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Department of History

Meeting histories of war and colonial legacies

In this interview, Carlos Martins, PhD Researcher at the EUI History Department, tells us about his experience with oral history interviews in the context of his research on colonial wars and the struggle for welfare rights in Portugal in the mid-1970s.

30 October 2023 | Research


The EUIdeas blogpost you wrote for Black History Month in 2022 starts with your visit to the Disabled War Veterans' Association in Lisbon. Who did you meet there?

That particular day I met four disabled war veterans, men who had been severely wounded during the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–1974). I had already been there before, doing interviews, namely with the president of the Association at the time. Yet, the day I could finally meet disabled Colonial War veterans from 'local recruitment' was different. These were men who were recruited among the indigenous populations of Mozambique (two veterans), Angola (one), and Guinea Bissau (one)—in other words, men recruited by the Portuguese colonial state to fight their fellow Mozambicans, Angolans, and Guineans.

How did these encounters change your research on welfare rights in Portugal after the end of the Estado Novo dictatorship?

Meeting these men, learning their life stories, hearing about their suffering and their grievances, learning about their difficulties, was an immensely rich and emotional experience. But beyond the personal experience, these interviews added layers of complexity to my work and directly challenged certain historical narratives that concerned my research. I will give just one example: my thesis uses the case of disabled war veterans to understand shifting ideas about welfare between the Portuguese Estado Novo and the subsequent democratic regime. Disabled war veterans had very little welfare rights during the dictatorial regime, being nearly abandoned by the state. However, after the Carnation Revolution (25 April 1974), they were free to found an association, which became crucial in their fight for better welfare rights. By January 1976, their political activism bore fruit and a new law, granting them a comprehensive set of benefits, was published.

This is in general, with ups and downs, a success story - except for the fact that the law was exclusively for Portuguese nationals. This meant that disabled war veterans from 'local recruitment' were not included, since following decolonization, they lost Portuguese nationality. In this sense, meeting those disabled African war veterans allowed me to question the simplistic narrative of a democratic regime bringing with it new welfare rights. While the nationality requirement was removed in 2001, problems remain: those men are required to travel to Portugal, at their own expenses, to start the process that will eventually grant them welfare rights, a bureaucratic hurdle that takes years and years of waiting. Most do not have the means to afford the trip and the absence, and thus even today there are disabled war veterans in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau, in dire situations. Although they fought on the Portuguese side in the Colonial War, they remain without access to welfare rights.

As an historian, how does it feel to be able to interview your sources directly?

It is a privilege but also a massive responsibility. As an historian, listening to such vivid first-hand testimonies is an enlightening experience if at times daunting. It also means that I am in fact creating a historical source, and a rather complex one. Such responsibility entails extra care in preparing the interview, conducting the interview, and finally transcribing the interview. In all stages there is a degree of subjectivity and agency on my part, one which I must come to terms with. In the end, as with other source material, an historian must try to be as rigorously transparent as possible to do justice to such powerful testimonies.

Photo credit: by permission from Liga dos Combatentes (Portugal), Fundo Guerra da Ultramar, Exposição Fotográfica Fernando Farinha

Last update: 30 October 2023

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