Postcolonial People: The Return from Africa and the Remaking of Portugal – an Interview with Christoph Kalter

Jacqueline Wagner in conversation with Christoph Kalter

Christoph Kalter is a historian of modern Western Europe in the world. He is the author of Postcolonial People: The Return from Africa and the Remaking of Portugal (Cambridge University Press, 2022). His first book was The Discovery of the Third World: Decolonization and the Rise of the New Left in France, c. 1950–1976 (Cambridge University Press 2016), originally published as Die Entdeckung der Dritten Welt: Dekolonisierung und neue radikale Linke in Frankreich (Campus, 2011). Currently a Professor of History at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, he previously taught, researched, and worked with brilliant and kind colleagues and students at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut in 2011–20. As a Feodor-Lynen-Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, he spent the better parts of 2015 and 2016 at the vibrant History Department of UC Berkeley, first as a Visiting Scholar, then as Visiting Assistant Professor. Happy with the line of work he landed in, he nonetheless likes to imagine that in a different life, he might have become a fine art photographer.

© Christoph Kalter

Jacqueline Wagner: In your book Postcolonial People: The Return from Africa and the Remaking of Portugal you deal with the process and consequences of decolonization using the case of the retornados, or returnees, that is, half a million Portuguese settlers who ‘returned’ from Angola, Mozambique, and other parts of the disintegrating Portuguese empire to Portugal, their country of origin and citizenship after the Carnation Revolution of 1974. You state that you had no personal connection to Portugal before embarking on your research. What was it that sparked your historical curiosity, and how did you end up dealing with the returnees in more detail, eventually dedicating an entire book to the topic?

Christoph Kalter: Thank you for this question. I have been asked this before, especially in Portugal, where many interlocutors see it as an oddity of sorts that a German researcher would take up this issue. I agree that there is something odd here – but the oddity, I think, is not that I or my French colleague Morgane Delaunay have taken an interest in the topic but that Portuguese historians have left it unexplored for half a century. Because really, how could they? What we are dealing with here is a massive migration, resulting in a sudden increase of the resident population by something like five to ten percent. It followed on the heels of the double collapse of Europe’s longest dictatorship and last colonial empire, and is part and parcel of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, the founding event of modern Portugal – how can you possibly not write about this? The answer, anthropologist Elsa Peralta might suggest, lies in the ways in which decolonization has produced a non-memory in Portuguese society, a ‘trauma’, by which she means that for decades, there has been no socially acceptable narrative of how the Portuguese ‘lost’ their empire, including within historiography. But, sorry, I realize I am not really answering your question: I chose this topic because I had come across the history of French settlers or pieds-noirs ‘returning’ to the metropole around Algerian independence in 1962. I was fascinated by these people who migrated to a place where they did but also did not belong. At the same time, I was not keen on doing more French history immediately after my first book. I wanted to do something that would be new for me – and consciously looked for a history like that of the pieds-noirs but elsewhere. This ‘elsewhere’ turned out to be Portugal. Once the decision was taken, I began to learn the language, traveled for the first time to the country, and started liaising with colleagues. I entered a historical universe – and a present-day society – that had been completely unfamiliar to me but that I soon became passionate about.

JW: Combining conceptual, social, political, and cultural history, your analysis shows how the efforts of the Portuguese nation-state to integrate, or rather assimilate, the returnees into the post-imperial society had the effect of making these settlers-turned-migrants ‘invisible’ within just a couple of years. In other words, the government’s targeted, if not unbiased, material assistance and memory politics were one of the reasons for the rapid decline in the perception of the returnees as a distinct group. However, you also point to a point to a return of the topic of the returnees in public memories, especially in recent years – novels, journalistic books and articles, a prime-time TV show, an exhibition, and Facebook groups have been dedicated to their history. What do you think the revived interest in the retornados is related to, and why is it important to rewrite their history?

CK: Great question, and I will answer the first part first: I think the recent ‘returnees memory boom’ in Portugal, culminating in the mid-2010s, is due to three developments. The first one is generational: with their socioeconomic reintegration achieved, many returning settlers, some forty years after the events, were entering old age and a life review process – a phenomenon we know from the afterlives of other disruptive histories. This process was often supported by children and grandchildren who wanted to understand better how this history had marked their ancestors’ lives, but also their own – an effect of ‘post-memory’, as some Portuguese analysts have claimed, thus adopting a concept from Holocaust studies. This generational effect could translate into wider public attention because another aspect of Portugal’s end of empire had already reemerged in the public sphere: veterans of the colonial wars were seeking attention for their experience in the 1990s and 2000s, thus slowly preparing the terrain for more decolonization-related memories. Second, there was the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution in 2014–15 – and in our societies, round anniversaries are triggers for remembering (and commodifying) the past. Because the past is always remembered to serve the needs of the present, the memory of the returnees at the time was linked to the financial and economic crisis that hit Portugal hard between 2008 and 2015. The government used the supposed success story of the returnees’ integration – a success that was due, it claimed, mostly to the fantastic work ethos of the former settlers – to encourage regular Portuguese people to emulate their example, accept the neoliberal austerity policies, roll up their sleeves, and show resilience. At the same time, the disillusionment with the European Union that had imposed these very policies on Portugal favored a nostalgia for empire in Portuguese society, for a time when Portugal supposedly was still a grand nation, and its settlers still enjoyed the ‘good life in the colonies.’ The third element is the fact that Portugal is, of course, no island. To be sure, the country did for a long time seem disconnected from the reckoning with colonialism that we have seen in many societies across the world since the 1990s. But these transnational trends of memory have affected Portugal, too, and they have broadened the space for critical discussions of colonial history, often pushed forward by racialized minorities with a family connection to empire. The nostalgic versions of retornado memories can in part be seen as a defensive reaction to these more critical memories. Then, finally, and very succinctly, regarding your second question: the returnees as a memory phenomenon have been studied by many scholars, but the actual history of the group was not. We need to write their history so we can debunk the popular, mythical representations of the returnees, and thus hopefully contribute to a more complex, more truthful, and more mature relationship with the imperial past and its legacies.

JW: You point out that the returnees were ‘privileged refugees’ – and their coerced migration is in important aspects different from the refugee flows of the 21st century, triggered by wars of aggression and civil wars, climate change-related states of emergency, and political and religious persecution. Still, can a close examination of the history of these post-colonially displaced people and their role in the remaking of the Portuguese nation-state nonetheless be instructive for dealing with the coerced migrations of the present and future?

CK: I think it can, yes, but only in very general terms – it is never possible to distill any history into a straightforward lesson for the present, or at least not possible for me. The returnees remind us of several things: first, the refugee concept is historically specific, as its meanings change over time; it is relational, because it is defined against the backdrop of other terms like ‘migrant’ or ‘returnee’; and it is strategic, in that it is supposed to do something for the people who use the term – which is true for the forcibly displaced themselves as much as for journalists, activists, politicians, or the UNHCR who use it. The refugee concept is thus intrinsically contested and political – and will continue to be so. Second, the returnees’ history shows – much like that of the pieds-noirs – that if the state wants to support the ‘integration’ of newcomers, making it a political priority and using appropriate resources, it can achieve a lot. But their history also shows that ‘integration’ depends on more. It hangs on the ‘hard’ legal rights accorded to migrants – in the case at hand, most but not all returnees held Portuguese citizenship – as well as on the degree to which the receiving society is ready to empathize with, and accept as belonging, those who want to settle down among them. The latter are the ‘soft’ factors that often determine the welcome afforded to migrants. Historically, both hard and soft factors point to how Portuguese racism towards African or biracial returnees made it harder for them to integrate. With a view to our current situation, how well we handle tomorrow’s refugee crises will also depend on how effectively we combat racism. Currently, racism is not only hampering the integration of (some) refugees (the ‘soft’ factor), but probably also drives the dismantlement of refugee rights more generally (the ‘hard’ factor). A terrible example are the recent UK attempts to criminalize asylum seekers. Third and finally, what the returnees remind us of is that, as Peter Gatrell once noted, “states make refugees, but refugees also make states”.[1] In dealing with those who seek refuge, societies evolve, often dynamically; migrants make a difference, and migration is not a sideshow but a driving force of all sorts of societal change. It does not take much audacity to predict that these migration-induced changes will continue to be momentous in the future.

JW: In recent years there has been increased attention to structural racism; calls to decolonize these discriminatory infrastructures in post-imperial societies are becoming ever louder. You, however, argue for distinguishing the historical process of decolonization – a concept used by historians to describe various processes of undoing formal colonialism between 1945 and 1975 – from the present-day task of ‘decolonizing’. Why is a distinction important and why should decolonization not be seen as an ongoing, unfinished process since the formal end of empire, a process that implies a need for action in the present?

CK: My opinions on these questions are not based on a deep engagement with the decolonial turn yet, so let me be cautious. Much of what is being done under the label of ‘decolonizing’ is an inspiring and overdue reckoning with both current structures of discrimination and their historical embeddedness, as for example in the debates about the restitution of looted art, of reparations for colonial crimes, or the representation of colonial history in the public sphere. With that being said, let’s take the example you have given. It seems obvious to me that a) present-day racism must in part be discussed as a legacy of a long colonial history, and that b) antiracism is an intellectual and political necessity. I am more doubtful, however, as to what we gain by linking observations a) and b) through the notion of an ongoing ‘decolonization’ as a task for the present. Of course, colonial-racist mindsets, categories, etcetera, did not simply vanish with the end of imperial rule – but they did not remain unaltered, either. The case of the returnees shows, for example, how an ‘inclusive’, Lusotropical imperial racism during empire survived in part beyond independence. It continues to inform today’s clichés about Lisbon’s multiculturalism, the supposed absence of racism from Portuguese society, and ‘Lusofonia’ as a key concept for imagining Portugal’s place in the world. At the same time, however, there are clear discontinuities, and the ‘inclusive racism’ of a multi-racial empire has been partly replaced by a different and ‘exclusive racism’ – as can be seen in the revisions of the Portuguese citizenship laws in 1975 and the years that followed. More generally put, decolonization as a historical process has produced significant changes, and while it is difficult to determine when exactly imperial structures unraveled or when – if ever – decolonization will be complete, the historical transition out of formal empire matters. The issue I see with present-day decolonization talk is therefore not so much that it can be criticized as an academic-activist fad – global history is also a fashion, and such fashions regularly help advance the conversation. My concern is that part of it is simplifying things that are complicated, essentializing things that are heterogeneous, and overemphasizing structural continuity at the expense of historical change. In sum, ‘decolonization’ may be a powerful call to action but is not always helping us make useful analytical distinctions. To state, for example, that colonial hierarchies and knowledge systems are still everywhere and still ‘colonial’, or to insinuate that on some fundamental level, the Portuguese empire has never ceased to exist, seems ahistorical and, frankly, nonsensical to me. Europe’s overseas empires are gone, and discussing their legacies requires that we engage with the history of decolonization – and its ambivalent results.

JW: Thank you for the intriguing insight into your research and your thoughts on my questions. Finally, I would be interested to know what comes after the research on the returnees of empire. What are you currently working on or what would you like to conduct research on in the future?

CK: I feel that I still want to learn more about the end of empire. My first book studied decolonization as an intellectual and political history of anti-colonialism in France. My second book looked at decolonization as a history of migrations and post-imperial nation-building in Portugal. In the future, I would like to use language as a lens for a fresh look at the African independence era. I am currently in the early stages of developing a new project, and my working title is “Languages of Transition”. It would examine the African uses of European languages, namely French and Portuguese, from the 1950s to the 1980s. The idea is to investigate, via two case studies on Senegal and Angola, the ambivalence of these languages – which were both imposed and appropriated, limiting and enabling – in late- and post-colonial contexts. What was the role of European languages in African anti-colonialism? And once empire was over and new nation-states were built, why and how did African leaders decide to maintain European languages as official languages? Who contested these choices, and how did the use of African and European languages map onto competing political projects? And, looking at the international place of new African nations, was French or Portuguese a useful tool for economic, political, and cultural cooperation, including between formerly colonized countries? Or did these languages help to keep new nations in a subaltern position both vis-à-vis the former colonial powers and in global structures of inequality? These questions are fascinating to me – and they have, beyond the cases studied, a conceptual implication for history writing more generally. It is remarkable, I think, that historians have thought a great deal about texts but largely neglected language as an approach to the past. This is especially striking for global history; I find it hard to understand why languages have not featured more prominently in a field that looks at transnational processes in which a number of (European) languages have – simultaneously, in exchange, and in competition – played a crucial role in connecting societies across the globe. In short, I am still interested in decolonization as a contested and incomplete transition out of empire. But I want to both move more into African history and draw on neighboring disciplines like sociolinguistics. Adapting what is done there to historical studies, I want to show how studying language policies, language attitudes, and language uses can be a vantage point for writing political, social, and intellectual history more generally. I say this very humbly because I have no training or experience in either African history or sociolinguistics – so I will be moving forward slowly and cautiously and hopefully learning from supportive colleagues in these fields along the way.


[1] Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee, Oxford 2013, p. vii.

Jacqueline Wagner works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.

Further articles on the TRAFO blog by Christoph Kalter:

Christoph Kalter, The Strange Case of Portugal’s Returnees, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.07.2021.

Citation: Postcolonial People: The Return from Africa and the Remaking of Portugal – an Interview with Christoph Kalter, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.03.2023,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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