Richard Cleminson, Catholicism, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Portugal, 1900-1950

Richard Cleminson, Catholicism, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Portugal, 1900-1950 (Budapest: Central European University Press 2014) 350 pp. $60 Hb. (CEU Press Studies in the History of Medicine, vol 5) ISSN: 2079-1119

A vast amount of research has been done on the twentieth-century eugenic movements that experienced a significant degree of institutionalisation in Germany, the United States and Britain. However, in other countries the eugenic ‘science’ of artificial selection remains a somewhat taboo subject that is yet to be thoroughly researched and incorporated into national history. As global hegemonic discourse came to vehemently condemn the exterminatory Nazi eugenic programme of the 1930s as an atrocity never to be repeated, numerous countries, institutions, communities and individuals have exhibited varying degrees of historical amnesia regarding their own engagement with eugenic ideas. Richard Cleminson’s Catholicism, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Portugal, 1900-1950 aims to correct this historiographical imbalance in the geography of eugenics.

Although in recent years research into eugenic movements has expanded its geographical scope greatly, to include a wider selection of northern and southern European countries as well as Australia and parts of Asia and South America, Cleminson rightly recognises that thus far there has been no substantial research into eugenics in the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, Cleminson’s in-depth analysis of the development of the eugenic movement, or ‘eugenic moment’ (263), in Portugal is seminal not only in its exploration of Portuguese national history through the lens of eugenics, but also in its revision of the historiography of international eugenics from a Portuguese perspective. In the Preface, Cleminson sets out his ambition of compiling, for the first time, a wide selection of source material on the Portuguese eugenic movement to aid future research on the topic. Certainly, the detailed footnotes and extensive bibliography make Catholicism, Race and Empire accessible and informative, an ideal starting point for the study of Portuguese eugenics.

In the Introduction, Cleminson locates his research within a renewed historiography that seeks to correct the distorted, hindsight-induced view of racial science as merely ‘an excrescence of fascistic ideology’ (7). Cleminson analyses eugenics ‘prospectively’ (7), rather than from the retrospective ‘benchmark of the Nazi race hygiene programmes’ (17). Through emphasizing that eugenic notions encapsulated and intersected with an array of broader social, political, religious and scientific concerns, the book convincingly demonstrates that eugenics must be studied as an integral part of a wider social context. Amongst other things, a history of Portuguese eugenics reveals the complexities of the relationship between medical groups, the Salazar state and scientific modernity, the tension between Catholicism and secularisation and the ‘local colouring’ (6) that eugenic ideas took in an international context.

The main body of Catholicism, Race and Empire is thematically divided into four chapters. These explore Portuguese eugenics through examining the works of its early proponents and most fervent advocates, as well as its most vocal critics, during its rise, followed by its brief and limited institutionalisation, and ultimately its decline. Collectively, these sub-divided and easy to navigate chapters trace the relative ‘successes’ of the Portuguese eugenics movement through an analysis of its relationship with the Salazar state, Catholicism, colonialism and international eugenic movements on a wider scale. On the one hand, the book explores how eugenic ideas retained significant influence in areas of science and propaganda throughout the first half of the Salazar regime and, on the other hand, it questions why eugenics never developed into a ‘mass movement’ (15) in Portugal. Catholicism, Race and Empire not only elucidates how eugenics was disseminated, received and enacted through both discourse and practice, but also illuminates why these eugenic ideas appealed to such a ‘broad swathe’ (5) of people in early twentieth-century Portugal.

Chapter Two, ‘The Birth of Eugenics in Portugal’, traces Portugal’s early reception of eugenics back to late nineteenth-century concerns about an impending degeneration of the Portuguese ‘race’. However, refusing ‘the teleological category of pre-eugenics’ (13), Cleminson cautions his reader not to equate debates about Darwinism, degeneracy, atavism, sterilisation or criminality with early examples of eugenic discourse. The analysis in this chapter centres upon four essays by the influential psychiatrist Miguel de Bombarda who, in the first decade of the twentieth century, wrote upon degeneracy, marriage, sterilisation and finally in 1910 introduced the idea of ‘eugenics’ to Portuguese medical writing (35). Following this, Cleminson explicates the increasingly scientific and political explanations of ‘race’ that were coming to the fore in the early twentieth century.

Where the second chapter ends chronologically, in 1927, the next chapter, ‘Between Consolidation and Institutionalisation’, begins. It was in this watershed year of 1927, Cleminson argues, that a statement by anthropologist António Augusto Mendes Correia marked the ‘first substantive declaration on eugenics’ (24) in Portugal. This third chapter is dedicated to exploring the ‘slow articulation of eugenic thought’ (24) as well as its somewhat successful infiltration into various intellectual circles under the Estado Novo. In considering the complex relationship between eugenics, the Catholic Church and the Salazar state, Cleminson weighs sources expressing Catholic opposition to sterilisation against ecclesiastic support for marriage regulation, interventionist family doctors and voluntary hygienic measures. Next, after considering the overlap between eugenic discourse and that of biotypology by looking at the works of Barahona Fernandes, Cleminson goes on to explore the intersection between eugenics and anthropology through a focus on the ‘eugenic project’ (109) of Professor Eusébio Tamagnini who established a Portuguese eugenics institute that went on to influence government health measures.

Chapter Four, ‘Apogee and Decline’, begins with an analysis of Portuguese eugenics in a global context with a focus on international debates on sterilisation and the ephemeral influence that Nazi and ‘Latin’ eugenics had in Portugal. With an emphasis on the limited nature of the relationship between eugenics and the Salazar state, Cleminson goes on to discuss various measures from the 1930s that appear, to varying extents, to be manifestations of eugenic thought, such as the ‘quasi-eugenic’ (176) nature of certain ‘welfare state’ (175) policies. The focus of this chapter then shifts to the 1940 Population Sciences Congress at which apparent threats to the Portuguese ‘race’ were emphasised, leading to the rise of statistical studies of the Portuguese population and serological research founded on ideas of racial supremacy.

The overlapping discourses between colonialism, ‘race’ and eugenics were imbued with ideas about racial difference that were used to define the ‘other’ as much as the ‘self’ (205). In the fifth chapter, ‘Race, Eugenics and Miscegenation’, Cleminson establishes a connection between the metropole and the colonies in his discussion of theories on the unique racial origins of the Portuguese population and related fears of racial inter-breeding. Through to the end of the 1930s, the attitudes of key figures in the Portuguese eugenics movement towards miscegenation was largely one of contempt. The offspring of inter-racial relationships, known as mestiços, were viewed as morally and mentally inferior, less robust (231) beings whose existence was considered ‘biologically and socially dangerous’ (211). The analysis concludes by tracing the gradual acceptance of miscegenation in the 1940s and 1950s, whereby mestiços were cautiously accepted as an advantageous tool for European maintenance of the colonies before attitudes towards miscegenation were revised and rewritten in a more liberal post-war climate.

On the whole, eugenics never achieved as great a level of impact in Portugal as it did in other countries, but Cleminson’s study reveals the perhaps surprising extent to which the ‘eugenic moment’ did shape Portuguese politics and society, particularly in regard to empire, ‘race’, miscegenation and pro-natalist health measures such as puericulture. Whilst Catholicism, Race and Empire offers its readers an extensive analysis of the eugenics movement in Portugal using a significant range of source material, Cleminson himself recognises that new primary evidence may come to light in the future that could challenge the conclusions reached in this book (2). Nevertheless, Cleminson’s research is a valuable contribution to the ongoing correction of ‘historical forgetfulness or occlusion of the eugenic past’ (248) and provides an essential piece in the larger puzzle of how and why Francis Galton’s ideas on ‘eugenics’ have been varyingly interpreted across the globe.

Carissa Chew, University of Edinburgh