There is a persisting image of Africa as having always been subordinate to Europe to some degree – that the relationship between Europeans and Africans has always been uneven, whether through exploitative colonialism, through condescending paternalism, or through the racism underlying both of the above. But this image of dependency could not be any further from the truth: during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, encounters between African and Spanish kingdoms were largely a relationship of equals.
Not only were the African kingdoms not isolated from the rest of the world – they were actively exploring it in search of information, trade and political alliances. And Spain was one of the main destinations of these missions. This is the story of how Africans discovered the Iberian peninsula.
The first African kingdom to send a diplomatic mission to Europe was Ethiopia. Around the year 1306, the Ethiopian emperor Wedem Ar’ad sent a delegation of 30 people to Europe with the goal of forming an alliance against the Muslims threatening his empire. The first stop was in Spain, where these delegates met with “the king of las Españas” (no name is provided) before moving on to Avignon in modern-day France to meet with the Pope (seven popes were established there, rather than in Rome, between 1309 and 1377).
Following this early contact, relations gradually intensified and in 1427 a new Ethiopian delegation arrived in the Spanish region of Valencia headed by the Persian merchant Nur-al-Din Al Tabrizi, who brought a letter from Emperor Yeshaq I to Alfonso V, the king of Aragón. In his letter, Yeshaq proposed an alliance between both kingdoms, and Alfonso V happily accepted, sealing the deal with a double marriage between his own brother Pedro and an Ethiopian princess on one hand, and between his niece Doña Juana with Emperor Yeshaq himself on the other. The latter also sent over 13 artisans to decorate the king’s court, but the embassy never made it back to Ethiopia: all the craftsmen died along the way, and the wedding plans were abandoned.
Despite this mishap, relations between Aragón and Ethiopia continued: in his letters, Alfonso V addressed Yeshaq as “the Ethiopian emperor, our dear friend and brother,” and in 1450 an Ethiopian delegation was sent to Naples to witness Alfonso’s triumphant entrance into the city.
Besides these official delegations, many Ethiopians decided to explore Europe on their own. This was the case of a scholar named Yohạnnǝs (1509–65), who arrived in Rome with his father and decided to make the long journey to Santiago de Compostela in today’s Galicia region of Spain. After walking the 2,200 kilometers separating both cities, partly along the pilgrimage route known as Camino de Santiago, he turned south and kept going all the way to Lisbon in Portugal, where he took a ship to Goa, which was then part of Portuguese India. Upon his return to Rome, Yohạnnǝs played a leading role in the Counter-Reformation and spent the last period of his life as the bishop of Cyprus.
Although the Ethiopians were the first to visit the Iberian peninsula, they were not the only ones. In 1602, there was an individual who caused a huge commotion in the courts of Europe: the first ambassador from the Kingdom of Kongo (covering parts of present-day Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of the Congo) to go to the Vatican. Ne Vunda (who was rechristened in Italy as Antonio Emmanuele da Funta) was known for his erudition and for his oratory and diplomatic skills. He spoke Portuguese and Spanish, and was well-versed in European politics.
His journey was not an easy one: from Kongo he took a ship to Brazil, and from there he traveled to Lisbon. Along the way he was attacked three times by Dutch pirates who took everything he owned. After a brief period at the court of Felipe IV in Madrid, he reached Rome on January 2, 1608 (six years after his departure); by this time he was gravely ill and only four of his 25 original companions were still with him. He died three days later after receiving a visit from Pope Paul V, and was buried with honors at the basilica of Santa María Maggiore.
But his story does not end there: while in Madrid, Ne Vunda left a locked chest at the Convent of la Merced, in today’s Tirso de Molina square, where he had stayed. After a considerable exchange of letters between Madrid and the Vatican, it became evident that the ambassador had not made a will, and Felipe IV ordered the box opened. Inside were several letters and decorated dishes from the Spanish city of Talavera that were donated to the convent. The contents of the letters are not known, nor why the ambassador was so fond of Talavera ceramics, because the convent was ransacked by Napoleon’s troops in 1809 and demolished a few decades later.
Another African kingdom with an interest in the Iberian peninsula was Allada or Arda, in present-day Benin. In 1657, King Tojonu sent an ambassador named Bans to the court of Felipe IV. This man, who was immediately renamed Don Felipe Zapata, had been tasked with enlisting Catholic missionaries for Allada. Bans went home a few months later with a delegation of Capuchin monks ready to spread the gospel across the entire kingdom.
Unfortunately for them, they were met with considerable resistance. After a year and a half of failed evangelism, the king summoned them and explained that although he highly appreciated this gesture by his brother the king of Spain, the reason he had requested missionaries was not to adopt a change in lifestyle and religion, but rather because there was a serious problem with people getting struck by lightning in Allada, and he had heard that Catholic priests had some control over the management of these celestial phenomena. The king concluded by noting that he would be much obliged if the monks could solve their meteorology problems, but if not, then he would prefer for them to go back home, as all this preaching was beginning to get tiresome.
Ethiopia, Allada and Kongo are just three examples of African kingdoms that showed an interest in the Iberian peninsula, but the full list is much longer. Unfortunately, this chapter of diplomatic history and exploration was rewritten, and at times directly deleted, centuries later. Africans were denied their own history because it made it so much easier to justify the allegedly civilizing nature of the colonial project and the exploitation of Africa’s people and resources.
Now that movements like Black Lives Matter are finally underscoring the need to give visibility to the role played by slavery in the creation of many European states and cities, it is important that we do not forget that historical justice also means recovering this mostly invisible period in the history of African exploration and diplomacy.
Unfortunately for those wishing to learn more on the subject, there is no book specifically focusing on the journeys of Africans to the Iberian peninsula, but there are two good introductions to the issue on a European scale: Africa’s Discovery of Europe by David Northup, and the edited volume Black Africans in Renaissance Europe.
Sirio Canós Donnay is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Heritage Sciences Institute of the Spanish National Research Council (Incipit-CSIC)
English version by Susana Urra.
Paschal Donohoe plans bank levy extension but lower haul
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will continue the Irish banking levy beyond its scheduled conclusion date at the end of this year, but plans to lower the targeted annual haul from the current €150 million as overseas lenders Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland retreat from the market, according to sources.
Reducing the industry overall levy target will avoid the remaining three banks facing higher levy bills at a time when the Government is seeking to lower its stakes in the bailed-out lenders.
AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB paid a combined €93 million levy in each of the last two years, according to their latest annual reports. A decision on the new targeted yield, currently linked to deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) collected by banks on customers’ savings, will be announced at the unveiling of Budget 2022 on October 12th.
Originally introduced in 2014 by then minister for finance Michael Noonan for three years to ensure banks made a “contribution” to a recovering economy after the sector’s multibillion-euro taxpayer bailout, the annual banking levy has since been extended to the end of 2021.
A further extension of the levy has largely been expected by the banks and industry analysts, as the sector has been able to use multibillion euro losses racked up during the financial crisis to reduce their tax bills. A spokesman for the Department of Finance declined to comment on the future status of the banking levy as planning for Budget 2022 continues.
AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB (PTSB) alone have utilised almost €500 million of tax losses against their corporation tax bills between 2017 and 2019, according to Department of Finance figures.
Sources said that the Government will be keen not to land a levy increase on the three lenders at a time when it is currently selling down its stake in Bank of Ireland and plotting a course for the reduction of its positions in AIB and PTSB in time.
The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), which holds the Bank of Ireland stake on behalf of the Minister for Finance, sold 2 percentage points of holding in the market between July and August, reducing its interest to just below 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, it has been reported in recent days that the UK government is planning to lower an 8 per cent surcharge that it has applied to bank profits since the start of 2016. It comes as the general UK corporation tax is set to rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023.
“The optics of reducing the surcharge might still be bad politically, but it would signal the partial rehabilitation for the nation’s banking sector,” said Eamonn Hughes, an analyst with Goodbody Stockbrokers, in a note to clients on Tuesday, adding that he continues to factor in a retention of the Irish banking levy in his financial estimates for banks over the medium term.
The macro pig farm threatening a historical gem in northern Spain | Culture
Christians and Muslims fought over the castle of Gormaz in Soria in the Spanish region of Castilla y León for two centuries. Now, after a lapse of hundreds of years, it is once again under threat – this time, from a macro pig farm for 4,200 animals. The proposed farm is within two kilometers of the fortress, and will be visible from its impressive caliphal gate, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions of the medieval site.
Environmental and neighborhood associations, architecture and restoration professionals, as well as the town councils of Recuerda, a village of 70 inhabitants, and Gormaz, a village of 20, call the plans an “attack” on one of the most impressive Islamic fortresses on the peninsula. With a perimeter measuring more than one kilometer, the castle of Gormaz was once the largest in Europe. It was this fortress that the Caliph of Córdoba, Al-Hakam II, ordered to be reinforced and expanded at the end of the 10th century to stop the Christian advance from the north.
Meanwhile, the company behind the project, Agro Peñaranda Esteban, insists it will comply “strictly with the law” and that if the permits are not issued, it will go elsewhere. “It’s great to eat torreznos [a kind of fried bacon snack] from Soria in a good restaurant in a big capital city,” says one of the shareholders, who is from the area. “People must think that they fall from the sky.”
The castle of Gormaz was built in the 9th century to strategically support Medinaceli, the capital of the so-called Muslim Middle Frontier. Divided into two large areas separated by a moat, there is the fortress with the tower of Almanzor and the caliphal quarters, and then the area for the troops, where the main entrance is located. Altogether, it has 28 towers with battlements and arrowslits.
The Soria fortress defended the routes to the north of the peninsula that followed the banks of the Duero river and was coveted by a number of figures, including Count García Fernández, Sancho II of Pamplona, Ramiro III of León, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar and the de facto ruler of Islamic Iberia, Almanzor. And so it passed from one side to the other until, in 1060, Fernando I of León seized it once and for all. During the reign of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, it was turned into a prison as it no longer had any strategic value.
But now it is administrative forces that are advancing on the castle. On June 29, the Castilla y León regional government published “the announcement of a pig farm of 4,200 pigs in plot 20114 of industrial estate 1 of the municipality of Recuerda,” which backs onto Gormaz. August 10 was the deadline for anyone wishing to take issue with the environmental impact assessment, which states that the farm would not alter the surrounding landscape. “It is a landscape altered by human activity, due to its agricultural use, with no dominant variations or striking contrasts,” claims the report.
This contradicts the regional plan for the Duero Valley, approved by the Castilla y León regional authorities in 2010, which mentions a series of Landscape Management Areas (AOP) needing a specific regime of protection, management and planning. One such area includes the castle of Gormaz and the surrounding area where the farm would be located.
Luis Morales, architect and member of the Soria Association for the Defense of Nature (Aseden), points out that the castle’s environment is “totally agricultural – fields and forests – and very similar to what it might have been in the Middle Ages, when Gormaz was built. To put an industrial complex of enormous dimensions to house more than 4,000 pigs, which is what they intend, is barbaric,” he adds. “It breaks up the landscape from the same caliphal gate, the one that is so often photographed for tourism purposes.”
Morales also believes that the municipalities have the means to stop the project, “because the land is rustic and can therefore be classified as protected, which would prevent the livestock complex from being built.” Meanwhile, the Aseden association points out that the regional authorities were responsible for the White Paper of the Territorial Enclaves of Cultural Interest (ETIC), which selected 111 locations of cultural or heritage interest, one of which was Gormaz.
According to the NGO Ecologists in Action, in this type of facility whose surface area would be 4,000 square meters plus another 2,000 for slurry, “the problem of odor emissions is very important because of its proximity and orientation with respect to inhabited areas and other places of interest.” It explains: “In this case, the farm would be to the west, 1.3 kilometers from Recuerda and two kilometers from the castle of Gormaz. According to data from [Spain’s national weather agency] Aemet, the prevailing winds are from the west. In other words, it would bring unhealthy smells for most of the year to Recuerda. Surprisingly, the project says that the prevailing winds are from the northeast.”
Consuelo Barrio, mayor of Recuerda, agrees. “It is not only the visual impact, which is very important, but also the environmental impact due to the possible contamination of the water from the slurry as we are in an area of aquifers; this is in addition to the smell that would come our way as we are barely a kilometer from it.”
Meanwhile, the company behind the project considers it is under “unjustified attack.” According to one 38-year-old businessman involved in the project, “in this part of Soria there are at least three farms: Quintanar, Gormaz…. And if ours smells, it means they all smell. It’s not like years ago, when pigs were thrown into the Duero – some of which I have seen floating – or the slurry was dumped down drains. No. There are strict environmental laws and we will comply with them. It is easy to talk about ‘deserted’ Spain and all the things the politicians are saying, but when you try to create wealth, obstacles are thrown up because you can be seen from the castle two kilometers away. If they don’t let us set up here, we’ll go somewhere else,” he adds angrily.
Marisa Revilla, president of Amigos del Museo Numantino, is particularly upset by the visual effect of the pig farm. “The impact report does not take into account the horizontal impact. It only states that they are going to put up some hedges to hide the farm. But the installation will not only affect the castle, it will also affect the nearby Romanesque San Miguel hermitage.” This hermitage was inspected in the 1990s by architect José Francisco Yusta, who specializes in historical monuments and also opposes the construction of the farm. “There is no justification for breaking up the landscape,” says Yusta, who has worked on such architectural gems as the cathedral of Burgo de Osma, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and castle of Gormaz itself.
“I believe it is not worth destroying our landscape for the two jobs that the macro-farm will provide, which are those proposed by the promoters,” says architect Luis Morales. “If there were only 200 for deserted Spain….”
English version by Heather Galloway.
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