Germany to return Portuguese Stone Cross to Namibia
17 May 2019
The Stone Cross was placed by the Portuguese in 1486 and features the country's crest
The German Historical Museum has announced it will return a 15th century monument to Namibia after it was taken during the colonial era.
The Stone Cross is a Portuguese navigation landmark placed on the southwest African coastline in 1486.
But when the area was under German colonial control in the 1890s, the cross was taken and moved to Europe.
Namibia asked for its return in 2017 and on Friday, the Berlin museum formally agreed to the request.
Germany has pledged to return artefacts and human remains to its former colonies.
At a ceremony, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters said it was a "clear signal that we are committed to coming to terms with our colonial past".
Namibia's ambassador to Germany, Andreas Guibeb, called it "important as a step for us to reconcile with our colonial past and the trail of humiliation and systematic injustice that it left behind".
A museum press release said the cross would be returned in August.
Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão first placed the 3.5m (11ft) stone cross - featuring the country's coat of arms - on Africa's southwest coast during one of his expeditions.
It became so well known it featured on old maps of the area.
But a German naval commander took the cross in 1893, during the country's control of what became Namibia between 1884 and 1915.
The German Historical Museum foundation's president, Raphael Gross, wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the cross represented "the slow beginning of colonial rule in present-day Namibia".
A number of African nations have in recent years called on European museums to return artefacts taken away during the period of colonial control.
‘Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire,’ by Roger Crowley
By Ian Morris
Jan. 15, 2016
Afonso de Albuquerque died 500 years ago, after spending a dozen years terrorizing coastal cities from Yemen to Malaysia. He enriched thousands of men and killed tens of thousands more. Despite never commanding more than a few dozen ships, he built one of the first modern intercontinental empires. And this was just the beginning: The next step, he said, was to sail up the Red Sea, destroy Mecca, Medina and the Prophet Muhammad’s body and liberate the Holy Land. Perhaps, he mused, he could destroy Islam altogether.
The 18 years between December 1497, when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and December 1515, when Albuquerque died off the Indian coast, were a pivotal point in history, and in “Conquerors” Roger Crowley tells the story with style. It is a classic ripping yarn, packed with excitement, violence and cliffhangers. Its larger-than-life characters are at once extraordinary and repulsive, at one moment imagining the world in entirely new ways and at the next braying with delight over massacring entire cities.
Crowley’s craftsmanship comes through most clearly in telling this story of relentless, one-sided slaughter without glutting the reader with gore. At Mombasa in 1505 the Portuguese killed 700 Muslims with a loss of five of their own men. At Dabul on the last day of 1508 “no living thing was left alive.” At Goa in 1510 Albuquerque killed so many people that the city’s infamous crocodiles could not eat them all. And on the conquerors went, year after bloody year; but Crowley, the author of “1453” and other works of history, handles this grim tale with aplomb, keeping a fast-moving narrative in the foreground while nodding just often enough toward bigger questions in the background.
The biggest of these is surely how a handful of Europeans managed, for good and ill, to do so much. Crowley does not give us an explicit answer, but he provides more than enough information for readers to make up their own minds. Some historians have suggested that Albuquerque owed his success more to divisions within India than to any European advantages, but Crowley makes it clear that infighting among the Portuguese was even worse. The king’s court in Lisbon was a snake pit, and Albuquerque’s captains repeatedly refused to serve under him; in 1514 an attempt was made to poison him.
The theory that Christian civilization was simply superior to Muslim and Hindu cultures seems equally unconvincing. As Crowley describes it, Lisbon was less a model of Renaissance reason than a precursor of the Wild West, and most Portuguese were so ignorant about India that it took them years to work out that Hinduism was a religion in its own right, not a provincial version of Christianity. When the Europeans did finally grasp this, many also concluded — as one Italian merchant put it — that India’s cultures “are superior to us in infinite ways, except when it comes to fighting.”
Fighting — or more precisely ships, guns and ferocity — does seem to be what it came down to. Portuguese sailors learned to build ships that could plunge into the uncharted Atlantic in search of winds to carry them around Africa’s southern tip, all the while dying in droves from dysentery, scurvy and thirst. But getting to India was merely a sufficient condition; without devastating guns, the Europeans would have accomplished little.
Ships and guns gave Europeans command of the seas, but even when Indians bought or copied European weapons and hired European advisers — as they did by 1510 — they still could not compete with what Crowley calls the Portuguese “berserker fighting style.” From the humblest foot soldier up to Albuquerque himself, the Europeans were simply ferocious, throwing themselves at their enemies with reckless courage. Sometimes indiscipline brought on disaster, but often Africans, Indians, Arabs and Turks turned and fled.
Portugal’s leaders were deeply flawed, but they had strategic vision. By 1505 King Manuel understood that a few Europeans could control the Indian Ocean’s spice trade by seizing choke points at Aden, Ormuz and Malacca, and in 1510 Albuquerque saw that Goa could anchor the whole enterprise (“If you lost the whole of India you could reconquer it from there,” he told Manuel).
Manuel and Albuquerque came close to pulling off the biggest strategic coup in history, converting Portugal from the most backward fringe of western Eurasia to the center of a global empire. It is only when we ask why they failed that Crowley’s story perhaps fails too. But maybe that will be the subject for Crowley’s next book; and if it is as good as this one, it will be worth waiting for.
How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire
By Roger Crowley
Illustrated. 368 pp. Random House. $30.
Ian Morris’s latest book is “Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Val
Maria Manuela Peleteiro / PUBLICO comment
“We do not agree with his idea that the request for the restitution of the Standard could be seen as a colonial nostalgia, but rather as a demonstration of enormous respect for the unbridled courage and determination that led the Portuguese to explore the African coast. We would like you to count on us and on our opinion of Portuguese admirers of Namibia and its People but also of our Past, not the colonial but what led us with a unique dynamic and boldness, to face the Unknown. If you are aware of any Movement in Portugal that supports this idea, we will certainly be available to be contacted.” Lisbon, July 1, 2018 Maria do Céu Fialho Maria da Conceição Peleteiro Maria da Luz Fialho Maria Manuela Peleteiro
The Padrão of Diogo Cão
The restitution of museum objects from the former colonies is of course a complex problem.
19 June 2018, 06:05
The Museum of German History in Berlin organized on June 7 a day of debate on the pattern erected by Diogo Cão in 1486 at Cape Cross, a territory of present-day Namibia. The pattern had been removed from its site by a German warship in 1893, during German colonization, having been preserved first in Kiel and then in Berlin, belonging since 1946 to the collection of the Museum of German History. This meeting was prompted by the official request for restitution of the standard, submitted by Namibia last year.
Government members, ambassadors, academics, journalists and members of heritage associations were invited, mainly from Namibia but also from other African countries. Present and speaking were the Minister of Culture of the German Federal Government, Monika Grütters, and the Ambassador of Namibia Andreas Guibeb. Panel discussions on the legal and philosophical framework of the restitution of museum pieces, oral literature and forms of anti-colonial resistance in Namibia, museum policies and international relations followed. I would like to highlight here the interventions of Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, from the University of Namibia, on the fascinating diaries of Hendrik Witbooi, from the early twentieth century, and Winani Kgwatalala, from the National Museum of Botswana, on the policy of restitution of objects.
I did the inaugural session on "Colonial objects: imposition, appropriation, exchange", in which I analyzed the logic of patterns as forms of identification of exploration trips, claim of precedence and declaration of intention of occupation. I tried to place them in the wider context of political communication and the fate of European objects, particularly statues, in the post-independence period. I approached the collection of objects from other continents, in many cases adapted to European taste, such as ivories from West Africa, Indo-Portuguese furniture, Japanese lacquer objects or Chinese porcelains, which came to populate European curiosity cabinets along with minerals and plants. I also spoke of the logic of museums, given the transformation of the last 40 years: European national and colonial collections for the purpose of imperial affirmation have become places of contact and involvement of the communities originating from ethnographic objects, open to the regeneration of memory and knowledge of the cultures of the world.
Namibia's request is part of a process of reflection on the colonial past and is supported by several institutions of memory, such as the Namibian Association of Museums, National Archives and Citizens' Associations. It is part of a complex process of negotiation between the two governments over compensation due for the genocide of the Herrero and Nama by German colonial troops between 1904 and 1908 (it is estimated that 70% of these populations were exterminated). Descendants of these ethnicities, meanwhile, have filed a lawsuit against the German government in a New York court. The German government, which at first paid little attention to this private initiative in absentia of the Namibian government, had to constitute a defense lawyer given the threat of kidnapping its properties in the United States.
The atmosphere in which the meeting took place was extremely cordial, with the participation of German and Namibian academics of excellent level. The German head of the German-Namibian bilateral commission Ruprecht Polenz was also a speaker. The president of the German History Museum, Professor Raphael Gross, was available for the restitution of the standard. He intends to revise the exhibition of the permanent collection, as several sections are frankly dated and ideologically biased; the section on German colonialism in Africa does not even mention the genocide of the Herrero and Nama in Namibia.
I must stress the openness of the German authorities, which seem to be in line with the best international museum practices of liaison with the communities of the places of origin of the pieces. I had the opportunity to talk with Professor Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages the main museums, archives and the National Library in Berlin. Investment in the recovery, restructuring and development of museums is overwhelming, involving a financial effort of six to seven billion euros that will be extended until the 2030s. The German federal government's bet on changing the face of Berlin is bearing fruit, with the affirmation of the German capital as one of the great points of attraction of international tourism. The critical attitude towards the colonial past certainly benefits cooperation with the countries of Africa and Asia.
Portugal has never submitted any claim for restitution of the standard. At this point, such a request would be seen as colonial nostalgia by the international community. The request of the Namibian government is understandable, as its population has a project of reflection on the colonial past, in which the pattern can represent one of the focal points. The inventory of the museological and documentary heritage existing in Germany related to Namibia was also discussed. I pointed out as a possible model the Rescue project, which has been developed with microfilming and massive digitization of Brazilian documentation in Portugal and eight other countries. The restitution of museum objects from the former colonies is of course a more complex problem. The international consensus, expressed by Nicholas Thomas's latest book, is that a single rule is not possible; the decision should be taken on a case-by-case basis between the institutions involved, taking into account interests that can be accommodated by various modalities of loan, long-term granting, reply or return.
There is a Portuguese fifteenth-century Padrão boxed since 2019 in a port in Namibia.
Marco that Diogo Cão left on the Skeleton Coast was in Berlin and arrived in Walvis Bay four years ago, but remains in storage. Negotiations with Germany concerning the colonial era continue.
20 March 2023, 07:20
For those who have memories of the Indiana Jones films, it's almost impossible to hear of a 500-year-old pattern arranged in a wooden box in a port warehouse without thinking about the final scene of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which a man pushes a wheelbarrow down the center aisle of a huge warehouse where dozens of crates with the "top secret" seal are stacked. containing articles which should be kept closed under lock and key.
Now, the pattern Portuguese which for four years has been boxed in a customs house in the port of Walvis Bay, Namibia's second largest city, is not an imagined object, like the one that gives its name to Spielberg's film, and so his story is far from fiction.
Left by the navigator Diogo Cão in 1486 in a region that is now known as "the Skeleton Coast", this huge stone landmark with the shield Portuguese – it measures 3.5 meters high and weighs more than a ton – was taken to Berlin in the nineteenth century, when Namibia was part of the German colonial domains, and has remained there ever since.
Until, in May 2019, the German History Museum, to whose collection it belongs, announced that it would return it, in a solemn session in which the then ambassador of Namibia to Germany, Andreas Guibeb, spoke of the restitution of this territorial landmark that was also an aid to navigation as a decisive step in the movement of rapprochement between the two countries. Namibia and Germany share a past marked by episodes of extreme violence, within the framework of the German colonization of that African territory. "The origin of the column is inseparable from the history of Namibia," said the diplomat, quoted here by Deutsche Welle, the German public broadcaster.
Guibeb thus placed the pattern – symbol of the Portuguese Expansion removed from Namibian territory by another European colonial power – on the lot of cultural property that Germany was to return to Namibia as part of a reconciliation process between the two countries, which had already involved the restitution of works of art and human remains in the custody of several German museums.
The Berlin museum fulfilled the promise made and, that same year, used a company specialized in the transport of works of art, as sent by international manuals of good practices, to send the Diogo Cão Pattern to Walvis Bay, by sea, Daniela Lange, press officer of the German History Museum, confirmed to PÚBLICO.
"The Cape of the Cross standard is currently in a Namibian port. It has been prepared by a museum expert in stone conservation so that it can be rebuilt on site," Lange said.
"The date of the official handover is being coordinated between the [German] Federal Government and the Government of Namibia," added this technician from the Berlin museum, referring any further clarifications to the Minister of State for Cultural Affairs, whose spokesman, Jens Althoff, PÚBLICO tried to contact, without success.
Why is the standard closed for four years in a port warehouse waiting for an official refund? Who should return it to the Namibian state? And what will be your fate as soon as it is delivered?
PÚBLICO sought to hear from Esther Moombolah Gôagoses, from the Namibian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, but this director of heritage was not available to provide any clarifications until the closing time of this edition.
On the ground, a source close to the process who preferred not to be named attributes the delay in return to a rush by the Berlin museum, which reportedly sent the pattern to Walvis Bay without properly learning of the state of the reconciliation program involving the two countries, and without listening to other stakeholders.
Assuring that the more than five-century-old landmark has been "safe" for four years in a customs warehouse paid for by the German museum, the same source reports that its ownership has not been officially transferred to the Namibian Government – "the Berlin museum still owns the standard" – and that the two governments are looking for a legal solution that allows for formal restitution.
"The standard is from the museum, not the German state, but the Namibian government wants the state to return it. How can the state return what is not its own? Both countries are working on a solution." For when? It is not known.
Two patterns instead of one
The pattern that gave its name to the cable where it was placed – Cabo da Cruz – is a limestone landmark surmounted by a cube with a cross. On one side of the solid is engraved the shield Portuguese, already with the changes dictated by D. João II Portuguese. According to a text released by the Berlin museum in 2018, when it held a congress there on the standard, in Portuguese current we would say that it is written: "It was the creation of the world of 6685 and Christ of 1485 the excellent enlightened King D. João II of Portugal ordered to discover this land and put this pattern by Diogo Cão knight of his house."
Cape Cross is a small peninsula located 120 kilometres north of Swakopmund, capital of the Erongo region. A city of sun and beach, strongly marked by German colonial architecture.
Protected area since the late 1960s, the cape has a hotel unit, a colony of seals and fur seals with more than 100 thousand animals and two patterns: one erected in the nineteenth century by the Germans, with an imperial eagle, and another evocative of the landmark left by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, placed in the 80s.
Diogo Cão was already on his second voyage as commander of the reconnaissance ships of the southwest African coast, when he arrived there in 1486. Already in the first of the voyages in the service of D. João II he had begun to use stone patterns to mark the Portuguese sovereignty over the territory (initially they were made of wood) – landmarks that were imposed on the landscape and that, such as their importance as references for navigation, immediately began to appear on the nautical charts used by European sailors.
Is it here that the Government of Namibia wants to put the standard when it is officially restored to it? Manuel Coelho, a Portuguese who has lived in Namibia for 61 years and is a permanent member of the Council of Portuguese Communities, hopes that Cabo da Cruz will not be the chosen destination.
"If the pattern goes back to the place where it was 400 years, it will most likely be destroyed, or at least damaged, as were many other statues from the time of the Germans that were here in the capital [Windhoek]," says this businessman, who travels the country frequently and who guarantees to know the Skeleton Coast like the back of his hand.
Since 2019, Manuel Coelho has been trying to find out from the Portuguese diplomatic authorities in Windhoek and the Namibian Government what can be done to remove the pattern from the warehouse. To no avail.
"It pains me to think that a 500-year-old pattern, one of the first left by Europeans on the African coast, has been boxed there for four years without anything being done. I was in Walvis Bay with a representative from the Berlin museum – I saw the pattern in 2019 when it arrived and was arranged in a customs warehouse. I also came with a box where I was told that there were human bones and other objects, but these I have not seen them anymore," recalls now this 74-year-old Portuguese who since the country's independence in 1990 says he wrote to two presidents of the Namibian Republic to ask for the return of the Cape of the Cross standard.
"Now I'm asking the governor of Erongo to let me go see him again, with Ambassador Portuguese [Luís Gaspar da Silva], to see if everything is in good condition."
Contacted by PÚBLICO, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNE) in Lisbon naturally distanced itself from bilateral negotiations around a heritage that, being of Portuguese origin, is not Portuguese.
"With regard to the Diogo Cão Standard, Portugal is available to evaluate the provision of the support that is possible for assistance in the field of maintenance or restoration of that historical heritage, which may correspond to contact in this sense that may be established by the Namibian authorities, as was done, for example, in the case of the wreckage of the sixteenth-century Portuguese ship found in Oranjemund", said MNE's official source. "The matter essentially concerns the negotiations on historical reparations that Namibia and Germany have in progress," adds the note sent to PÚBLICO, referring then to the agreement reached in 2021, "which includes the restitution of the Diogo Cão Standard."
An agreement in which Germany undertakes to invest a total of EUR 1.1 billion over 30 years, to be distributed among the various cooperation and development programmes already in place in Namibia, but which still seems incapable of guaranteeing the true reconciliation that both sides seek.
To understand the root of the problem, one must go back in history. In 1884, Bismarck proclaimed that Namibia would become a German protectorate. Nine years later, Gottlieb Becker, commander of a ship anchored off the Cape of the Cross, carried the pattern Portuguese to Germany, where it was offered to Emperor Wilhelm II.
The German presence in that territory began to be strongly contested at the beginning of the twentieth century, and ended with tens of thousands of men, women and children killed, tortured or taken to the Calaari desert, where they would succumb to hunger, disease and fatigue in forced labor camps between 1904 and 1908. In this period, troops loyal to the German emperor fought against the Nama and Herero peoples, who rebelled against the colonial power.
Negotiations between Germany and Namibia to heal the wounds of this historic past gained intensity in 2015, when then-Foreign Minister Heiko Maas officially acknowledged that German punitive actions against Hereros and Namas should be called "genocide."
"Genocide" was also the word used in the joint declaration of the two states after reaching the €1.1 billion agreement to invest in rural and health infrastructure, and in cultural and vocational training programmes, aimed mainly at the descendants of those who survived the massacres of the 20th century, the British daily The Guardian wrote in May 2021.
This newspaper also noted that the joint declaration does not speak of "reparations" or "compensations" so as not to set a "legal precedent" capable of leading to similar demands from other countries.
In Namibia, the agreement between the two governments led to criticism from the representatives of the Nama and the Hereros, who did not feel represented at the negotiating table and who still insist today on the need to monetarily compensate their communities, in addition to the support programs already stipulated.
TNamas and Herero are minorities in Namibia, with the Ovambo being the dominant ethnicity. It is the descendants of the former who oppose an agreement that does not provide, for example, for the restitution of land set aside in the colonial period. And on their side are, unsurprisingly, the opposition parties.
An agreement of this nature between the two countries that does not involve the people decimated in what was the first genocide of the twentieth century is as paternalistic and humiliating as colonialism itself, they argue.
In the middle of this negotiation is a pattern Portuguese that Namibia has asked for back in Germany numerous times, one of them in the 1990s, with the intention of exhibiting it in its pavilion at Expo-98 in Lisbon.
"Until the internal question of who gets the money that Germany will pay is resolved, the standard does not come out of there," says Manuel Coelho. "He was caught in the middle of a delicate domestic political issue and even out there it's not easy. Everything that involves heritage from the colonial era, whatever country it is, is a subject that no one wants to pick up."
This businessman Portuguese knows that the standard will hardly make a new trip to Europe, because it is Namibian heritage, but does not deprive himself of dreaming: "What I really liked is that the standard, which is in the middle of this confusion of politics and money, was for Portugal, for the Navy Museum in Lisbon. The Namibian government will not want to spend money to protect it, because it is a symbol of the colonial era."
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