Lusotropicalism or Luso-tropicalism was first coined by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre[1] to describe the distinctive character of Portuguese imperialism[1] and is a belief and movement especially strong during the António de Oliveira Salazar government in Portugal (the Estado Novo regime), proposing that the Portuguese were better colonizers than other European nations.[2]

It was believed that because of Portugal's warmer climate, being geographically close to Africa, and having been inhabited by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and several other peoples in pre-modern times, the Portuguese were more humane, friendly, and adaptable to other climates and cultures.[2]

In addition, by the early 20th century, Portugal was by far the European colonial power with the oldest territorial presence overseas; in some cases its territories had been continuously settled and ruled by the Portuguese throughout five centuries. It celebrated both actual and mythological elements of racial democracy and civilizing mission in the Portuguese Empire, and was a pro-miscegenation attitude toward the colonies/overseas territories. It is best exemplified in the work of Gilberto Freyre.[2]

Lusotropicalism can be defined as follows:

"Given the unique cultural and racial background of metropolitan Portugal, Portuguese explorers and colonizers demonstrated a special ability - found among no other people in the world - to adapt to tropical lands and peoples. The Portuguese colonizer, basically poor and humble, did not have the exploitive motivations of his counterpart from the more industrialized countries in Europe. Consequently, he immediately entered into cordial relations with non-European populations he met in the tropics. This is clearly demonstrated through Portugal's initial contacts with the Bakongo Kingdom in the latter part of the fifteenth century. The ultimate proof of the absence of racism among the Portuguese, however, is found in Brazil, whose large and socially prominent mestiço population is living testimony to the freedom of social and sexual intercourse between Portuguese and non-Europeans. Portuguese non-racism is also evidenced by the absence in Portuguese law of the racist legislation in South Africa and until recently in the United States barring non-whites from specific occupations, facilities, etc. Finally, any prejudice or discrimination in territories formerly or presently governed by Portugal can be traced to class, but never colour, prejudice."[3]

"...Gilberto Freyre - the 'father' of lusotropicalism..."[4]

Gilberto Freyre on the criticisms that he received

The life of Gilberto Freyre, after he published Casa-Grande & Senzala, became an eternal source of explanation. He repeated several times that he did not create the myth of a racial democracy and that the fact that his books recognized the intense mixing between "races" in Brazil did not mean a lack of prejudice or discrimination. He pointed out that many people have claimed the United States to have been an "exemplary democracy" whereas slavery and racial segregation were present throughout most of the history of the United States.[5]

"The interpretation of those who want to place me among the sociologists or anthropologists who said prejudice of race among the Portuguese or the Brazilians never existed is extreme. What I have always suggested is that such prejudice is minimal (...) when compared to that which is still in place elsewhere, where laws still regulate relations between Europeans and other groups". Gilberto Freyre

"It is not that racial prejudice or social prejudice related to complexion are absent in Brazil. They exist. But no one here would have thought of "white-only" Churches.[6] No one in Brazil would have thought of laws against interracial marriage (...) Fraternal spirit is stronger among Brazilians than racial prejudice, colour, class or religion. It is true that equality has not been reached since the end of slavery (...) There was racial prejudice among plantation owners, there was social distance between the masters and the slaves, between whites and blacks (...) But few wealthy Brazilians were as concerned with racial purity as the majority were in the Old South". Gilberto Freyre [5]

Sugar cane plantations were introduced in the New World in 1515. The first ingenio (machine to crush cane and extract sugar) was built by Blas de Villasanta in 1523 on the Rio Anasco, in what is now Puerto Rico. In 1541, Gregorio de Santaolalla started construction of a trapiche (a circular mill powered by one or more horses, oxen, or on rare occasions persons) at Bayamon, then an ingenio at Aybacoa. In 1546, Alonzo Perez Martel accepted a loan to build an ingenio, not a trapiche nor a trapichito. It is to be noted that the Puerto Rican plantations were cultivated by white men, not blacks, possibly because Puerto Rico originated as a penal colony. Thus, the freed prisoners had been seasoned (acclimatized to tropical labor). This constitutes a counter-example to racial theories based upon climate or geography, such as Freyre’s, that white men were unable to work in tropical conditions.[7] White prisoners also helped develop Cayenne (French Guiana), at the penal colony at Devil's Island.

Origin of Lusotropicalism

In Brazil, the racial ideology that underpinned slavery was that the slaves, primarily of African negro origin, were inherently inferior of higher cultural achievement, and could only be used for labor in tropical environments. The Brazilian aboriginals proved not to be strong enough to withstand diseases from outside the New World nor decimation by the Europeans. Once slavery was abolished, the Brazilian elite realized that industrialization was the next phase of development and they were faced with a population that according to their ideologies was incapable of being an industrial worker. A new ideology was necessary. Lusotropicalism claimed that the mestizo in the tropics was superior to both European and Negro, and thus the only population capable of industrial labor in the Brazilian tropical environment.

"The book [Masters and the Slaves] claimed that miscegenation had been a positive force in Brazil, and this argument helped turn the shame of a nation into a source of pride. The art, literature, and music created by Afro-Brazilian culture and miscegenation were suddenly held in great esteem. Racial mixing moved from a perceived liability to an asset, and Freyre credited the Portuguese tendency to miscegenation among colonized peoples for the uniqueness of Brazilian culture."[8]

"Freyre turned the country's [Brazil] inferiority complex inside out and converted Brazil's multiracial past from a liability into an asset. ... They no longer needed to see scandal and shame in their racial mixture; instead they could look to their art, literature, music, dance, in short to their culture to discover a richness and a vitality that were a result of the fusion of races and civilizations."[9]

"He [Freyre] argued that the Portuguese appreciation of tropical (non-European) values and peoples distinguished them as pioneers of modern tropical civilizations. His emphasis on Portuguese tolerance and assimilation of tropical values added a new dimension to the Portuguese ideology which, until then, had almost exclusively viewed the assimilation process in a unilinear fashion; that is assimilation had connoted the Europeanization of the Africans, not the reverse! Whenever African values and living patterns influenced the Portuguese, it was viewed as a setback."[10]

Salazar's view

In order to support his colonial policies, António de Oliveira Salazar adopted Gilberto Freyre's notion of Lusotropicalism, maintaining that since Portugal had been a multicultural, multiracial and pluricontinental nation since the 15th century, if the country were to be dismembered by losing its overseas territories, that would spell the end for Portuguese independence.[2] In geopolitical terms, no critical mass would then be available to guarantee self-sufficiency to the Portuguese State.

Salazar had strongly resisted Freyre's ideas throughout the 1930s, partly because Freyre claimed the Portuguese were more prone than other European nations to miscegenation, and adopted Lusotropicalism only after sponsoring Freyre on a visit to Portugal and some of its overseas territories in 1951-2. Freyre's work Aventura e Rotina (Adventure and Routine) was a result of this trip.

See also

  • Pluricontinental


  • Castelo, Cláudia, O Modo Português de estar no Mundo' O luso-tropicalismo e a ideologia colonial portuguesa (1933–1961). Porto: Edições Afrontamento, 1999.
  • Cahen, Michel, "'Portugal is in the Sky': Conceptual Considerations on Communities, Lusitanity and Lusophony", in E.Morier-Genoud & M.Cahen (eds), Imperial Migrations. Colonial Communities and Diaspora in the Portuguese World, London: Palgrave, 2012
  • Nery da Fonseca, Edson. Em Torno de Gilberto Freyre. Recife: Editora Massangana, 2007.
  • Nery da Fonseca, Edson. Gilberto Freyre de A a Z - Referências essenciais à sua vida e obra. Rio de Janeiro: Zé mario Editor, 2002.
  • Vakil, Abdoolkarim, "'Mundo Pretuguês': Colonial and Postcolonial Diasporic Dis/articulations", in E.Morier-Genoud & M.Cahen (eds), Imperial Migrations. Colonial Communities and Diaspora in the Portuguese World, London: Palgrave, 2012
  • Villon, Victor. O Mundo Português que Gilberto Freyre Criou - seguido de Diálogos com Edson Nery da Fonseca. Rio de Janeiro, Vermelho Marinho, 2010.
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