Mozambique and me
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 Maputoborn banker with a particular inter- est 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
The medals came from the president of Portugal
The Maputo street where the brothers had their studio taken c1900 with (inset) the same street in 2016; Joseph Lazarus with his medal (below)