25. Looking for Huts in Palaces

The macutiblog was in Lisbon this summer, looking for macuti houses. That is – I have been looking for documentation about vernacular and popular housing as part of the detective work searching for the quite recent history of urban development in the southern part of Ilha. The fact that the municipal archives in Ilha to a large extent have been moved, lost, destroyed and eaten by the formiga branca, make it interesting trying to get an overview of what documented information there is on the little island – and in particular on the development of popular housing in the southern part of it.

The search itself becomes a journey back to the spaces of the changing regimes controlling the information on Ilha de Moçambique. Physically tracing the spaces of the many collections which may contain a map showing a macuti house, bring you through the Centralised Government of Mozambique in Maputo, now with some decentralised offices in Nampula and Nacala.

Going back in time to when Mozambique was part of Portugal, I thought I would find the documents missing in Ilha and not easy to find in Maputo – in Lisbon. It is, however clear that many documents were kept in Mozambique and projects run in Mozambique without much control from Lisbon also in colonial times, like the ones of the National Monuments Commission, central in the conservation programmes in Ilha de Moçambique in the 1950s and 1960. These particular documents seem, however, to have disappeared without trace in Maputo, as institutions have moved offices and changed administration, and it is not certain whether they will be recovered.

The search brings you back to the Estado Novo and its now closed Overseas Ministry in Portugal, where a special Archive of Overseas History (AHU) devoted to the colonies was opened as the colonial administration was reorganised in the 1930s. A lot of the material in the AHU has not been indexed – including the material from the Department of Public Works interesting in the context I am researching, making it a jungle sorting through boxes where requests for conservation of the important religious relics in Goa lies between newspaper clippings on business going on in Cabo Verde and documentation of meetings in the Committee for the Improvement of Mozambique. However, the archive is full of treasures, and the originals of some of the old maps from around 1800 are wonderful tapestries so full of details which gradually got lost in later maps when measurements become painfully accurate and two-dimensional.

These archives, along with the Maritime archives and the archive in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are in the Junqueira, close to Belém, along the port area where the riches of the colonies landed in Portugal and sailors and settlers boarded for the overseas provinces. The AHU is located in a palace which used to belong to the Saldanha aristocratic family, which after the Napoleonic wars lost the palace and lost the financial capacity to maintain the palace. In 1919 the state took over the building to make it into colonial archives which opened in 1931.

This commendable policy of using the many noble houses no longer in the hands of the dukes and countesses for public institutions such as archives and thus maintaining the buildings and using them instead of turning them into museums, also make looking for archives in Lisbon a pleasure. The buildings have layers of stories to tell which go beyond the history of the institution they are housing and of course the documentation for which the building is currently maintained.

The ministry of foreign affairs with its Diplomatic Historical Archive, is found in the Palácio das Necessidades, overlooking the Alcântara bridge and the Tejo, which served as residence for the kings of the Bragança dynasty. There are photographs of the princes playing in the rooms which now house the archive, the archivists tell me. Since the foundation of the Republic in 1910, the bright pink building has been the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Looking for obscure archives in parts of what one was the Ministry of War, located in different building complexes around the Campo da Sta. Catarina, where the Feira da Ladra takes place twice a week, I got lost in Alfama alleyways and staircases leading to surprising endings. The Cabinet of Military Engineering (GAEM) and the library of the National Defense were not in the same place, as I thought. The former in a 16th century palace, the latter in a military boot factory which at the moment is being transformed to house modern offices and a documentation centre. Interestingly the institutions related to the Ministry of Defence, are located in the old part of town which was not destroyed by the earthquake, thus suggesting a time when princes and dukes were running the army, before centralization and the great modernizing reforms following the earthquake and the move of the court and navy in direction of Belém. At this time, maps of Ilha were being produced for military purposes, with little attention given to the civilian settlement, as is reflected in the maps found in these institutions.

You are brought forward in time again to the “reconquest” of the empire by the scientific community in the 19th century, through the grand establishment of the Geographical Society of Lisboa as well as many small archives of various military origins. The Geographical Society is an institution of sorts, with an impressive auditorium sporting the best of 1870s cast iron construction in its galleries, where people in the thousands, according to certain sources, gathered to welcome home the heroes of the journeys of scientific explorations of the time. The library is invaluable and a wonderful place to work right by Rossio in the centre of the city – the correct place to put such a public institution in the 1870s in order to achieve top publicity. On the other side of the street is a theatre, and streets filled with restaurants surround the building, which still has a large members only lounge with elegant sofas and waiters in white shirts with white linen napkins. The time when colonialism was romantic and exotic still carries an aura of the leisure class activities of the dandy explorer.

On the more pragmatic side is the documentation of IPAD, the Portuguese Development Cooperation, which houses documents which could be of use for planning, including urban planning and planning of the large agricultural schemes of Zambezia and the Cabora Bassa dam, also after the overseas provinces turned into development partners as independent nations. This institution is, however, also in the process of being reorganised, as Portugal today is facing challenges with regards to public funding for culture and for international cooperation. A lot of the documents I was looking for, were in this documentation centre.

So did I find huts in the palaces? Not many, I must admit. And interestingly, I found quite a few traditional houses from Guinea Bissau and Angola, but not many from Mozambique. Either there were not studies of vernacular architecture carried out by the colonial regime in Mozambique, or the studies were kept in Mozambique. I will keep looking. Some of the maps hide treasures if you look more carefully. The little huts are at times very detailed, drawn in the hands of artists, and may in fact give a clue as to what their design may have been centuries ago.


About Silje

Architect and PhD Candidate based in Copenhagen, Denmark, but working mainly with heritage conservation and urban development in Ilha de Moçambique 2011-13. You can contact me on macutiblog at gmail dot com
This entry was posted in History, Research, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 25. Looking for Huts in Palaces

  1. Carmo Mota says:

    É pena não ter encontrado o que procurava. Espero que ainda apareçam coisas interessantes sobre o assunto.

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