Thursday, May 19

XXI: The century of decolonization? | Opinion


A woman visits the ruins of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City in 2019.
A woman visits the ruins of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City in 2019.picture alliance / GETTY IMAGES

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August 13, 1521 is a memorable date: Hernán Cortés conquered Tecnochtitlán. The capital of the Aztecs had held out for two years. As early as 1519, Moctezuma had entertained Cortés with a lavish banquet that left the Spaniards stunned. But it was of no use, since the outsiders were not satisfied with the gifts obtained and always asked for more, especially gold. The codices account for this greed in unflattering words: “they sought him like pigs.”

Tenochtitlán, located on Lake Texcoco – like Tlatelolco, the twinned town – was linked to the mainland by five causeways. Thousands of chinampas, very fertile floating gardens, supplied the city, and the Indians brought abundant fruits and vegetables every day to the sumptuous market of Tlatelolco, which offered everything. The best chronicler of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, described it in wonder: “It is twice as large as the city of Salamanca.” The Spanish admired the palaces and temples, the geometric order of streets and the sophisticated canalization of the city, at that time perhaps the largest in the world. Alejo Carpentier said that Paris then had 13 square kilometers and was dirty, Tenochtitlán instead 100 and was extremely clean. It had about 100,000 inhabitants.

For many historians 1521 means the beginning of globalization. The clash (since 1992 it has been called “meeting”) of the Mesoamerican and Spanish civilizations occurred in all areas: language, religion, bed, kitchen, the arts. The woman known as La Malinche was the best translator of Cortés, “the language,” as the codices paint it. For Mexicans, on the other hand, she is the worst traitor. She was her lover and her son Martín is the first known mestizo. Countless more were born in the following decades.

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The conquerors demolished the temples and used that stone to erect their churches. The foundations of Moctezuma’s palace served Cortés to build his seat of government there. All memory of the ancient high culture and especially of its religion was annihilated. The Catholic cross came to dominate, but the old beliefs survived hidden and coalesced: the result was a religious syncretism palpable to this day.

Society in New Spain was mixed. In the kitchen you can see immediately: Native foods such as corn, tomato, chili pepper, avocado, and many others were mixed with those that the Spanish brought such as wheat, cows, grapes. In the cloister gardens the nuns developed laboratories to study many combinations. From 1565, the annual Manila galleon, loaded with Asian food, also arrived. Mexico thus developed a culinary art from three continents.

Octavio Paz analyzed the Mexican Baroque, pointing out the fusion of European and indigenous elements, as well as the importance of indigenous artistic contributions. Latin American Spanish has incorporated thousands of words from the New Continent, the use of all of them is its dominant characteristic.

Today, 500 years later, the former colonized speak out and demand justice, apologies, restitution and reparations. Although the continent became independent 200 years ago, many consequences of the three centuries of viceregal rule persist that require changes. To understand the problematic present, it is convenient to know the past better.

The situation in Africa, India and Asia is different, since the struggles to free themselves from colonialism date mostly from the second half of the 20th century. Belgium is dealing with its crimes in Central Africa – David van Reybrouck has masterfully described them in Congo—, and Brussels has reorganized the collection of its Royal Museum. All the great museums now analyze — worried — their collections. Macron apologized to Algeria, commissioned a comprehensive report on the restitution of African cultural heritage and promises to act accordingly. Germany will return the bronzes of Benin and finally recognized the genocide of the Herero and Nama. It has agreed to reparations and President Steinmeier will travel to Namibia in the fall to apologize. Indonesia has many outstanding accounts with the Netherlands, and the mayor of Amsterdam recognized the nefarious role of this city in the slave trade. England has to face its past with the Commonwealth. An exemplary case is India, “the jewel in the crown”, since it was the country that gave incalculable riches to the mother country. Many Indian writers have investigated this uneven story. Shashi Tharoor did it in a splendid book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen drew a depressing balance of the Raj in his memoirs; Pankaj Mishra investigates in Ruins of empires: the rebellion against the West and the metamorphosis of Asia and the forecast in Age of anger. All over the world statues are falling, and faster and faster. But these secular ills require greater efforts (some painful) throughout society, and major changes in the politics, economics, teaching and research of history for us to have true decolonization in the 21st century.

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Michi Strausfeld is the editor and author of Yellow butterflies and the dictator lords (Debate).


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