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Dhada challenges Portuguese denial of the Wiriyamu Massacre in Golz Lecture

November 17, 2023

On Wednesday evening, Professor of History at California State University Mustafah Dhada delivered the Alfred E. Golz Memorial Lecture on the Wiriyamu Massacre and his work to upend Portuguese denial narratives. Dhada opened his talk with words on the practice of history.

“As historians, we dig up primary sources, curate them chronologically on a spatial matrix, and with the ensuing cultural evidence, argue with the past to shed light on the subject matter,” he said.

Dhada is a leading historian of the Wiriyamu Massacre of 1972, in which Portuguese officials unjustly slaughtered 385 individuals in colonial Mozambique. This led to the Portuguese government’s attempts to hide the massacre from the public.

Dhada is the author of two books relating to this topic, which explore the massacre itself and the subsequent government cover-up. He has another book in the works, which shares its title with that of Wednesday’s lecture.

The title of the talk, “Aphani Wense! Kill Them All: Portugal’s Final Reckoning of the Wiriyamu Massacre,” references what was bellowed at soldiers by Chico Kachavi as the massacre was occurring. “Aphani Wense! Aphani Wense,” he yelled, which translates to “kill them all, leave no one alive, no witnesses.”

Dhada explained the scope of casualties in the Wiriyamu Massacre within the historical context of Portugal’s colonial wars.

“In the broader picture of Portugal’s last colonial wars, Wiriyamu was small potatoes,” Dhada said. “To quote one Portuguese source, ‘It stood for ? of 1% of the total number of civilian casualties.’”

Dhada emphasized the importance of talking about this crisis due to the extended denial from the Portuguese government up until last year, who did not speak of the history of the massacre for almost half a century. Prior to Dhada’s efforts of publicization, there was a lack of written history from the Portuguese government, and even some fabricated documents. Dhada relied upon many survivor testimonies and orated histories to collect data and tell the story that had been hidden for so long. The process of legitimizing himself and publicizing his research was extensive, but he was persistent in attempting to force the government to respond after the release of his book.

Dhada assembled a team to continue to put pressure on the government for the good of the public.

“Next came setting up a network of historians, social scientists, journalists, public intellectuals and humanitarians to help me develop a five-year public information campaign on Wiriyamu and the other African colonial wars,” he said. “We took extreme care not to overexpose the public to the Wiriyamu massacre…. [The information] rigorously adhered to evidence-based narratives.”

In September of 2022, due to the culmination of Dhada’s efforts, Prime Minister António Costa broke the country’s silence on the matter. He regarded it as “an unforgivable act that dishonors Portugal’s history,” and cited Dhada’s work as a force pushing the government to honesty.

Professor of History David Gordon brought Dhada to the College for the Golz lecture. There had never been a lecture about Mozambique, and Gordon thought Dhada was the person to do it.

“I met [Dhada] at a conference about three or four years ago, and his intellect and vibrancy he brought to the subject and the way he investigated really impressed me,” Gordon said. “I thought he would be a diverse, interesting and sort of different kind of speaker to bring.”

Gordon spoke on the resonance and importance of Dhada’s talk at this current moment.

“I think it resonates with other cases of mass violence,” he said. “In addition to Portugal being under a dictatorship that viewed the empire as central to its identity, there was a significant number of Portuguese settlers in Mozambique, and this was not something that the Portuguese state and those settlers were willing to compromise on. It was within the context of that belief in the righteousness of their presence there, and the legitimization of any degree of violence to stay there. To me, that resonates powerfully with present circumstances.”

Attendees like Jules Messitte ’26, had not heard of the massacre prior to attending the talk.

“I thought it was very interesting to see how post-colonial studies can bring about some sort of change while operating within the colonial structures,” Messitte said. “I think a lot of post-colonial studies take a different route. [Dhada] operated within the parameters provided, but it came to fruition.”

Throughout his talk, Dhada called particular attention to the “young historians” in the audience. He urged students to remember social history and narratives in order to protect against denialism in the future.

“In the scheme of things, ladies and gentlemen, death is existentially impossible without a life lived,” he said. “And once six feet under, the dead cannot argue with the past. Those left behind can, by telling us first how the dead lived, laughed, loved and argued with each other, before sharing with us how they perished.”


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