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A Different Perspective


Carolina Magalhães


Throughout this paper a number of key issues under the Portuguese presence in the different conquered colonial nations w ill be analysed. Since the XV century Portuguese started building their empire, establishing zones of occupation in almost every continent. Yet the challenge is to investigate the dynamic relationship between mimicry and colonialism, with the central assumption being the idea that mimetic exchange - the reciprocal transfer of movements of similarity and dissimilarity between European and natives - is a crucial component of colonial relations. In this sense, this paper ’s aim is to deconstruct the concept of colonial mimesis giving a more detailed perspective that focuses on the bidirectional interaction between colonies and its colonizers. In short, tries to look at the role played by processes of reproduction in colonial situations from a reverse perspective, that is: as a practice of the colonizers themselves towards the indigenous populations.













The annals of historic practice tend to provide an historical deductive reconstruction that assumes the world as its ultimate unit of analysis taking into account only phenomena that had an impact on humanity as a whole, or processes that brought different societies into contact. However, studying History should go beyond that and there should be thus a reflective consideration of its connectivity.

In more recent years, a rejection of traditional world history has emerged and global history have adopted the interconnected and inductive world as its larger unit of analysis, providing historical entities, phenomenon, or processes as its ultimate analytical context (Olstein, 2015:24-27). Therefore, studying global history implies not only trying to question important dynamics in many different places, but also at different periods and essentially through different perspectives.

Generally speaking, this process may well be represented by interactions between cultures. Interactions that occurred over different epochs of history, in different places and that can only be studied and interpreted, considering the multiple perspectives of the involved historical actors. In this sense, a key issue for this discussion is what Jeremy Adelman called “mimetic exchange”.

[] The flow and deployment of representational artefacts of global parts and peoples. The production, circulation, and reception of these artefacts can be called mimetic exchange, and it coursed through empires like blood through vessels.”(Adelman, 2015: 79)

Traditionally in ancient Greece, mimesis, imitation or mimetics had a unitary, strict and predetermined definition: the perfection and imitation of nature. But its use has changed and been reinterpreted many times since then. More recently, Erich Auerbach, Merlin Donald or René Girard have written about mimesis, giving it a different sense of a more engaged notion to many historical layers of culture , identity and ethnicity. The result was a series of theories of representation of something or someone, theories of becoming other.

The attention given to mimesis by Homi Bhabha (1984) has as one of its main evidences the colonial relationship. In the path of these postcolonial studies , the colonial relationship was perceived only in terms of "difference" or "other", emphasizing the mimetic process of imitating the forms of the “whites”.

Nevertheless, rather than recognizing mimetic forms of emancipation, this paper tries to escape from the anthropologic reductionism of absorption of one culture for another “inferior”. Following the lines of Michael Taussig (1993), this paper pursues the mimetic exchange from the “inferior” culture to the “white” colonizers. Doing so, there is an instigation of a different perspective of mimesis as a gesture, as a materiality, and as a theory of colonization. (Saraiva, 2014, 209-227)

In the light of the Portuguese colonial study case , conquest, exploitation and subjugation are old themes. However, here we look beyond historic controversies of political economy and focus on the culture of colonialism. We stress a more dynamic relationship between the two approaches, and above all an interrogation of the relationship between the metropolitan state with the colonial state.



The Portuguese Empire expanded during almost six centuries and it was essentially boosted by its conquests around the world. Portuguese explorers captured Ceuta in 1415 and since then, they started exploring the coast of Africa building its colonial empire in the way.

Even before Vasco da Gama

reached India in 1498, Portugal had already

annexed the contemporary territory of Guinea , Angola and Mozambique . In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral found the South American colony, Brazil, which became a source of great wealth. The empire turned ultimately global when the coasts and islands of East Asia were attained and Timor was finally considered a Portuguese territory in 1702. (New World Encyclopedia, 2015)

In World History studies, there is a frequent emphasis on the economic exploitation of natural resources and slave trafficking during the colonial penetration in the previous conquered nations.

Colonialism is conventionally understood as a violent intrusion into the lives, cultures, and societies of the indigenous people in the extra-European world. From this perspective, a definitional feature of European colonization practically since the sixteenth century has been the effort put into drastically transforming the indigenous ways of life according to the cultural norms and social principles of the colonizers. (Barreto Xavier, 2010:74)

The poor social and living conditions of the colonized populations and its various forms of resistance to the colonial presence ha ve become the centre of the colonial discourse. As a result of these asymmetrical social and power relations, the imagery of subjugation, domination, conversion or civilization, are all terms that have controlled the way of thinking colonial mimicry. (Cabecinhas, Feijó, 2010, v.4, 28-44)

Within this perspective, the notion of mimesis is typically perceived as an attribute of the indigenous populaces alone, an instinctive property of their supposedly ‘primitive’ condition. Conversely, the Europeans were the holders of higher civilizational standards that the Indigenous, in the face of colonial contact, could not help but reproduce, embrace or imitate.

However, there is the other side of the coin. If at any moment one could possibly argue that colonial mimetics stimulates cultural and identity absorptions of the colonies, it cannot be ignore d the metropolan absorption of the colonies culture . In other words, there is a bidirectional dichotomy in the process of colonialism: a production of similarity from both the colonizer to colonized and from the colonized to the colonizer.


Conventionally, the majority of the empires were known for governing the colonized population while keeping distance and producing a dynamic of dissimilarity that perpetuated behaviors of superiority and domination. It is true that colonial mimicry cannot be thought without the guiding notion of mimetic governmentality, its constitutive element of the government of others, as a place of power and administration of the "natives". Though, perceiving mimicry as a movement for the government of others also implies the observation of symbolic tensions and conflicts of identity that are inherent to colonialism. Effectively, colonial mimicry embodies, almost paradigmatically, this tension between incorporation and differentiation that, as a result, produces some kind of similarity. (Stoler and Cooper 1997:10).

In this se nse, the Portuguese case is particularly special fo r representing this bidirectional dynamic between the colonial interactions. In the same way that Portuguese colonizers influenced the nature, culture and identity of the colony, the reserve also happened. During the colonial era, the Portuguese have involved and merged themselves with the native populations in several ways, often adopting their ideas, customs and ways of living.

To demonstrate in detail this peculiar case , I believe that is necessary to enumerate some illustrative but factual examples. For the most part, it will be mentioned some of the publications within the project Colonial mimesis in Lusophone Asia and Africa, under Ricardo Roque coordination.

First and foremost, Ricardo Roque contribution was essential for this study. The author keenly explored the colonization in Timor and the relations between justice discourses and the practice of rituals in the Portuguese colonial government.

In “A voz dos bandos: colectivos de justiça e ritos da palavra portuguesa em Timor-Leste colonial” Roque exposes the way in which the Portuguese groups of power governed the region according to the native’s ways.

The central role played by these groups in the colonial administration of justice was legitimized by their native appropriations. Either for their direct connection with the exercise of the power of native kings, or by following the colonial packs’s principles, the colonizers inserted themselves into the colonial factions of command, acquiring strength of law, truth or justice and guaranteeing the obedience of the natives. (Roque, 2012:593-594)

Moreover, between the Timorese colonialism in the XVIII and XIX century, Roque analysed the colonial trade between “civilization” and “barbarity” by drawing on the case of Governor Afonso de Castro’s controversial participation in the “feast of the heads”. 1

Backgrounding his research in Michael Taussig’ “Mimesis and Alterity”, the Portuguese writer developed the argument that the colonial presence in Timor cannot be conceived in a non-savage or wild context. Hence, the mimetic exchange in colonial context expresses a tension between assimilation of the space and the reflexive preservation of dissimilarity.

When witnessing the barbaric ritual of celebration, the Portuguese governor was simultaneously observing what would be described as barbaric and shocking, and absorbing energies of the environment that constitutes itself mimetic signs.

Thus, by allowing and indulging in a barbaric ritual, expecting that his involvement would increase colonial power and authority, he was assimilating the "savagery" of this space, establishing a position in the environment and, ultimately, produci ng a relation with the native ‘culture. (Roque, 2014: 159-184)

Furthermore, Cristiana Bastos ‘article “The hut-hospital as a colonial project” takes colonial hospitals in Angola and Mozambique of XX century as the framework of colonial mimesis.

The author grounded this reflection in one architectural replica of a tropical hospital, stating that this odd structure was an essential tool to better comprehend the Luso-tropical dynamics. This hospital was in every detail, an imitation of African huts and cubatas 2 with a latent scratch of the colonial governance, inscribing in itself the formula of mimesis.

In first place , there is a clear rationalization of the advantages of imitative techniques as a way of attracting indifferent natives to the purposes of colonial administration. In the second place, going beyond the latter, the justification for the construction of this hospital can be illustrated as “cultural sensitivity” with the purpose to attend to differences of mentality and habits. For that reason, the medical assistance of the indigenous was recommended by the Portuguese government to be provided with tolerance for their mentality and customs.

1 A customaryceremonyassociated with the celebration of headhunting raids and war victories in East Timor, in 1861

2 Rustic and precarious African shelters covered with straw.

Despite this fact, this incorporation also occurred in other colonies ‘medical structures where the Portuguese planted and used lands ‘remedies as therapeutic solution. In these cases, within the argument to conquer Africans there was a deliberate assimilation of indigenous culture into the architecture and practice of colonial medicine. For the most part, the processes of colonial mimesis operated both ways and it was under this mimetic exchange that colonial medicine was developed. (Bastos, 2014, 185-208)

The final but not the least relevant examination lies in ““They look like Indians in their colour and feature”: the “black legend” and the indianization of the Portuguese” article of Ângela Barreto Xavier.

This article focuses on the articulation between mimesis and the “indianization” of the Portuguese established in India from the XVI century, and the role it played in formulating a "black legend" about the Portuguese empire.

Pointing out the Linschoten critique of the Luso-colonialism in his book “Itinerário” of 1596, Xavier reports how the Portuguese men were described as often married to Indian women, generating mixed-blood children; how children born in India looked Indian even when they did not have Indian blood or how the children of the mestizos were "of color or feature equal to the natives of the land". This meant that, whether by physical or cultural miscegenation, after some generations the Portuguese settled in India hardly differed from the locals.

The Dutch author also exposes how Portuguese women were portrayed as dressing the same way, using the same typical jewellery and having the same general Indian habits of hygiene. The sign that best denoted this process of “indianization” was the palanquin, an Indian peculiar mean of transport that carried both Portuguese and Indians, in representations that appealed to the same type of visual frame, conveying the idea of this unquestionable surrender of the Portuguese to the Indian ways.

Linschoten's descriptions of colonial times and the conclusions they stimulate are not merely exemplary. In its place , they constitute the main imagery indicators of the colonizers’ process of going native. Yet, this did not come without contestation. This precise process of going native was severely condemned by Northern Europeans, connoting the Portuguese as the “Black Legend” of Colonialism (not in a violent and brutal sense as Spain, but in reference to their dilution in the colonies’ cultures).

On the whole, adhering to the customs of the Indians was an undesirable behaviour that was associated with the conviction that the Portuguese were unable to govern themselves (since they could not control their passions, their inner nature), and therefore, incapable of governing the others.







interpretation of


phenomenon. It

concentrates on the alterity of Portuguese colonialism instead of noticing its remarkable and unusual characteristics. Nevertheless, what could be the object of praise for its hybridity, has contributed to a negative representation of the Portuguese and their way of being in the world at that time.

Curiously, it was exactly their weakness of identity and their inability to self- discipline that explained the ease with which they smoothly miscegenatewith the "inferiors", thus degrading their own image in the world. (Xavier, 2014: 111-113)


Trying to avoid the conventional and deductive historic practices that simply focus on phenomenon that had a great impact on the humanity as a whole, the main purpose of this paper was to ground its discussion in an alternative perspective.

In this way, it was taken into consideration the colonialism and its detailed field s of human interactions, intending to build an argument based on a different historic angle, centred on relevant particularities of colonial exchanges between colonizers and colonies.

Another core idea was the notion of Mimesis that, in fact, was stolen from the natural sciences to perfectly express these social, cultural exchanges in the form of colonial imitation, assimilation or reproduction.

In addition, we have seen that, to better understand the processes of mimesis in the context of colonialism, we should go beyond the above-mentioned notion of imitation, camouflage or absorption of other’s nature. Thus, the complexity of this concept lies in a wider and more subjective scrutiny of what can be called “mimetic exchange”.

In the light of colonialism, mimesis was normally seen as a unidirectional process in which the native populace capture the culture of their colonizer, whether by compulsion or fascination. However, here we tried to deconstruct this approach and highlight that, in the spectrum of history, there were examples that proved the opposite.

Taking the Portuguese Empire as an empirical object, this paper intended to analyse the European experience of ‘becoming other' or ‘going native', through copying or embracing indigenous ideas, technologies, and customs in different colonial circumstances.

The centrality of mimicry as a topic of the Portuguese negative imaginary through the old idea of "black legend" of the empire was also a key point. In fact, this unusual Portuguese tendency of imitation and miscegenation of the natives was the object of severe critics in the past, blaming the Portuguese themselves for their debauchery and misgovernment in the colonial empire. Conversely, it is also argued that these fallacies should be neglected and that history should not concentrate in the alterity of this special feature but emphasize its uniqueness.

To all intents and purposes, the Portuguese nativizationwas not related to some kind of national specificity or historical constant; it was indeed associated to their colonial exceptionalism.


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