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.
Brendan Kennelly, one the country’s most popular poets, dies aged 85
Family members confirmed his death on Sunday evening at Áras Mhuire nursing home, Listowel, in his native Co Kerry.
He graduated from Trinity College, wrote his PhD thesis there, and went on to become professor of modern literature at the university.
Mr Kennelly had more than 30 poetry collections published, which captured the many shades and moods of his home county as well as his adopted Dublin home.
He was also a popular broadcaster and made many appearances on radio and television programmes, such as The Late Late Show.
[His poetry is] infused with the details and texture of life, its contradictions and moments of celebration including the wry experiences of football and politics
President Michael D Higgins, a friend of Mr Kennelly’s, said his poetry held “a special place in the affections of the Irish people”.
“As one of those who had the great fortune of enjoying the gift of friendship with Brendan Kennelly for many years, it is with great sadness that I have heard of his passing,” he said.
“As a poet, Brendan Kennelly had forged a special place in the affections of the Irish people. He brought so much resonance, insight, and the revelation of the joy of intimacy to the performance of his poems and to gatherings in so many parts of Ireland. He did so with a special charm, wit, energy and passion.”
He added that Mr Kennelly’s poetry is “infused with the details and texture of life, its contradictions and moments of celebration including the wry experiences of football and politics”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the country has lost a “great teacher, poet, raconteur; a man of great intelligence and wit”.
He added: “The Irish people loved hearing his voice and reading his poetry.”
He spoke the language of the people. We loved his writing. His eloquence was masterful
Trinity College Dublin’s provost, Prof Linda Doyle, said Mr Kennelly was known to generations of Trinity students as a great teacher and as a warm and encouraging presence on campus.
“His talent for, and love of, poetry came through in every conversation as did his good humour. We have all missed him on campus in recent years as illness often kept him in his beloved Kerry. He is a loss to his much loved family, Trinity and the country,” she said.
Tony Guerin, a close friend of Kennelly’s, and a playwright, said he will be remembered in Kerry and elsewhere as “the people’s poet”.
“My relation with Brendan was one of friendship. There are more scholarly people who will assess his contribution and discuss those matters. But he spoke the language of the people. We loved his writing. His eloquence was masterful, whether it was the written word or being interviewed by Gay Byrne,” he said.
Mr Kennelly is survived by his brothers, Alan, Paddy and Kevin, by his sisters, Mary Kenny and Nancy McAuliffe, and his three grandchildren.
His daughter Doodle Kennelly died earlier this year.
Arrangements for a family funeral are expected to be announced shortly.
New skeleton find could reveal more about Vesuvius eruption
The remains of a man presumed to be aged 40-45 were found under metres of volcanic rock roughly where Herculaneum’s shoreline used to be, before Vesuvius’ explosion in 79 AD pushed it back by 500 metres (1,640 feet).
He was lying down, facing inland, and probably saw death in the face as he was overwhelmed by the molten lava that buried his city, the head of the Herculaneum archaeological park, Francesco Sirano, told the ANSA news agency.
“He could have been a rescuer”, Sirano suggested.
As Vesuvius erupted, a naval fleet came to the rescue, led by the ancient Roman scholar and commander Pliny the Elder. He died on the shore, but it is believed that his officers managed to evacuate hundreds of survivors.
The skeleton might have otherwise belonged to “one of the fugitives” who was trying to get on one of the lifeboats, “perhaps the unlucky last one of a group that had managed to sail off,” Sirano suggested.
It was found covered by charred wood remains, including a beam from a building that may have smashed his skull, while his bones appear bright red, possibly blood markings left as the victim was engulfed in the volcanic discharge.
Archaeologists also found traces of tissue and metal objects — likely the remains of personal belongings he was fleeing with: maybe a bag, work tools, or even weapons or coins, the head of the archaeological park said.
Other human remains have been found in and around Herculaneum in the past decades — including a skull held in a Rome museum that some attribute to Pliny — but the latest discovery can be investigated with more modern techniques.
“Today we have the possibility of understanding more”, Sirano said.
Researchers believe that in Herculaneum temperatures rose up to 500 degrees — enough to vaporise soft tissues. In a phenomenon that is poorly understood, a rapid drop in temperature ensued, helping preserve what remained.
Although much smaller than Pompeii, its better-known neighbour outside the southern city of Naples, Herculaneum was a wealthier town with more exquisite architecture, much of which is still to be uncovered.
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Lou Reed: The Velvet Underground: an inside look at the band that gave a voice to the outsiders | USA
The importance of The Velvet Underground has been endlessly discussed. They are, with a nod to The Beatles, the modern rock group par excellence. Formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in New York in 1965, the band was immediately endorsed by Andy Warhol, with whom they would collaborate until 1967, although his influence would never leave them. The Velvet Underground were a sixties group that, during its five years of existence, failed to fit into their era for a single day. While others sung of love and good vibrations, they designed a revolutionary and perverse alternative for rock.
It was an alternative that remains valid to this day, half a century after the group was mortally wounded by the departure of Reed in August 1970. To corroborate this, Apple TV will premiere The Velvet Underground in October. Directed by Todd Haynes, the documentary is full of never-before-seen footage and interviews with people who were in the thick of it at the time, more than compensating for a dearth of movies about a band that can be described as legendary without fear of slipping into musical nepotism.
The documentary arrives in good company. At the end of September I’ll be your mirror: A tribute to The Velvet Underground & Nico was released, an album of cover versions of the group’s influential debut album when the line-up consisted of Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. A posthumous work by producer Hal Willner, who died of Covid-19 in 2020, it features contributions by Thurston Moore, Sharon van Etten, Iggy Pop, Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett and Michael Stipe, among others.
Speaking about the original The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in 1967, Haynes said in an interview with Uncut magazine earlier this year that it is music that makes you think about how fragile identity is, and also about life. The journalist Susana Monteagudo concurs with Haynes. “The Velvet Underground were the first punk group in terms of transgression of codes and creative freedom,” says the author of books including Illustrated History of Rock and Amy Winehouse. Stranger than her. “As well as practicing the philosophy of do-it-yourself and rejecting the commercial course of the music industry, they subverted the establishment by making dissidence visible on every level, not just in artistic terms. They embraced the marginal and they were too nihilistic, cynical and sinister for the Flower Power era.”
The Velvet Underground did not belong to their time, but to the future. Cale wanted to fuse rock and roll with experimental music. Reed’s lyrics were open to the influence of writers like Burroughs, Delmore Schwartz and John Rechy. They were a loud and screeching band, but they also composed melodic songs. This contrast is most evident on The Velvet Underground & Nico, which contains some of the group’s most beautiful songs. I’ll be your mirror and Femme Fatale are sung by Nico (who also provides vocals on the chorus of Sunday morning, originally written for her but eventually sung by Reed), one of the most conflicting elements of the band.
For trans artist Roberta Marrero, Nico, the German model and singer who died in 1988, was an “icon of undisputable beauty, as well as being a pioneer who opened the door for other greats like Siouxsie.” In spite of her beauty, Nico did not fit the prevailing pop girl model of the time. Her singing style was far removed from traditional rock and openly reflected her Germanic and Gothic roots. Her inscrutable personality was married to a talent that after she left the Velvet Underground would manifest itself in unclassifiable works such as The marble index (1969), whose idiosyncrasy – tearing up the blueprint of pop music and exploring musical latitudes reserved for men – would inspire Kate Bush and Björk, as well as more contemporary artists such as Julia Holter, St Vincent and Anohni.
The Velvet Underground also broke with the heterosexual tradition of rock music. In Monteagudo’s view, in addition to creating a literary imagery “where there was room for homosexuals, trans women, prostitutes, junkies and outsiders in general,” they were also “a band not exclusively made up of males, and men who at the same time did not identify with a heteronormative masculinity, especially in the case of Lou Reed. They integrated and normalized diversity in their sphere because their way of life was linked to this concept. It was also the dawning of the ambiguous, the queer.” Marrero believes that “they brought non-normative sexualities to the forefront, such as sadism, more so than homosexuality. Although when I think about it, I’m waiting for my man could be talking about a gigolo and not a drug-dealer. In reality, it’s very ambiguous.”
This divorce from the prevailing canons also had a lot do with the presence of Maureen “Moe” Tucker. Her drum work with the band anticipated a trend that would not take hold until 1977, with the explosion of punk. From that point on, the female role in groups ceased to be principally pigeon-holed into certain instruments and roles. In Monteagudo’s opinion, Tucker is “a key element of this breaking of stereotypes and, as such, a figure to be held up by feminism. Her playing style, as unorthodox as it was influential, is one of those achievements that should be emphasized by the movement. Furthermore, her androgynous image and her discretion made her a counterpoint to Nico’s glamour.”
Revered by bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, who dedicated a song to her, and as Marrero asserts, a precursor to drummers such as Hannah Billie, formerly of Gossip, Tucker is, along with Cale, one of the survivors of the Velvet Underground’s original line-up. Due to her social media stance on Donald Trump and gun ownership, Tucker has also become the band’s least popular member.
Warhol’s influence was a determining factor behind The Velvet Underground developing such a peculiar personality. In the strictly musical sense, the band projected through their instruments some of the ideas on repetition, improvisation and saturation that the artist applied to his experimental movies. On the literary side, the people who frequented Warhol’s Factory left their mark on songs including That’s the story of my life (inspired by Billy Name, the Factory’s archivist) Femme fatale (inspired by the ‘it’ girl Edie Sedgwick) or the Reed-penned Candy says, which is about Candy Darling, an icon of the trans community.
“When Candy says was released in 1969 nothing changed,” says Marrero, “but I think it was a marvelous celebration of trans culture on the part of the group. It is one of my favorite songs. You have to read the lyrics in a historical context because all that stuff about being trans and hating your body is a discourse that is now quite outdated in our community.” Marrero also notes that, years later, Reed was in a relationship with a trans colleague, Rachel Humphries, the two sharing a “romantic relationship that was utterly silenced by the hetero-ciscentric music press.”
When he started his solo career Reed would again talk about Candy Darling and other trans actresses on Walk on the wild side, one of the hits on his acclaimed 1972 album Transformer, a record that finally delivered many of The Velvet Underground’s artistic ideas to a wider audience. By that time, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Suicide, Modern Lovers and New York Dolls we ready to do the group’s legacy justice.
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