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African history: The age of exploration: when Africa discovered Spain | Culture



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).

The ambassador of Allada in the court of Louis XIV.
The ambassador of Allada in the court of Louis XIV.

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.

Ethiopia, Allada and Kongo are just three examples of former African kingdoms that showed an interest in the Iberian peninsula.
Ethiopia, Allada and Kongo are just three examples of former African kingdoms that showed an interest in the Iberian peninsula.

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.

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Irish Times poll lays bare pandemic’s impact on political landscape



Sinn Féin is on top again, with its highest-ever rating in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of support for the parties. Our latest such poll shows Sinn Féin on 31 per cent (up three points), ahead of Fine Gael, which has slipped three points to 27 per cent.

Fianna Fáil remains some way adrift of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, although it has closed the gap considerably in this June poll, jumping six points to 20 per cent. The Green Party (on 6 per cent) and Labour (on 3 per cent) are unchanged. Independents and smaller parties combined attract 13 per cent of the vote (down six points). Within this bloc are People Before Profit/Solidarity (on 2 per cent) and Social Democrats (on 2 per cent).

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Delta variant: Is Denmark heading for another Covid surge as seen in the UK?



Cases involving the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant are cropping up in Denmark with growing frequency, with at least five pupils testing positive at Grønnevang School in Hillerød near Copenhagen on Monday, and a nearby kindergarten also closed after one of the children’s parents tested positive. 

The Hillerød outbreak comes after a similar school cluster in Risskov near Aarhus, which saw one school class and one kindergarten temporarily sent home after two cases were identified. 

The variant, which was first identified in India, now makes up to 90 percent of cases in the UK, forcing the country to delay the so-called “England’s Freedom Day” on June 21st, keeping restrictions in place for another four weeks? 

So, is there a risk of a UK-style outbreak? 

Tyra Grove Krause, acting academic director at the Statens Serum Institute on Tuesday said it was crucial that Denmark health authorities and local municipalities put as much effort as possible into containing any outbreaks. 

“This is a variant that we are concerned about and that we really want to keep it down for as long as we can,” she said. “This is because, according to English authorities, it is up to 50 percent more contagious and possibly more serious than other variants.” 

In a statement last week, her agency said the delta variant was “worrying”. 

The Danish Patient Safety Authority on Tuesday called for all residents in the areas surrounding the schools and kindergarten in Hillerød to get tested, and said that the authorities were increasing test capacity in the area, and also putting out “test ambassadors” on the streets.  

So how is it going in Denmark right now? 

Pretty well.

Despite the lifting of most restrictions, the number of cases registered daily remains low, even if the 353 reported on Wednesday is above the recent trend of under 200 cases a day, the share of positive tests is also slightly up at 0.37 percent. 

Just 93 people are now being treated in hospital for coronavirus, the lowest since September 23rd last year.

And how’s it going in the UK? 

Not so good, but not terrible either. Overall case numberS remain low, but they are starting to climb again despite the UK’s impressive vaccination rate.

The worry is the Delta variant – first discovered in India – which now makes up 90 percent of new cases in the UK and which experts agree is around 40 percent more transmissible than other variants.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty told a press conference on Monday that cases are rising across the country.

It is concerns over this variant that has lead the British government to delay the latest phase of lockdown easing – initially scheduled for June 21st – for another four weeks.

So will Denmark follow the UK’s trend? 

Probably. Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he believes it is inevitable that the Delta variant will eventually become dominant in Denmark too. 

“If it’s true that delta variant is 50 percent or 70 percent more contagious than the B117 (Alpha or UK variant), then I think, in the long run, we’ll see that it takes over because that’s what more contagious viruses do.,” he said. “I think that’s also what the health authorities assume it’s going to happen.” 

How much of a problem would that be? 

Not necessarily too much of a problem, according to Wejse.

For a start, he predicts that the end of the school term and the good summer weather should stop the virus spreading too rapidly for the next two months or so, meaning it will take longer to take over than the British variant did. 

B117 came at a time where the epidemic was rolling in Denmark at a very high level, back in December and January. Now the epidemic is growing much, much slower. That means it’s probably going to take more time,” he said. 

And by the time it does take over, in September perhaps, vaccination levels should be high enough to blunt its impact. 

“I seriously think and hope that, that when we get to the next fall, we’ll be in a different situation. There will be small outbreaks, but not really any big time spread, like we had last fall.” 

“At least with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, there’s data indicating the difference in terms of protection [from the delta variant] is quite small. So, there will be very good protective effects of the vaccines, so I’m certainly confident that it will be much less of a problem when we have a high vaccination coverage, which I assume we will have when we get into September.” 

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Art restoration in Spain: Spain’s latest ‘Ecce Homo’: how a botched restoration made global headlines | Culture



Several days ago, the Spanish painter Antonio Capel was chatting with the owners of Vivaldi, a florist’s shop in the northern city of Palencia, when they remarked that something was amiss with the façade of a historic building that now houses a branch of the Unicaja bank. Capel was surprised so they suggested he take a look at what was once the delicate face of a shepherdess.

The artist went up to his studio and, using his camera’s zoom, saw that the familiar features were now nothing short of an eyesore. The statue’s eyes were in the wrong place and her nose and mouth had been clumsily crafted. As Capel jokes, whoever was responsible for the restoration was no fine artist – an observation backed by the Spanish Association of Conservators and Restorer’s rapid clarification that it was not a professional job. The botched restoration has already drawn comparisons to the infamous Ecce Homo painting which was disfigured beyond recognition by an amateur artist in Borja in 2012.

The notorious ‘Ecce Homo’ restoration.
The notorious ‘Ecce Homo’ restoration.

The florists in Palencia, who preferred to remain anonymous, recall that heavy rains several years back caused a fall of debris from the building, which was inaugurated in 1923. They later realized that the face of the shepherdess was missing. “The strange thing is that no one noticed” how badly it had been restored, they say.

Capal, meanwhile, says it is beyond his comprehension that such slapdash workmanship should be allowed on such a beautiful building, which is located in the heart of the city on Mayor street. In his opinion, the workers simply used a tracing technique to fashion the face out of plaster in the hope that it would be too high up for anyone to notice.

Unicaja denies any responsibility for the sloppy result. Spokespeople from the bank insist that they only own the premises of the branch office and the second floor. Years ago, Caja Duero, which later became part of Unicaja, owned the entire building. However, they sold the upper floors during the takeover to private homeowners. The spokespeople maintain that the building’s administrator informed the homeowners in 2017 that pieces from the façade had fallen off, including the face of the shepherdess. Palencia City Council confirms that they called on the owners to repair the damage that could pose a threat to public safety. They explain the building is under “structural, not integral protection,” meaning that any restoration work must protect the structure of the building, but no special consideration needs to be given to its exterior decorations.

Unicaja’s staff laugh when asked about the ham-handed job. Like other botched restorations in Spain, including the cartoonish facelift of a 16th-century sculpture of Saint George in Navarre, the changes went unnoticed until someone with a keen eye spotted them. Even the journalists at the Cadena Ser radio network, which has its newsroom in the building, admit to being oblivious.

But now Spain’s latest Ecce Homo is making international headlines, with even with the British newspaper, The Guardian, flagging up the statue’s perceived resemblance to the incumbent president of the United States, Donald Trump.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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