The Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar (Monument to the Overseas Combatants) is an important war memorial which pays homage to all those who died in the Portuguese Colonial War which ran from 1961 to 1974 and it is the Portuguese equivalent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (both honour the people who died in controversial wars). The Colonial War (also known as the Overseas War) was a dark time in recent Portuguese history in which the right-wing dictatorship led by António de Oliveira Salazar (who was Prime Minister from 1932 to 1968) wanted to maintain Portuguese control of the African colonies, namely Angola, Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) and Mozambique, against the growing independence movements in these countries. Salazar’s reason was two-fold: the income from the colonies helped to support a financially impoverished Portugal; and through the idea of the Empire he aimed to remind people of Portugal’s glorious past and divert attention away from the difficult situation at home where his economic policies had left many people in poverty. In order to suppress the rising African nationalist movements Salazar embarked on a bloody and expensive war that would involve, at its height, approximately 217,000 members of the armed forces (mainly young men who were conscripted for three years military service, totalling over the 13 years of the the war almost 1 million conscriptees) and resulted in the death of around 10,000 of them (the large majority of whom were in the Army). There was a growing opposition to the war, but any signs of dissent were met with arrest, torture and often deportation. Portugal was also being sanctioned by other countries that opposed the war (and in some cases even supported the nationalist movements). The war finally came to an end in April 1974 when a group of army rebels comprised of left-wing officers from the MFA (Armed Forces Movement) held an almost bloodless revolution that overthrew the dictatorship. The new government almost immediately withdrew the military from the African territories and agreed to give these countries independence.
The Monument to the Overseas Combatants, which was inaugurated in 1994, is located next to the Combatant Museum at the Forte do Bom Sucesso in Belém. It was designed by a team of architects led by Francisco Guedes de Carvalho and is marked by its peacefulness and simplicity. The main focus is a striking abstract triangular sculpture made of stone, metal and mirrored glass, which sits over a pool of water and in the centre of the sculpture is a burning flame. There are two small guard huts in front of the sculpture which are manned by various sectors of the armed forces. At six o’clock every evening there is a simple but moving changing of the guard where the guards honour the dead servicemen. In 2000, plaques with the 10,000 names of all the people who died in the conflict were added to the walls that surround the monument, separated out into year and alphabetical order within each year. It is quite sobering to see how many people died as the names continue around the three sides of the Monument. The memorial wall also includes names of people who died in peace and humanitarian operations and there is also a separate sculpture commemorating these people to one side of the Monument. On Portugal Day (10th June) former combatants of the Colonial War gather at the monument to remember their fallen comrades.
Behind the Monument is the Capela do Combatente (Combatant’s Chapel), a small chapel which is accessed through a doorway in the memorial wall. The chapel has a simple marble altar, above which is the ‘Mutilated Christ’, a wooden sculpture that survived a battle of 1916 in France and on the back wall there is a replica of the maimed ‘Christ of the Trenches’ crucifix in which Christ has lost a hand and the bottom half of both legs (this watches over the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Batalha Monastery and the symbolic importance of this crucifix to Portuguese soldiers dates back to the First World War, as it is all that remains of the crucifix from Neuve-Chapelle which was destroyed in a battle of 1918 and was later donated to Portugal by the French Government in recognition of the Portuguese soldiers’ bravery in the battle). A small passageway leads to a room lit by natural light from a skylight. This room houses the tomb of an unknown soldier whose body was brought back from the Colonial War in Portuguese Guinea and over the tomb is a suspended Christ, symbolically risen from the dead.
The Monument is surprisingly close to the very popular Belém Tower, where large groups of tourists gather all day long, but thankfully they don’t tend walk as far as the Monument to the Overseas Combatants and it remains a tranquil place to pay homage to the 10,000 people who died in a war that should never have happened.
Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar, Forte do Bom Sucesso, Avenida de Brasília, Belém
Open daily, free access.
Public transport: Tram 15; Buses 714, 727, 729, 751