Sunday, December 30, 2007

Women of Africa

In Sub-saharan Africa, women have always had an important role. Despite being, in general, a traditionally patriarchal society, an institutionalised part of power, that limited the king, was hold by a woman of his kin (mother, sister, aunt or cousin). The queen consort often had decision power at the same level as the king in most of the affairs, as happened in the Mali empire. Moreover, it was not rare that a woman became queen, even when there were male successors to the throne. It was characteristic that women participate in wars. In the Ashanti and Dahomey there was a corps of women that accompanied the king to military expeditions.

Anna Nzinga (1582-1663), queen of Matamba-Ndongo, dominated the history of current Angola during thirty years until her death at 82 years old, and opposed a fierce resistance to the Portuguese, who eventually respected the borders of her kingdom. The Portuguese had found in Angola an unusually fertile territory, occupied by a population highly productive and trading in agricultural products, furs and diamonds. After fighting for a century they conquered the coastal part of the country, establishing an important exporting centre of diamonds and slaves in Luanda. Being sister of the king Mani Ngola, Nzinga was sent to negotiate with the viceroy Joao Correia Da Souza, and proved so skillful that passed from a defeat situation to the achievement that Portuguese removed their troops from Matamba. In 1624 she succeeded her brother as a queen, and faced Portuguese offensives without losing any territory, she reorganized the army, formed alliances with neighboring countries (and also with Netherlands) and constituted an efficient secret police.

Amina, queen of Zazzua (1533-1610) is known as a great warrior queen from Nigeria. Amina's mother, Bakwa of Turunka, was already queen of Zazzua, a Hausa state-city, title already hold by her grandfather. Amina was educated in government and warfare skills, and fought in battles together with her brother Karama, who became king at his mother's death. When he died in 1576, Amina succeeded him when she was 43 years old. She used her strategic skills to expand the territory of Zazzua to the mouth of the Niger, and towards Kano and Katsina northwards. These conquests lead to a stage of wealth to the kingdom, with the opening of new trade routes and the arrival of new tributes. Mud walls were risen in all the cities, still known nowadays as "Amina's walls". The queen refused to marry and had no children.

In the kingdom of Waalo, in Senegal, next to the French colony of Saint-Louis, the queen Ndete Yalla managed to maintain her territory in peace during ten years and imposed a tax to French settlers when they used transport in the Senegal river, and when it ceased to be respected, immediately ordered in 1855 the expulsion of all strangers, which meant war. In the current Ivory Coast, a woman, Pokou, took the leadership of her tribe, known as Baoulé, to save them from extermination, when the Ashanti confederation of Ghana, founded by her great-uncle, broke up, in a tragic exile that later became a legend.

Some queens were not exempt from cruelty. In Madagascar, the queen Ranavalona took the power when her husband, the king Radama, died (murdered by her orders, as it is believed). She ordered Christian missionaries in the island to be executed, decreed the expulsion of all strangers in 1857, and formed a kingdom of terror in which thousands of executions were carried out per year. It is also told that, in the territory of the Dschaks, in the inner Congo, once arised a queen who, after overthrowing her mother and killing her son, formed a female kingdom in which men were enslaved, sacrificed or assassinated. Pregnant women had to flee from the land until they gave birth, only if they brought back a little girl. The subsistence of her kingdom, lacking agricultural activity, was possible for several years with the sacking of neighboring people and villages, with who they did not cease to fight.

There were prophet women, too, such as Kahina, a berber priestess from Mauritania, who became the leader of her country's army and caused the first major defeat to Arabs in 690. Kimpa Vita in Congo, in the 17th Century created a religion that mixed Catholic and African concepts, which attracted the support of a great part of Congolese aristocracy to expel strangers from the country. She was accused of sorcery when she was 24 years old and burn alive together with her child.

Apart from politics, African women have had and still have an important role in economy. African women have always been excellent in domestic resources organization, because of the traditional complete lack of interest from husbands. This has allowed women to eventually create trade networks in order to focus these organizational skills and communication talents. Nowadays, 80% of autonomous business in sub-saharan Africa are carried by women, and there exist important women trade networks such as those in Accra (Ghana) and Nairobi (Kenya). Historically, it should be noted about the life of Tinubu, in the 19th Century, a Yoruba woman who started selling corn mush and later, with the support of a group of wholesale traders, created a business of slave traffic, that she abandoned when abolition spread and started trading palm oil. She eventually became the main mediator of Euro-African trade of the area, and thanks to her growing influence, became the main advisor of the king of Lagos. After being banished from the kingdom by the British, she acquired wealth with the arms trade and became a heroine of her home city Abeokuta in the resistance against the Europeans and the neighboring kings of Dahomey.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

History of a kiss

One of the greatest kisses in History is the one that took place between communist leaders Erich Honecker, from East Germany, and Leonid Brezhnev, from Soviet Union, during the 30th Anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in June 1979. Despite the controversy and ridicule arisen in the West, this was actually a common sign of socialist solidarity, very used since Khrushchev era. It seems, moreover, that both leaders were very keen on kissing*. However, this kiss has a greater story.

The good kiss

Honecker had become the leader of German Socialist Party in 1971, after the fall of Walter Ulbricht in disgrace, thanks to Brezhnev support, and in 1976 had become president of the Counsel of State of the GDR, also aided by the latter.

In the new 70's spirit of the "détente", the Soviet Union achieved, in exchange of a relaxation of weapon tensions, that the United states recognised its influence area in Eastern Europe. In this political atmosphere appeared the "Brezhnev Doctrine", that imposed the right for Soviet military intervention in European socialist states. This happened, for instance, in the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw Pact in 1968, with the passivity of Western allies.

Honecker carried out a series of economic reforms in the GDR that lead the country to a so-called "consumption socialism", that resulted in an improvement of the population's standards of living. Apart from that, relationship with its Soviet colleague were a true love story. GDR and the USSR needed each other, the first became the greatest ideological defender of Communism in a time when this system was more than questioned. In turn, the Soviet Union guaranteed the Red Army intervention in case of a popular revolt similar to that in Prague, which was pretty probable considering the number of opponents to Honecker's regime. Finally, the GDR was interested in furthering all possibilities of German reunification, so the "détente" politics was very useful to follow.

Nowadays, a painted version of the "Fraternal Kiss" can be seen on the eastern side of Berlin Wall's ruins, performed by Dmitri Vrubel after the collapse. If one looks to it attentively, one can realise that this kiss is typical of a Greek tragedy, a suffocating kiss, in which lovers get too compromised on each other, despite of knowing that there is no future in that poisoned relationship. Actually, the painting is named "The Kiss of Death", and one can read under it "God, help me to survive this deadly love".

The bad kiss

Exactly, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the romance was over. His only ambition was to save his country from economic ruin, after the disastrous conditions in which Brezhnev had left it. After presenting a series of reforms concerning restructuration (perestrokia) and openness (glasnost) he would carry out, Gorbachev announced the end of Brezhnev Doctrine: the Soviet Union had not the will to impose the political regime to any East European country anymore.

During Gorbachev's official visit to Eastern Germany, in October 1989, Honecker had the intention to ask the Soviet Union for a fundamental aid to keep order in the country, However, upon his arrival, the relationship had cooled down: the protocol kiss Gorbachev gave him was very different to that of ten years ago. This one actually meant "my friend, you are alone". Less than one year later, GDR had ceased to exist.

* A contemporaneous joke showed Brezhnev staring at the departing plane of a foreign leader, exclaiming: "As a politician, rubbish... but what a good kisser!".

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The red explorer

A medieval Saga tells the story of Erik, called "the Red", one of the greatest Viking explorers. The appelative "the Red" most likely refers to his hair color, and perhaps also his fiery temper. He was born in around 950 in the Jaeren district of Rogaland, Norway, but his family settled in western Iceland after his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished for murdering a man. Wandering would become a habit during his life. So, they occupied land in Hornstrandir, and dwelt at Drangar, where he became a Norse Chieftain.

Continuous banishment

After his father's death, he got married and moved south to Haukalar. There, when his servants were clearing land for farming, they accidentally started a landslide on his neighbour Valthjof's farm. A kinsman of his, called Eyjolf Saur, killed the servants for this misfortune, and in revenge, Erik killed Eyjolf. This caused him to be thrown out from the region and installed in Sudrey.

Around the year 982, tragedy accompanied him again in a quarrel with his neighbour Thorgest, because of some beams he had borrowed from Erik and was never given back. When Thorgest refused to return them, Erik stole the beams back. A great fight arose, where two sons of Thorgest died. Eventually, at the next Thorsnes Thing event, where judgments were carried out annually, the Icelanders decided to convict Erik of these murders and banished him from Iceland.

Erik the Red, considering that he was never welcomed in any land, decided to find one by himself. He had heard of a discovery of new lands in the West, around 50 years before, by the explorer Gunnbjorn, son of Ulf the Crow. He then prepared a ship and left from Snaefellsnes, promising to return if he found the land. His friends Thorbjorn, Eyjolf and Styr, and other crew, joined him in his banishment.

After three weeks, he eventually reached North American lands and rounded the southern tip of a great island, and sailed up the western coast. He found it unpeopled and, for the most part, ice-free and consequently with conditions that promised growth and future prosperity. According to the Saga, he spent his three years of exile exploring this land and naming its places.

The New World

When Erik returned to Iceland, he brought with him stories of the new land he called "Greenland". Although the high medieval climate was milder than it is today, Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than "Iceland" in order to lure potential settlers. He explained, "people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name". Ultimately he did this, though, to gain favor among people, as he knew full well that the success of any settlement in Greenland would need the support of as many people as possible.

His salesmanship proved successful, as around 600 people, especially among those living on poor land in Iceland, joined him to Greenland in the Spring of the year 985, in what was one of the greatest Arctic expeditions of all time. 25 ships left Iceland in that dangerous voyage, of which 14 arrived to Greenland. They established two colonies on the southwest coast: Vestribyggd (West, close to present-day Godthab), and Eystribyggd (East, in modern-day Julianhab). In the latter Erik built the estate Brattahlid, from where he ruled his colonies as Paramount Chieftain, a respectable title that practically gave him independence in his lands from Iceland. Although these facts are told as a legend, carbon tests performed on archeologic remains of what is thought to be Brattahlid give this date as accurate. There the first Greenlandinc Thing (parliament) was founded based on the Icelandic one. Laws were not centralized but decided by the people, and not written down, but memorized by an elected Lawspeaker. The first Christian church in the New World, Thjodhildakirkja, was also built in there by Erik's son Leif Eriksson.

In the next years more settlers arrived from Scandinavia and gradually occupied all the southwest coast of Greenland, which was actually the only area suitable for agriculture. There were around 400 farms in the territory, which reached 5000 people in its best time. During the summers, armies of men were sent to hunt above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seals, ivory from tusks, and beached whales. In these expeditions they probably encountered the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who had not yet moved into eastern Greenland.

Commerce flourished with Iceland and Norway. Greenlanders exported ivory, ropes, sheep and furs. Iron and timber, not present in the island and necessary for building, were brought from Europe to chieftains, who distributed it among the surrounding farmers. Although the colonies' dependence on these goods was high, trade was very active since Greenland ivory was very appreciated in Europe, as the trade of elephant ivory had been blocked by conflicts with the Islamic world.

In 1002, a group of immigrants brought an epidemic that ravaged the colony, causing Erik's death. However, the colonies survived and rebounded again under the protection of the king of Norway. In 1126, Norvegian control grew by founding a diocese dependent on the archdiocese of Trondheim. In 1261 the population finally accepted the overlordship of the Norvegian King and started paying tributes, although it continued to have its own law.

Decline started in 1348, with the arrival of the Black Death and the Inuit attack to the Western Settlement. Since 1380, the trade with Europe gradually declined, stressed by the prohibition of all private commerce by the new Danish government of the Kalmar Union in 1397 and the loss of interest in the colonies. The population had to be excused several times from paying taxes, and archeologic findings show an increasingly empoverished diet for men and animals. In 1418, English pirates sacked the Eastern Settlement and by the end of the 15th Century, the Norse population of Greenland had disappeared. The most probable ultimate reason for the abandonment of the colonies was that climate became colder in what is called the "Little Ace Age". Moreover, the Norse never learned the Inuit techniques to adapt to cold winters, kayak navigation or ring seal hunting.

The sons of Erik

Erik's son, Leif Eriksson, also made History by becoming the first Viking to explore the lands of Vinland and Markland (present-day Newfoundland, in Canada) around the year 1000. Settlement there resulted a disaster, since the colony Leifbundir only lasted ten years. The reason was the continuous conflicts with what they called "skraelings" (literally, "ugly men"), who, in the first contact, killed Leif's brother Thorvald. Fights were usually won by Vikings, but they soon realised that establishment was impossible without a military support, and travelled back to Greenland. They returned periodically to gather timber for building, as the journey was far shorter than going to Iceland. The last known journey to Vinland dates from 1347.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Millet or silver cookies

Amadou Hampâte Bâ tells in his book Mémoires that, in the French West Africa, the governor of Dakkar imposed a tax to the indigenous people in his territories, something ironically called "the price of the soul", because of being the tax to be paid for the right to life. It was through the circle commanders that taxes were collected.
"Silver cookies?"

One day in the year 1916, the governor had decided that, since then, the tax could not be paid in nature anymore, but in cash. The commander in the circle of Dori gathered the chiefs of tuareg tribes to let them know the new rule.

When the chief of Logomaten tribes was present, he told the interpreter: "Tell the chief that, by the governor's order, from now on the tax will not be collected in nature, but in currency."

The interpreter turned to the chief and expressed in the Fula language of Dori: "The commander has said that the great governor has said that from now on the tax must be paid in bouddi". It must be said that, in Fula, the word bouddi is used to designate coins of five francs, but also boiled millet cookies.

The tuareg chief, very happy, smiled and said: "Interpreter! Thank the commander, and tell him that I own a great amount of millet, and also servants that can prepare as many bouddi as he wants, enough to feed the population of Dori during months!".

The interpreter realised about the mistake: "He does not mean bouddi of millet flour, but bouddi in money." The chief, confused, asked to be shown a sample of the cookie he was demanded. The commander gave a five francs coin to the interpreter, who held it to the chief. He turned it, stared at it, weighed it, bite it... afterwards gave it back to the interpreter: "This silver cookie, where was it cooked?". After listening to the interpreter, the commander exploded: "In France! Where does he want it to come?".

"In France?", said the interpreter, surprised. "Interpreter, tell the commander to be reasonable. He is asking me to give him money cookies that have been cooked in France, being French himself. I am a tuareg from Dori, who can only make millet cookies. It should be me who asked him for money cookies from his home, and not the contrary! If the commander wants the tax to be paid in camels, oxes, lambs, goats, millet, rice, butter or slaves, then I can do it. But if he is demanding me to give him the cookies he is showing me, which are cooked in France, then he wants fight. I accept! But I warn him: the tuareg I am finds fight as one's element!".

Immediately after, he showed the right arm to the commander: "Interpreter! Tell the commander to look at my arm. It is not less white neither worse that his. Look at my nose: it is not less straight than his. I am as white as him. If we were alone, man to man, the commander would not dictate me his will, as he is not stronger neither braver than me. If he wanted, I would invite him for a personal duel at the dunes, and I would be sure to beat him. But no... the only advantage the commander has on me, which allows him to torment me with his "I want this" and "I do not want that", is because his country is stronger than mine."

Whitout saying farewell, the tuareg chief went out and jumped on his dromedary. There was never a duel between the commander and the chief, but a war between France and the tuaregs, specially the tribes of Logomaten and Oudalan. It was the great revolt of 1916.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A retirement that resulted expensive

The reign of Philip IV of Spain, "the Planet King", witnessed one of the biggest urbanistic disasters in Modern History. It was the Palace of Buen Retiro ("Good Retirement"), that his minister the Count-Duke of Olivares planned in 1629 so that the decadent Court was entertained and therefore put aside of government responsibilities.

El Buen Retiro

The place started up being a terrain property of the Count-Duke close to the Monastery of Jerónimos in Madrid, later acquiring nearby lands from the marquises of Poyar and Tavera, besides donations of the city itself, becoming a terrain of 145 hectares.

The project was encharged to the architects Giovanni Battista Crescenzi and Alonso Carbonell, who designed large gardens with woodlands and entertainment areas, ponds, theatres, one colosseum, one lion's den and an exihbition of exotic birds. Since 1633 the greatest king partyies were celebrated in here, if they were dances, bullfightings, naumachias, and performance of the best playwrights of the Golden Century (Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina acted there). During his reign, it was never open to the population.

But outside the reality was very different. The people of Madrid, overwhelmed with oppressive taxes to pay the endless Flanders wars and with an inflation caused by the gold from America, was in a precary situation. And the works carried out in El Retiro only caused a greater poverty, riots and critics.

Worsening the problem

The king's obsession for collecting artworks took him to buy large collections of pictures (more tan 800 in ten years) from painters in Madrid, Rome and Naples. In 1633, he asked for a palace-museum with luxury interiors able to store all these acquisitions. So it was imperative to plan a new great building, to which the king continously added endless annexes, and make it in a cheap and quick manner in order to silence critics. The palace was built in only seven years, leading the country to near economic collapse, and using low-quality materials (stone only in basements, the walls were made of bricks and forge was wooden).

Quevedo is attributed the verses "it is not a good occasion / that when so many disasters happen / you make water fountains spring / you are making retirements (Retiros) / and not loneliness". Matías de Novoa blamed Olivares for "making a ridiculous, non-profitable building and useless in all manners, of thin walls and weak basements, unfavoured by Nature and Heaven, sterile and sandy, wanting to force it to fecundity and decoration from plants helped by money, not from him or his possessions, but from the belongings of the city". The capital was full of rumours and jokes about the palace, that was called "the hen run", due to its exterior ugliness and the big bird store it housed.

From 1735 to 1764, when the new Royal Palace was built, the royal family had to live in the Palace of El Retiro, that hated it because of the walls' slimness and the low quality of the building. This was finally the cause of its end, a progressive degradation that, when the French installed there during the Independence War, provoked the complete ruin of the palace.

The palace was a good reflection of Philip IVth reign, a greatness built on mud feet. Its sad end came with its pulling down by order of Isabella II, and the requalification and sale of its lands, that had already become the centre of Madrid, in what became one of the great fishy urbanistic deals in Spain History. Today the majority of the gardens (completely reformed) remains, and also a salon for parties (Casón del Buen Retiro).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forced labours

All along History no government has ever ceased trying prisoners to generate wealth through forced labour. In fact, prisons have their origin in the accommodations for slaves, a compulsory labour force that existed since ancient times in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Roma and Islamic caliphates. Slaves came from criminals, war prisoners and abandoned children, besides the slaves' children themselves.

In the Middle Age, the Carolingian Empire was supported by a 20% of slave population, but because of the Church's ban, this practice was abandoned between Christians. This relationship evolved from the 10th Century towards serfdom, in which the peasant was bounded to the land and the master. This system endured all around the World, with variations, from feudal lords in Europe to shogunates in Japan. In England it disappeared during the 17th Century and in France in 1789, but in Eastern Europe it remained until the mid-19th Century.

A modern serfdom form is the indenture, under which workers sign temporary contracts according to which they are only paid by accommodation and feeding. This labour practice was dominant in early colonial societies during the 17th and 18th Centuries, and is still common in developing countries, such as India and Bangladesh.

In 1452, the Pope Nicholas V issued the Bull "Dum Diversas", which allowed Christian kings to reduce Saracens, pagans and unbelievers to hereditary slavery. This fact started the massive traffic of black slaves, that remained until the abolition during the 19th Century. Thanks to the collaboration of most powerful African empires (Shongay, Benin), Europeans substituted Arabs as main African slave exporters. These slaves were mainly settled in American colonies, to work in large plantations. Even after the slavery abolition, southern states of the United States adopted the "Black Codes" that imposed forced labour and right to body punishment for blacks, remaining until 1866. Nowadays, slavery still exists in form of people traffic (specially women and children) kidnapped to practise sexual or labour slavery. There are currently more than 27 million slaves in the World.

Prisons and colonies

It is only with the appearance of the modern concept of punishment gradation that prisons are institutionalised. Before that, imprisonment was for political opponents, as common criminals were executed or sent to galleys (French king Louis XIV reduced death sentences so that he could build a well provisioned navy). With the capitalist and industrial economic development, and the consequent emigration to the cities, the authorities tried to convert the new masses of poor and unemployed in a profitable force, and buildings with penitentiary functions were made.

During the 18th Century, new humanist and utopic socialist ideas defined delinquent as a victim of the social order, and defended prisons as a means to correction with necessary long sentences, which lead to a massification of prisons. This way prisons were provided with complex vigilance systems, as these were supposed beneficial for the development of regret, same way that control over workers was an improvement in their work performance.

Because of the costly storage of so many prisoners, Britain was first to apply forced labour during the 19th Century (in mines or building of infrastructures), but not until 1853 was labour differentiated between different types of criminals depending on their crime seriousness. Colonial powers also encouraged criminals to join the army instead of being imprisoned (as Britain did during the Second World War). Or, in peace times, banishment to inhabited colonies was a frequent solution that, while colonizing new territories, moved undesirable people away from the metropolis.

Australia received 800 British prisoners as first habitants, in a date remembered today as National Day. Along the next decades, thousands of convicts moved to populate penitentiary and forced labour centres in the colonies. France created labour colonies in its South American possessions at French Guyana, infamous because of the brutal treatment to prisoners until their closure in the mid-20th Century.

Many colonies were initially conceived with production centres, during the 19th and 20th Centuries they were common in authoritarian governments that cruelly exploited the prisoners, as in Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, China, Romania and North Vietnam. Also victorious powers of the Second World War used Germans as compulsory labour force for reconstructions.

The first Nazi concentration camps were built in Germany to accommodate political opponents of the regime. Since 1942, camps were created close to factories in order to provide labour force. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber factory in Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and other camps were situated near plane and rocket factories, and coal mines. Prisoners were frequently sent in mass to the gas chambers when it was necessary to renew labour force.

Soviet Union created a huge network of Gulags (at least 476) to serve as a destination for the victims of Stalin purges. They were mainly ethnic minorities and, after the Second World War, Germans and even liberated soldiers of the Red Army. The most infamous of these camps were built in Siberia north of the Arctic Circle, in Kolyma, Norilsk and Vorkuta. In total, about 18 million people were in this type of camps, of which more than half died. Gulags were one of the pillars of Soviet industrial development, as they were assigned tasks of natural resource exploitation and infrastructure building in remote areas of the country.

A lucrative business

The United States have started to privatise imprisonment services (Wackenhut Corrections, Correctional Services Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America), adducing that the costs of private administration are much lower than public one. This kind of prison-companies offers convicts working for much lower incomes than common citizens, as the light cost of maintenance is included. As a consequence, prisons can make very advantageous contracts with big corporations, for tasks of product assembling.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Amazing Benin

In 1602 the Dutch merchant Pieter de Marees described the city of Edo (now Benin City), capital of the Benin Empire, this way: "The walled city of Benin is composed by a system of huge straight streets. These streets, although not paved, are very wide and well maintained [...]. Fine and big wooden houses are based along the streets, provided with covered porchs [...]. The king's court is very big, with galleries as large as the largest in Amsterdam, constantly watched, and supported by wooden pillars encased with copper on which engravings with past battles were depicted. I went so deep inside this building that, wherever I looked around, I could see gate after gate that finished in other places" [de Marees, 1602].

In his work "Description of Guinea", where he compiled information about uses and habitudes of indigenous people of the Benin Coast, de Marees mainly described the people as "bellicose, promiscuous, savage and thiefs". However, he managed to capture many aspects of the advanced Bini culture.

Amazing Benin

In effect, Europeans there found an Empire with a complex administrative system. The king, the Oba, exercised a great religious power (in fact the country never converted to Christianism) and also political, although the latter was supervised by two councils, an hereditary one (the Uzama) and an elected one, composed by territory chiefs, and lot of influence over the Oba's decisions. Most of the kings in the nearby territories also had a non hereditary title elected by the people.

The Benin Empire culture was, contrary to the one of European colonizers, very social. As long as in Europe the land was seen as a property and an investment, in Africa it was a common property, in which each individual possessed the right to work parts of it, but never over the land itself, as it belonged to the clan or the community. The same way, the name of new born children was decided as common agreement of the people.

A tricky Golden Age

The arrival of the Portuguese meant a deep social change. The Bini did not have the habitude of making trade exchanges aiming luxury, but the behaviour of land possession eagerness, characteristic of Europeans, was finally imitated by the indigenous. "As time passed by, they earned so much knowledge about their products that they almost surpassed us" [de Marees, 1602]. In effect, after a time of trade agreements, Africans understood that Europeans did not have the gold from Benin neither the copper from Sahara, so they had the power of rising prices as there were more and more clients and it was an increasingly valuable business, to the extent that "they became so proud and anxious as greedy rich men. After realising it was good merchandise, they tried by all means to falsify gold itself, transforming 100 grams in 150 and this way cheating foreigners".

Benin people had a deep alcohol culture, as they constantly used it in celebrations of births, offerings, worship to the land and lots of social rites. They distilled it from honey, plants and millet, and produced a kind of low graduation rum, so that when they tried the strong liquor Europeans brought, alcoholism became a common illnes. De Marees said that "they were naturally great drinkers" and, because of the lack of habit to this drink, became easily aggressive. This circumstance was very used by Europeans, together with traffic of firearms, in order to promote tribal wars that became a source to start slave trade.

This way, the Benin Empire complemented gold trade with ivory, pepper, furs, and specially slaves obtained in wars. Along the 16th and 17th centuries, it became the richest and most powerful Empire in West Africa, and a trade class appeared with a desire for luxury comparable to the Western one. British explorers realised the Oba was able to rise an army of twenty thousand men in one single day, and up to one hundred thousand men if necessary.
The end of the Empire came with the abolishment of slavery, of which its wealth had become totally dependent, and Benin entered a period of decadence that meant a lowering of richness, territorial losses and migration. This way, in 1897, the British occupied and pillaged the city of Edo. The kingdom became the protectorate of Nigeria, and the magnificent Bini artworks are now kept in a room in the British Museum.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Just arrived from holidays, it seems to me appropriate to tell why we have leisure days, who decided when they would happen, and since when we do tourism at the seaside or the mountain.

Origins of holidays

Originally, resting days were given by religious festivities or natural cycles. While the population was mostly rural, the main resting period (that coincided generally with the celebration of festivals) was after the harvest time, in a period varying from August to December.
The first journeys due to celebrations were pilgrimages to religious centres (Oracle in Delphi, Mecca, Temple of Mahabodhi, Way of St James, etc), or cultural events, such as the Olympic Games, and were made very few times a life. It was already common in these journeys to bring "souvenirs" back home. In the end of the Middle Age the first establishments known as "hotels" appear, created to accommodate important people who traveled with their entourage. Rich classes, moreover, used to have a villa or palace as alternative residence, often near the sea, where climate was mild. Some places were starting to stand out such as Baiae (Italy) during the Roman Republic.

Modern Age: English-like tourism

It is during the 16th Century that the interest of travelling and exploring new places. In England it becomes fashionable among the aristocracy to send the young men for a "Grand Tour" (from there came the word "tourist") during several years in order to complete their studies and have new experiences. At this time also baths are reborn (now as bath centres far from cities) and beaches, where first the English Royal Family moved (Weymouth, Brighton, etc.) and then spread among rich people, just for imitating. The renewed interest in topics such as Botanics, Archeology or Paleontology gave way to interest of hiking during the months in Spring and Summer.
The 19th Century witnesses the revolution in transports and the apparing of railway lines and transoceanic boats that make long journeys easy and cheap for the new burgeoisie, less elitist than ancient aristocracy, and also with time and money to spend. Health tourism is generalised, and beaches are joined by mountain: it is the time of mountaineering and sanatoria. The first entrepreneur iniciatives. mostly English, related to tourism appear: the first travel company "Cox & Kings" (1758), the first transoceanic company "Black Ball Line" (1818), the first organised trip by Thomas Cook (1841), the first travelers' cheques by "American Express" (1891) and the first comfort hotels by Cesar Ritz (1898).
It was also the English who, looking for a new leisure season, started Winter tourism in the Swiss villages of Zermatt and St Moritz in 1864, where the first ski resorts. This fact coincides (not by chance) with the invention of modern skiing by Sadre Norhein (1825) and his technique of "telemark".

Modern Tourism

Since the 1950s the "boom" of tourism in Western World takes place, thanks to political stability, elevation of standards of living, generalisation of cheap automobiles and urbanisation of society (that generates a new culture of leisure based in fleeing from stress of daily life). It is also then when tourism becomes massified: first the vehicle trip to the seaside, and then, when the reaction airplane appears, tourism packs to exotic destinations. During the 1960s all the aspects of tourism are legislated (insurances, rights of passengers, paid holidays).
Modern tourism dates from the 1980s, when it becomes diversified in many different types (cultural, rural, health, risk tourism), characterised by the liberalisation and internationalisation of the big tourism companies and the free exchange of people inside the European Union. Also recently appears the backpacker, a kind of independent tourist with few resources, and also low-cost flight companies. These are lately generating a new conception of tourism based on do-it-yurself and freedom, in a World where individuals have already enough education and power to do so.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two Germanies

A brief timeline of the process that meant the division of Germany after the Second World War.

12 - 16 September 1944: During the Quebec Conference, the Morgenthau Plan for the occupation of Germany is approved. This plan aimed to dismantle the whole German heavy industry and transform the country into two independent "agricultural States", in order to avoid future rearmaments. The Plan was finally rejected, but was a guide for the later process.

8th May 1945: Inconditional surrender of Germany, carried out by marshal Doenitz. 15 days later, the German General Staff is arrested.

5th June 1945: Establishment of the Allied Control Council, based in Berlin, for the government of the occupied Germany, with shared powers among USA, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France.

End of May 1945: Brno Death March. 24000 Germans from the Sudetes are forced to walk towards the Austrian border, expelled from Checoslovaquia. Nearly 1000 die of violent treatment and disease.

17th July - 2nd August 1945: Potsdam Conference. Division of Germany and Berlin in 4 territories administered by USA, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and France. The Soviet Union unilaterally modifies the German border with Poland to the Oder-Neisse line. Forced expulsion of the German and mixed population from all the Eastern Europe countries is agreed. This will mean more than 14 million migrations during the next 4 years. According to the Morgenthau Plan, the reduction of the German heavy industry is agreed, as well as a control to its Foreign Trade. However, no agrement is reached about occupation, as the Soviet Union claims a single demilitarized state under its rule.

January 1946: Beginning of the "denazification" process.

5th March 1946: Benes Treaties are ratified, which state that all property belonging to German residents in the Sudetes and expelled from Checoslovaquia are expropiated by the State as war payments. Germany starts becoming a country without practically any resource to fee an excessive and poor population.

29th March 1946: First Desindustrialization Plan for Germany begins, which aims to reduce heavy industry to 50% of the pre-war levels. Steel and automobile production is stricted, and the one for drinks, domestic goods, timber and Coke is promoted.

March 1947: The "Truman Doctrine" is made public, that defends contention towards emerging Communism. The Cold War begins.

Winter 1946-1947: A specially harsh winter, the situation of German population becomes unsustainable due to lack of food and fuel. Infant mortality in the country is double than that of Western Europe.

12th July 1947: Marshall Plan is proposed. The Soviet Union rejects it and forces all the States in Eastern Europe to do so, as a first relevant distancing between Allied powers.

July 1947: American occupation in Germny is more and more impopular. USA decides to cancel the current occupation directive, and substitutes it by another that aims the re-industrialization of Germany. The president Truman wants to recover an economically strong ally in Europe, over which to develop the damaged continental economy, and avoid that the low standard of living in the country leads to a Communist coup. France prefers keeping the hard directive. The Soviet Union is frontally opposed to the change, and goes on with desindustrialization (in its case, movement of German industry to Russia) in its zone.

January 1948: USA extends the Marshall Plan to Germany, and promotes the currency reform by introducing the German Mark in its occupation zone in June.

March 1948: The Soviet Union retires from the Allied Control Council, as a response to the economical measures taken by Western powers in their zones. A Communist system starts to be installed in its occupation zone and Eastern Berlin.

24th June 1948: The Soviet Union imposes the terrestrial Blockade to the three Western zones of Berlin through its occupation zone, alleging that the guarantee of this communication had never been signed. General Clay proposes the advance of an armored column towards Berlin, with orders to open fire if attacked. The Truman government rejects the proposal as "too close to a war". It is agreed instead to supply the city with three air corridors (one managed by each Western ally) using civil and military aircraft.

4th April 1949: NATO is created as a pressure means to the Soviet Union.

11th May 1949: The Soviet Union ceases the Berlin Blockade, due to its ineffectiveness and international pressure. 65 Germans, Americans and British have died during the supply operations, specially difficult due to obstructions imposed by Soviets.

23rd may 1949: The government of the Federal Republic of Germany is established in the territories occupied by USA, France and United Kingdom, with capital in Bonn. Western Berlin remains under the status of American military occupation, although its residents are granted German citizenship.

7th October 1949: The USSR creates the Democratic Republic of Germany, with capital in Berlin. The country, not internationally recognised, remains under Sovietic occupation.

1952: Due to the flow of Eastern Germans towards the West, the USSR closes the borders and establishes controls.

May 1955: Eastern Germany's status is switched from occupied territory to Soviet Union allied.

14th May 1955: The Warsaw Pact is created. Eastern Germany joins it in 1960.

13th August 1961: Thousands of Eastern Germans still trespass daily the border through Berlin. The government of East Germany, under the approval of the Soviet Union, starts boulding the Berlin Wall in order to close this hole, alleging the needs to raise an "anti-fascist protection barrier".

July 1962: The "Death Strip" is created, a fully watched space close to the Wall by its Eastern part. House suburbs are pulled down in order to leave an open space that eases shooting from watch towers. Until its destruction in 1989, it is calculated that around 200 people died tryin to jump the Wall.

21st October 1969: Willy Brandt becomes chancellor of Federal Germany. Under his rule, the Ostpolitik is promoted as a process of rapprochement and diplomatic normalization between the two Germanies. At a long term, this will mean the international recognition of the existence of two independent sovereign States, and the inmobility of their borders (after the Moscow Treaty in 1970).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Europe of the Regions

The 1986 Single European Act was the first major revision of the Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community in 1957. The Act meant a commitment of joint progress, and a new manner of coordinating economic activities, after the failure of semi-plannified economy and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system (dependent on the dollar) that happened during the 70's.
The result of the Act was the creation of the European Monetary System (called "of the European snake in the tunnel", as European currencies were floating in group against the rest). This was the first step to the arrival of the euro economy.
Another wanted step was the administrative reform of the recently named European Union, which was becoming more and more complex when taking joint decisiones (the system of national vetoes made agreements very long or impossible).
However, no political topics were treated (the absence of a common Defense and Foreign Affairs) nor many economical (such as the aberrant agricultural budget applied since the entrance of Spain and Portugal). But the countries agreed on one thing: reaching a free market of goods and work.
So, the decision-taking system was almost only economic. In order to ease it, the national agreement system was switched into another one in which regions had direct access to the European Council in Brussels and could act independently from their corresponding national entity. The Europe of the Regions started existing.

A new imbalance

The result was a modification of budget decisiones taken by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which identified backward European regions and distributed investments in order to estimulate their economies. Now regions avoided their Governments, not generally very willing to cooperate in regional investments. Some of them, generally the richest (such as Catalonia and Baden-Württemberg), established their own offices in Brussels to constitute true lobbies.
Consequence? The richness desequilibrium was not reduced (rather the contrary), but it was redistributed by regiones instead of countries. Now, a group of first order regions existed (Lombardy, Catalonia, Flemish Region, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Rhône-Alpes...), and another group of poor ones (Andalusia, Scotland, Wallonia, Algarve...). A new, costly bureaucracy, that did not doubt when manipulating subsidy data, intensified the problem.
In conclusion, Europe, without solving its old defects of clientelism and corruption, just diluted them into a new structure where abuses still often happened. Economic rforms based in the 50's and 60's way of thinking (already shown inefficient) unlegitimated a bit more a Union that, nowadays, is clunking and needs real measures.
Definitely, it was successful in one thing: the appearance of a new way of regional sub-nationalism. It is not a coincidence that in the most subsidied European regions, this regionalism passed from a traditional reactionary folklorism to a conscience, sometimes independentist, in which a disdain towards governmental identity, but also an Europeist supra-national thinking has invaded their inhabitants.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why did Descartes die?

René Descartes, the man considered as precursor of Scientific Method and author of revolutionary books such as his Discourse on Method, died in obscure circunstances that were not cleared out until recently.

In 1646, the impulsive Queen Kristina of Sweden, ethusiast of Arts and Philosophy (although not with deep thoughts, as Descartes himself admitted), started to write letters with the philosopher, who was at that time retired in Nederlands. Impressed by his teachings, she invited him to the Swedish Court as a guest to give her lessons on Mathematics and Philosophy. This was part of her plan to be surrounded by great European thinkers and transform Stockholm into a cultural centre.

After some forceful "invitations", for which the queen sent one of her admirals, and later even a warship, in 1649 Descartes reluctantly accepted her proposal. In Stockholm he was received with high honours, incorporated to the Swedish aristocracy, and granted conquered lands in Germany.

Death at the Court

He did not enjoy life in the court, however. Apart from some punctual jobs (such as some lines in French for a ballet, or plans for the Swedish Academy) he only had to teach the queen during the mornings. The problem is that Kristina got up extremely early, and scheduled their lessons at 5 in the morning in the middle of Swedish winter. This was very hard for Descartes, who was used to stay in bed reading and thinking until noon. He usually said, "men's thoughts freeze here in winter, same as water". Five months after his arrival, the 11th February 1650, he died.

The official version of the time was that he died of pneumonia. After treating the French ambassador in Stockholm, who had contracted this contagious illness, Descartes got also ill and died one week later. Considering he was not used to nordic cold, this seems plausible. He was buried in a cemetery for unbaptised kids (because he was a catholic in a protestant country), and some years later his remains were moved back to France. Closed case.

However, the French ambassador, Hector P. Chanut, graved this quote in his headstone: "he expiated his rivals' attacks with the innocency of his life". So, he could have been murdered. There was enough reasons actually, as he was a catholic with more influence than most nobles. He could have been considered dangerous and cause of the Queen's catholicist trends (who, four years later, abdicated, converted, and moved to Rome).

Proof of the lie

In 1980, by complete chance, the prove was found. The German scientific Eike Pies, reviewing letters from his ancestor Willem Piso at Leyden University (Nederlands), saw a letter sent to him by Johann van Wullen, personal doctor of Queen Kristina and witness of Descartes' agony. In that letter, the details on the symptoms are described day by day: weakening, vomits, diarrhoea, dizziness, skin's pigmentation, cutaneous damages, entheritis... symptoms commonly found in an Arsenic intoxication.

So, Descartes was almost certainly poisoned. How was the truth hidden? In the letter, Wullen points out that the Queen asked to read it before being sent, and ordered that it never fell in strange hands. Kristina probably wanted to save the prestige of Swedish monarchy, already target of rumours and palace intrigues because of the Queen's excentricities. This way, the murder was never investigated. And History books still tell the "official" version of the facts.

Monday, April 09, 2007

History of chopsticks

Following a good comment from K-dreaming about the History of the fork, I have searched about History of chopsticks.

It is commonly admitted that chopsticks appeared in China around 5000 years ago. Before that date, food was taken from big pots in the fire pricked in long sticks directly cut from trees. Later on, with the increasing population, fuel resources became scarce. This slowly lead to a new way of cooking that required less wood, for which food was cut in small pieces so that it took less time to cook. Then food could be eaten directly from the pot, eliminating the need of knives, and tree branches gradually became chopsticks.

Although the most ancient existing pair of chopsticks dates from the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries), it is written in the Liji (Book of Rites) that chopsticks were used already during the Shang dynasty (16th-12th centuries BC). Sima Qian stated in his History book, that the last king of the dynasty used ivory chopsticks. According to experts, bamboo and wooden chopsticks should date at least from 1000 years earlier. In the following centuries, bronze, golden and silver chopsticks became fashionable. Specially the latter were popular among aristocracy, as it was thought that silver became black when it was in contact with poison. This belief is exaggerated (actually silver does not react to arsenic neither to cyanide), but there is something true: rotten eggs, onions and garlic expell hydrogen sulphyde, which does change the colour of silver.

Probably, Confucius' teachings contributed to promote the use of chopsticks at the table. He said, literally: "the honorable and correct man is well aware of the differences between slaughterhouse and table. And does not allow the use of knives at his table." Because of Confucius' popularity, who was by the way a vegetarian, this sentence eliminated the Western habit to use knives at the table.

Around the 6th century, the use of chopsticks spread to other countries such as Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Although in Japan it was first used only for religious ceremonies, it soon acquired culinary popularity, and the Japanese even created a new kind of chopsticks typical of their country: with a more sharpened point than Chinese ones, and attached at the base. From the 10th century this attachment disappeared and the became the Japanese chopsticks we know nowadays. They were also spread in Thailand, but in the 19th century the king Rama V introduced Western table utensils, limiting the use of chopsticks only to noodles.

Tools similar to chopsticks were found in the archeological findings in Meggido (Israel), belonging to Scythian invaders of Canaan, and contemporary of Moses and Josuah. This discovery reveals the extension of trade between Middle East and Far East in ancient times. Chopsticks were also common tools used by the Uyghurs in the steppes of Mongolia during the 6th-8th centuries.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blue blood

It is interesting to see how nobility titles in Western Europe have changed their meaning along History. Some of them dating back as long as the Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages acquired their meaning related to land ownership. Currently, titles are merely honorific.


The title of duke is traditionally the one of highest rank. he word comes from Latin "dux", meaning "military commander", and was employed by both Romans and Germans to refer their warrior leaders. In the Roman army, a dux was a general in charge of two or more legions, who normally managed the government of a province (both civil and military). In the Roman Empire, the powers of the dux were limited to strictly military, depending on the governor (normally a "comes") to make use of them. In Byzantium, "dux" became viceroys at the head of every administrative and military service.

During the Middle Ages, dukes became the closest nobility title to the king, and their function was essentially military, with a territorial aspect though, as they ruled in a set of countships. Of course, there exist variations in the meaning of dukes in every kingdom. Frankish dukes were the nobles of highest rank, from where province governors came out, although they also appear leading military expeditions away from their duchies. Later, Charlemagne restructured administratively the kingdom, multiplying the number of counts and reducing that of dukes, limiting it to the nobles closest to him. In Spain and Italy, Visigoth and Lombard dukes, respectively, were the greatest land owners and, together with bishops, they elected the king among them. Although the were nominally loyal to the king, the concept of monarchy was new for them and dukes acted independently from royal authority, specially in central and south Italy, where the duke of Spoleto and the duke of Benevento were sovereigns de facto. Also in Germany, duchies were independent kingdoms inside the Holy Empire, and in Italy, "doges" were the heads of state in some of the Republics in the peninsula (Genoa, Venice). In modern times, variants from this title ("Conde-duque" in Spain, Archduke in Austria) to refer the head of state.


Etimologically from the Latin "comes", which means companion or delegate of the emperor during the Roman Empire. Its origin is in the people surrounding Augustus ("amici Augusti"), normally selected from senators, who when travelling became "comites Augusti", being their role just that of personal advisors. They disappeared with Alexander Severus and created again under Constantine, when they designated the most loyal to the emperor, being a hierarchy over regular officials. They had a political and administrative role, with military functions specially when defending borders.

During the Germanic kings, counts were designated by a dux or the king. The title of count was indistintively given to every official around him, one of which, the count palatine ("comes palatii"), was in charge of rendering justice inside the palace. Some arms companions of Frankish merovingian princes received the title for city administration. At these times they start to have fiscal, military and judiciary functions. Military power only never depended on a moving army, but settled on a territory (countship). In the countship, he rivalised mainly with the bishop (in his corresponding diocese) for the use of power. Under Charlemagne, counts were given a specific mission (military or administrative) with temporal character, and never hereditary. It is only after the 9th century that counts start to form a land owner class, usurpating royal rights over their countship land. The title was also often given by the monarch as gratitude for a special service, without necessary being accompanied of a feudal territory. In England, there exists the equivalent "Earl", term originated in Scandinavia.


The original title comes from German "markgraf" (literally "count of the mark"). During the High Middle Ages, and specially in the Carolingian Empire, it was a count who administered a border territory (mark). In order to allow him a quick reaction to potential attacks, special military powers were given to him to raise up the army without the express permission of the king. This authority has later conferred it a higher rank than the count, but lower than the duke, as the latter has a military and judiciary power over several countships. After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, the marquis title fell into disuse, except certain counts who proclaimed themselves marquis to acquire greater importance (that is the case of the count of Barcelona, who justified this action for being situated in the border with hispanic Muslim kingdoms). In modern times it resurected as an honorific title.


Etimologically coming from a mixture between the Frankish word "baro" ("warrior") and the Angle "beorn" ("noble"). Since the Middle Ages, it refered those who had obtained privileges directly from the king because of a military service, situated just over the title of knight. Acording to the country, the meaning was different: In France, for being baron, it was required to possess at least two castles. In Spain barons were the rich and magnates who participated in political sessions. In the Holy Empire, every family in the low nobility were granted the title of baron (distinguished with the prefix "von"). The English king Henry II made a distintion between greater and lesser barons. Since the 16th century, baronship looses its relation with land ownership, becoming a nominal title.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Shadow plays

Shadow play is perhaps the most ancient scenic art in History. It is based in the projection of articulated puppets in front of an illuminated background, causing sensation of movement. During thousands of years, it has entertained and taught both humble and aristocratic classes, specially in Asia, where it was originated.

China: Poems and romances

According to the legend, Chinese shadow play dates back to the Han dynasty (3rd BC-3rd AD centuries), when an emperor lost his favorite concubine. A taoist monk used a shadow to evoke a feminine shape, which the Emperor believed was his reborn lover. What is certain, is that in the time of the Tang dinasty (7th-10th centuries), it was a popular entertainment very spread in the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei, which later passed to Beijing. During the Ming period (XIV-XVII centuries) it was not exclusive of the lower classes anymore, and passed to the aristocracy and imperial family.

In China, puppets were small and made of paper or leather. A puppeter handled them with three sticks (one for the head, one for each arm), and made the voice of every character, while a small orchestra accompanied dramatic scenes (specially many "gongs"). There were four defined types of characters: men (sheng), women (dan), painted faces (jing) and clowns (chou), each of them with a specific symbolism and function.

Although this genre gave way to many regional styles, thematic was essentially the same: Buddhist teachings in the beginning, romances and epic lyrics later (the one referring to Liu Bang and Xian Yu was very popular, see previous post).

India: Mediator between men and gods

It is not known with certainty whether the shadow theatre appeared in India, Thailand and Indonesia originating from China or had an independent evolution. There are major differences, such as the puppet size (it was normally human in India, its size showing the character social rank though), and its lower articulating ability. Used matierals were coloured and translucent, leading to a much colour and surreal aspect.

This oniric effect has perhaps influenced its final significance. In the Indian region, shadow theatre was the main medium to express the supernatural, very used for the spreading of mythical Hinduist literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Performances even became rites with the powers of bringing rain and healing the sick and possessed.

In India, the puppeteer job was something hereditary, and almost sacred. Entire wandering families were in charge of building puppets and performing, being considered as some kind of priests. Nowadays, Indian shadow play is in decadence, except for the Wayang Kulit in Java, which enjoys an official protected status.

Turkey: Political satire

Maybe brought to Persia and Middle East by Gengis Khan's conquests, Turkish shadow theatre has Chinese influences. However, due to its colourful aspect, it is widely accepted that it comes from Ancient Egypt and Java, with influences from Greek phylosophy.

Featured characters evolve to the point of having a very defined symbolism, and the same appear in every performance. Most important are Karagoz and Hacivat (the first, showing his common sense, the latter his education), the courtesan Sitt al Husyn (who represents Love), and the doctor Mustapha (who symbolises power and corruption). The meaning was essentially satirical and didactical.

First described by Ibn Danyal in Cairo, during the 16th Century is spread in the Ottoman Empire. There it acquired great popularity, specially in Turkish cafes during the month of Ramadan and in Muslim feasts. However, it seldom had a religious significance, but instead it reflected social problems of the time, always from a humorous perspective. It was, say, the daily newspaper at that time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli

In summer 1521, the small army of the conquistador Hernán Cortés had been expelled from Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs, 62 of his soldiers taken prisoners during the fight. From outside the lake of the mexica capital, Cortés saw, powerless, the Aztec priests dispose these prisoners on the pyramid-temple altars, opened their chests and offered their beating hearts to the god Huitzilopochtli.

The chronicle of the swordsman Bernal Díaz tells these facts. Ritual sacrifice was perceived by Cortés as a threat and intimidation from the Aztecs. It probably arised a feeling of rejection and revenge in him, that influenced the later extermination of Aztec culture. However, the ritual sacrifice had a very different meaning.

In Aztec culture, human sacrifices were common during celebrations or natural disasters. Spilling human blood was a means to be humilliated in order to express gratitude and pay the debt towards the gods, for the sacrifice they did themselves in the creation of the world. Auto-sacrifice was the most widespread way, being common the fact of perforating sometimes several parts of the body with obsidian (especially ear, tongue and penis).

When the sacrifice involved offering the life of another person, this was rarely a slave (as the sacrifice became less valuable). It was usually a free person voluntarily offered or a war prisoner. The latter type of sacrifice, in which a jaguar warrior offered his prisoner to Huitzilopotchli, god of Sun and War, was the most widespread among Aztecs. The rite usually consisted in a ritual dance performed by both victim and warrior, and later the priest took the heart out from the victim's chest on the sacrifice altar. Right afterwards, the victim's body was offered to the warrior's family. They then ate his flesh and carried his skin for several days. What explanation has such an extravagant rite?

A complex meaning

In Meso-American cultures, the concept of the individual is relative. The nature of the "me" does not exist as itself, but as other individuals see it. This way, a jaguar sees other jaguars the same way a human sees other humans. The sacrifice rite is, in this context, a ceremony of assimilation, of an attempt to become the other. By eating his flesh, and carrying his skin, the warrior and his family personify their enemy, who defines who are themselves. In this manner, the sacrifier becomes, momentaneously, a singular individual, not relative but absolute.

For the better quality of the rite, the victim must be as similar as possible as the sacrifier, that is, from a near origin. That is why, the sacrified that came from the nearby city of Tlaxcala were more ppreciated than those come from further. Spanish were, thus, a second-class type of victim.

An interesting aspect in the ritual sacrifice, is that the sacrifier assumes also the role of the victim (result of the assimilation of the other). When the family ate the victim's flesh, they were in mourning, and it was frequent to cry during the ceremony, same as if it were their relative who was dead.

So, although difficult to understand by the Western invaders, the true reason of the sacrifice was much more complex than they thought.