Ask my nine-year old son “Who was Salazar”, and he’ll probably be unstoppable in sharing all that he knows about the character Salazar Slytherin from J.K. Rowling’s runaway successful Harry Potter saga.

The same question asked to an earlier generation, will evoke a different answer. To most of us adults, “Salazar” refers to the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), who served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, and was responsible for the Estado Novo (“New State”), the corporatist authoritarian government that ruled Portugal until the 1974 Carnation Revolution.


Few of us would know more about him, apart from the fact that he was in power in Portugal at the time of Goa’s Liberation movement and the brutal suppression of that movement at his orders.

And of course his edict to Portuguese Goa’s last Governor-General Manuel António Vassalo e Silva that his forces should fight “to the last man”:  “Do not expect the possibility of truce or of Portuguese prisoners, as there will be no surrender rendered because I feel that our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead”; orders that Vassalo e Silva disobeyed in order to prevent unnecessary loss of human lives and destruction of bridges and other infrastructure, “um sacrifício inútil” (a useless sacrifice)”, as he termed it.

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In a Twitter response to a fan last year, Rowling acknowledged, “I did indeed take his [Slytherin’s] name from António Salazar, the Portuguese dictator.”

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In the early 1990s, in response to an advertisement in The Guardian, Rowling moved to Porto, Portugal, to teach English as a foreign language. In her years in Portugal, she would inevitably have heard of Salazar.

He would have perhaps have been the predictable choice as one of the founders of Hogwarts. For her own reasons, Rowling chose the letters G(ryffindor), H(ufflepuff), and R(avenclaw), S(lytherin) for each of the founders, and each of them have first names starting with the corresponding letters. Therefore Godric Gryffindor; Helga Hufflepuff; Rowena Ravenclaw; and Salazar Slytherin.

Slytherin is described by the Sorting Hat as “power-hungry”, “shrewd”, and “a notorious champion of pureblood supremacy”. The name of a dictator would match such a character profile best.

What would Rowling’s reaction have been had she known that around barely a decade later, in 2007, viewers of the TV series Great Portuguese – having been asked to vote for the greatest figure in Portuguese history – chose Salazar, with him receiving 41 per cent of the 159,245 votes cast, beating the nation’s more illustrious monarchs and even the much-celebrated explorers of the ‘Age of Discovery’?

This hankering after a past, even a dictatorship, as a knee-jerk reaction to political scandal and economic instability in the present, is by no means unique to Portugal. But it is a dangerous trend when public memory erases or diminishes the human rights abuses of barely a generation ago.

The words of Portuguese historian, scholar and editor A. H. de Oliveira Marques perhaps summarise Salazar best: “He considered himself the guide of the nation, believed that there were things which only he could do (‘unfortunately there are a lot of things that seemingly only I can do’ — official note published in September 1935) and convinced more and more of his countrymen of that too… He became more and more of a dictator, more and more inclined to deify himself and to trust others less.”

This cloying overdependence on just one man’s supposed capability to administer, to the total exclusion of all others, is a phenomenon by now familiar to us in Goa as well.

If one goes through official correspondence from the time of the Estado Novo, even in Goa, it is interesting to see how often “por Bem da Nação” (“for the Good, or for the Sake of the Nation”) is invoked, even for something as perfunctory as signing off on a letter. The words ‘Nação’ and ‘Nacional’ become almost talismanic, and attach themselves to everything: Escola Nacional, Clube Nacional, Cine Nacional.

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How different is the situation today, where the raising the mere bogey of accusing a person, or a film, book, or action to be “anti-national” can be enough to scare one into silence and submission? The definition of “national” or “anti-national” becomes ever narrower and blinkered, and sanctimoniously decided by ever-fewer and fewer, who wield more and more power.

A sizeable part of the reason that a unique bond of friendship still exists between Portugal and Goa today is that its free-thinking people in both parts of the world, in the decades of the Estado Novo were united in their determination and efforts to rid themselves of the yoke of the same oppressor, Salazar. This is something that many Portugal-hating ‘hyper-nationalists’ here do not, or pretend not, to comprehend.

Some years ago, I was told very casually by an elderly Goan lady of obvious influence, in her living room, how she had rung up Salazar upon her arrival in Lisbon when he was in power, “to let him know I had arrived.” The anecdote was clearly meant to impress me and my companions; was it meant to shock as well? I think the conversation drifted elsewhere before we could ascertain what she thought of Salazar’s legacy in Portuguese political history.

The name Salazar turns up again in popular culture, in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. In the 2017 instalment Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (and actually titled Salazar’s Revenge in North America), Javier Bardem’s Captain Armando Salazar makes his first appearance, as a Spanish, “undead” pirate-hunter.

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Interestingly, the etymology of ‘Salazar’ is actually Spanish. It is thought to be a habitational name, from a place called Salazar in northern Burgos, a city in northern Spain and the historic capital of Castile. Salazar is a Basque surname meaning ‘old hall’, from Castilian ‘Sala’ (hall) and the Basque ‘zahar’ (old). Although today northern Burgos is not a Basque-speaking region, it was during the early Middle Ages when the surname appeared.

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The Portuguese dictator Salazar however, although he aided and supported his Spanish contemporary and counterpart Francisco Franco across the border, kept their meetings to the barest minimum, reflecting the wariness and distrust Portugal has had of its larger neighbor through their shared history.

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According to some fan websites of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, the “ruthless, merciless” Captain Armando Salazar may also have been named after the Portuguese dictator. It appears that long after his death, the name Salazar continues to strike terror and send chills down one’s spine.

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)