Life & Culture

Tracing my family history in Lisbon and Maputo


It all began with the medals. 

I had always known that my paternal grandfather, Joseph Lazarus, had been a photographer in Lisbon. But that was all. My father had spent his early years growing up there until he was 11. The premature loss of both his parents and the onset of war brought him back to the UK where he was then adopted by his uncle and aunt and became a brother to his two older cousins.

When I interviewed my father about his childhood in Portugal, in April 2013, he produced the only evidence he had of that time — none of which I had seen before: a dusty, plastic bag of family photos, a few letters written to him by his father and his uncle Maurice and a box of medals. Inside were two sets of heavy, ceremonial-looking collar chains, each dominated by a red sword centrepiece surrounded by green laurels with what appeared to be a motto, Ciencias, Letras, E Artes engraved around the sword’s tip. On the lid was an inscription in Portuguese, dated 1930 and signed by the then President of Portugal, Oscar Carmona. Dad did not know the medals’ origin, nor had he ever thought — or wanted — to find out.

But I was intrigued and even more so once the citations were translated. The medals, known as Ordem Militar Sant’Iago da Espada (Order of St. James of the Sword) are an official honour given by the President of Portugal for outstanding artistic, intellectual or scientific merit. It was an extraordinary revelation. Both men had received the Order, which accounted for the two chains, in recognition for their work as photographers for the Portuguese royal household and then later, for the Republic.

I thought little more about the brothers until February 2015 when, in a moment of boredom, I made a random Google search for J & M Lazarus, their trade signature. It was only then that I discovered that they had lived and worked in Africa, in Lourenço Marques (present day Maputo), between 1899 and 1908, as well as operating a studio in Beira, a coastal town in central Mozambique.

One link led to a blog written by Antonio Botelho de Melo, a Maputo-born banker with a particular interest in the history of Mozambique. When I emailed him, his response was immediate. “Your grandfather and great uncle are kind of celebrities in my little world…They captured the city at a time of major growth and economic expansion, as well as providing a unique insight into the colonial experience in Mozambique.” Their work, he wrote, “is among the very best visual record produced at the time.”

This visual record was accompanied by an evocative commentary, written by the brothers in an introduction to the second edition of their album, A Souvenir of Lourenço Marques in 1901. “Lourenço Marques is unquestionably the most picturesque place in South Africa and one that no traveler to the Cape should fail to visit,” they wrote. “The old-time almost romantic aspect of the town, …[its] many palm trees swaying to the will of the wind with dignified condescension… the strange costumes of the cosmopolitan peoples who make up the population and the …buildings…[which are] oriental in architecture. Within the last five years [it] has merged from the chrysalis state of primitiveness into a busy constantly improving town.”

The brothers were born in Sunderland in the 1870s. The family left for South Africa, sometime in 1880s. By the 1890s, Joseph and Maurice owned a studio in Barberton, a town in the Mpumalanga province. Their route to Lourenço Marques might have been influenced by the Transvaal railway line, which had opened in 1895 — the construction of which they had documented — connecting Pretoria with southern Mozambique. In Lourenço Marques, the affluent, international capital of colonial, pre-independence Mozambique, the brothers established one of the first — and most successful — commercial houses of photography.

From Mozambique, they moved to Lisbon and in the summer of 2015, I travelled there with Jake, my then 19-year-old son.

Lisbon would have been an entirely different experience for the brothers from Africa. They witnessed the fall of the monarchy, the chaos and uncertainty of the First Republic and the dictatorship of António Oliveira Salazar.

They lived here until their deaths — Joseph in 1940 and Maurice in 1949 — both are buried in Lisbon’s Jewish cemetery. Their studio, Photographia Ingleza de J & M Lazarus, was on Rua Ivens, 53-59 in Chiado — the heart of bustling, downtown commercial Lisbon. As prominent studio photographers they produced high quality portraits for leading figures, later branching out into selling photographic equipment and frames. They were also contributors to several newspapers and magazines. Nowadays, their former studio is a Levis clothing store.

“Although there were hundreds of photographic houses in 1910/20s Lisbon, only a few had the prestigious connections that the Lazarus brothers had,” explained Bruno Saraiva, part researcher, part curator and historian at Museu da Presidência da República, Lisbon’s Presidential Museum. Not only was their studio well placed, he told us, unusually, it had a telephone — further evidence of their position and status.

Sitting in a grand, oak-panelled room within the museum complex, with paintings of Portugal’s past presidents looking down on us, Bruno produced the gelatin silver prints on glass, of Presidents Carmona and Pais that the brothers had taken. The images had been included in a 2010 exhibition at the museum that he had helped curate. Later photos of us were taken for the museum’s Facebook page. As a result, several months later, I heard from Paulo Azevedo, a researcher who sent me his self-published book about the Lazarus brothers.

My ongoing research and growing inquisitiveness led to a family holiday, in December, to Mozambique — now a very different place from the one my grandfather knew. Having gained independence from Portugal in 1975, its subsequent years have been turbulent, experiencing civil war, economic instability and corruption.

Palm trees still nod and sway on Maputo’s main boulevards but the modern city lacks the allure and bewitching exoticism of its past. In Café Continental, a popular, central Maputo landmark, I met Dr António Sopa, former director of historic archives in Maputo. Talking above the noisy clatter via an interpreter, Dr Sopa explained why he felt the Lazarus brothers were such accomplished photographers. “The sheer quality of their work,” he said, pointing to their pictures in front of me, “and their use of perspective. They were the ones who [sometimes] photographed from above.”

Their book, A Souvenir of Lourenço Marques, was the first photographic album ever produced about the city. It is now a rare, collector’s item, a copy of which can be found in the British Library. They went on to publish two more albums.

They photographed the elite, he continued, including Governors, Commissioners and members of the British Council. Their postcards and albums were a means of conveying life in LM to the outside world. He thought their subsequent move to Lisbon, in 1908, was likely to have been due to their successful coverage of the visit of Crown Prince Luis Filipe of Portugal to Mozambique in 1907 — the first member of the royal family to visit the Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Dr Sopa then disclosed yet another revelation: that he believed that the brothers had also worked in Malawi.

As I explored Maputo, to my surprise, the Lazarus brothers’ presence was with me wherever I went — their record of the city had created a strange sense of familiarity as I walked past the buildings that they had photographed. Images appeared in unlikely places — in the railway station where pictures depicted its early days and in the black and white photos of old buildings lining the walls of our hotel lobby.

It was drizzly and humid on my final day and I was not certain that I would find the actual address of the brothers’ studio. Like much of the city, downtown Bagamoya St, previously named Araújo St, is a curious mix of decaying colonial-era pastel-painted elegance and ugly modern concrete office blocks. It also happens to be the city’s red light district.

Pacing up and down the street, armed with a photograph from Google Street View (marked with a hand drawn arrow), a fantastic local guide and the advice of a renowned, retired Maputo-based historian, I finally located my grandfather’s studio.

One hundred and eight years after he left the city and just over two years after my father’s death, I was standing outside a one storey corrugated roofed, semi-whitewashed building. This narrow street’s name and numbering might have changed over the years but there was no mistaking it. It was here that they made their significant contribution to the early history of photography — a record of which exists in private and public collections all over the world.

Despite discovering so much, I feel frustrated about the vast amount that I still don’t know, especially about their personal lives.

Even though the brothers were the catalyst that brought me to Mozambique, I had not expected to leave with such an intense feeling of connection, pride and vast curiosity to explore their legacy further.

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