Portugal is no longer remembered as a colonial power in East Timor. But with a heavy cost from its ‘civilising mission’, here’s why it should be.
On 28 November East Timor’s government and people commemorated 40 years since the country’s 1975 declaration of independence and 500 years of Portuguese presence on the island.
The theme to mark 500 years of Portuguese ties with East-Timor was an ‘interaction between two civilizations’ and an ‘affirmation of Timorese identity’.
As this labelling suggests, Portugal is no longer regarded as a former colonial power, but is seen as an old friend that brought and expanded the mission of civilisation in East Timor – something that led to the strengthening of East Timorese culture.
In particular, today the East Timorese state focuses on the historical contribution of Catholicism to the development of national identity.
The other argument put forward by the government is that as Portugal tirelessly worked to endorse East Timor’s quest for independence, it is no longer relevant to regard Portugal as a former occupier.
At the same time, Portugal has always claimed that it had no colonies, and that East Timor was the overseas province of a unitary state.
Yet, history not only reveals a colonial presence in East Timor, but at times a brutal occupation.
The driving force behind this was the lust for natural resources, inlcuding spices, sandalwood and raw materials, all of which were shipped back to Europe in order to enrich the state. Plundering, slaughter, and oppression were therefore common.
In order to dominate the indigenous population, the Portuguese pitted local kings, or liurai, against each other. Eventually, the role of the liurai was reduced to merely serving the colonial administration. And even though they were elected by the people, they became the ears and eyes of the colonial administration, and protected its economic and political interests.
The mission of civilization was far from reality, given that its main objective was forcing locals to work even harder under conditions that mainly favoured the colonial administration and a few local kings and chiefs. Practically, civilization only benefited the elites; nearly all indigenous people were illiterate, using their fingers or stones or maize grains to count.
Similar to the school curricula during Indonesian occupation, the history that was taught left no room for alternative views.
Portuguese geography and language dominated. Every schoolchild learned the major cities and rivers of Portugal. And as Timor was also considered part of Portugal, strangely enough, they were taught that the highest mountain in Portugal was their own Mount Ramelau (which towers 3,000 meters above the sea).
Slavery loomed large, as farmers were unable to meet the high taxes that they had to pay. Crimes became common; some people even plundering nurseries for seedlings and selling children.
Prostitution also grew rapidly. During the night, schoolgirls gave themselves to troops, while more ‘civilized’ women could ply their trade as mulheres de estado (women of the state), serving Portuguese officials and high-ranking military officers.
Despite this history, speaking at the United Nations in 1952, Dr Mario Moreira da Silva, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that, “Timor is an outstanding model of Portuguese colonisation.”
By 1974, the winds of change swept over Portugal and it’s colonies in Africa, including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. A revolution back in the metropole would have major ramifications for the colonies.
The Timorese elites smelled this political change. They formed political parties with the aim of a broad ranging political transition before independence. The end goal was completely breaking the chain with colonialism and integration with either Indonesia or Australia.
Meanwhile the incursion into East Timor territory by the Indonesian military was set in motion. When a short-lived civil war broke out between UDT (The Timorese Democratic Union) and FRETILIN (The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), the Portuguese administration took refuge on the island of Atauro (25 kilometres north of Dili).
The colonial administrators failed to fulfil its responsibility and expedite the decolonisation process, which was instigated by Portugal’s 1974 revolution, even though the Timorese interim government that was sworn in on 28 November 1975 during the unilateral declaration of East Timor independence, still recognised Portugal and its administration.
In the end, the US and Australia endorsed Indonesia leader General Suharto’s proposal to invade Timor-Leste. On 7 December 1975, the Indonesian military launched a massive invasion from air, land and sea.
Portuguese Governor Lemos Pires and his entourage kept silent on Atauro, and then jumped to a vessel provided by Australia, fleeing to their homeland. The colonial regime was gone, but their bitter legacies remained, along with its Catholic religion.
The invasion led to a major pendulum swing. When the Portuguese first arrived in East-Timor, they brought with them the Catholic religion to help in their conquest over the natives. After Indonesia’s military invasion, the Timorese people and their leaders expressed a longing for the Portuguese, in the name of a shared culture and shared faith.
All of a sudden, the cruelty and barbarism committed by Portuguese colonialism was ignored for what was seen as the benefits of a ‘mission civilisatrice’.
But with its toll in lives, economic exploitation, racism, slavery, plunder and looting, we should ask: civilization at what cost?
Ivo Mateus Goncalves is a researcher based in Dili, East Timor.