment, exacerbated by fear of the PIDE, at the same time that anti-colonial struggle was becoming an urgent reality abroad. Many of the students feared being drafted into the Portuguese army that was being deployed to fight against the freedom forces they really supported. In 1961, a French-American church network helped 60 African students to escape overnight from the casa, across Portugal’s northern borders and overland via Spain to France — among them Joaquim Chissano, Pedro Pires and Henrique Iko Carreira. Many of them were headed for the newly independent cities of the Pan-African movement, among them Conakry, Dakar, Kinshasa, and Brazzaville. 

De Sousa & Vaz Borges Funambulist (1)
Casa dos Estudantes do Império. / Unknown photographer (UCCLA – União das Cidades Capitais de Língua Portuguesa).

The doors of the Casa dos estudantes do império were finally closed by the PIDE in 1965, by which time it was, in the words of Agostinho Neto’s famous poem, too late to “stop the rain” (1960). From cradle of facist-colonial ideology to the birthplace of Portuguese negritude, Black nationalist liberation, and anti-colonialism, the story of the House of the Students of the Empire, remains one of the most poetic back-firings in the history of imperialism. 

Construção da Vida – F. Costa Andrade 

Dois fios de aço 


A esperança. 

O muito que se espera 

Do nada que virá. 

Avoluma-se o grito 

No cimento 

Correndo as veias 

Da estrutura do progresso. 

Traços feitos sobre areia 

De mistura com os trovões do mar. 

Constrói-se o mundo? 

Os homens nascem todos 


Construction of Life – F. Costa Andrade 

Two steel wires 


The hope. 

How much is expected 

Of the nothing that will come. 

The scream swells 

In the cement 

Running through the veins 

The structure of progress. 

Traces made on sand 

Mixing with the thunder of the sea. 

The world is built? 

Men are all born 

Architects. ■