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Historian Martin Zimmermann: "Conquistadors were like hungry pigs"

Historian Martin Zimmermann reads stories of submission, power, control, exploitation, hope and adventure from Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's photographs. In 2001, Schulz-Dornburg was allowed to photograph for four hours on the upper floor of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville without a flash or a tripod .

In the tape The division of the world. Evidence of colonial history these photographs, which show a state that no longer exists after the files were moved out and the building was renovated, are on view for the first time. Zimmermann was inspired by them to examine the background to the archive and the hubris with which two kingdoms once divided the world.

DEFAULT:Mr. Zimmermann, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, the kings of Portugal and Spain divided the world among themselves in 1494. The contract and the Spanish documents relating to this contract are stored in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. How do you have to imagine them?

Martin Zimmermann: That is around 90 million documents, an enormous stock of files that is unique. When it was set up in the building of the former stock exchange in 1785, the Spanish Empire was already in the process of decline. The historian Juan Bautista Muñoz began at that time, on behalf of the Spanish King Charles III. to build this archive. With a multi-volume work on colonial history, he was supposed to remind of the greatness of Spain.

In France and the UK there were books with titles like The Cruelty of Spains or The Tears of the Indios surfaced. They exposed the atrocities and many deaths associated with the Spanish tenure. The aim of bringing the sources together in an archive was to expose these negative representations as "black legends".

DEFAULT:If you go to the archive today, do you get the documents in your hand?

Carpenter: Yes, catalogs and directories for archiving order enable scientists from all over the world to search for and inquire about documents on specific topics. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's photographs are so special because they reflect a state that no longer exists today. For conservation reasons, after the renovation of the archive in 2004, the documents were moved from the cedar and mahogany shelves on the upper floor to the ground floor. Here they are now stored in air-conditioned steel cabinets. The cardboard boxes that visitors to the exhibition see are just mock-ups.

DEFAULT:You write of the almost insatiable greed for gold that is held in the archives. How can this be explained?

Carpenter: The conquistadors tried to get as much profit as possible from their conquests. The gold treasures that came to Europe from the Aztec Empire and were magnificently exhibited contributed to the creation of legends. In the 16th century, the stories of the Eldorado emerged, that imaginary gold city that was located in South America and was only exposed as a legend by Alexander von Humboldt. The Aztecs themselves observed that the conquistadors were greedy for gold "like hungry pigs". Their reports are recorded in a story that the scholar Bernardino de Sahagún wrote about this New Spain in the 16th century. Sahagún allowed the Aztecs to speak for themselves. He wrote parts of the book in their language and gave their point of view.

DEFAULT:The historian François-Xavier Fauvelle describes medieval Africa as the center of brilliant culture. Does that also apply to South America?

Carpenter: The old empires of South America such as the Maya, Inca or the great empire of the Aztecs with its urban structures were without a doubt high cultures. They were smashed and their cultures destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish King Charles V did everything he could to prevent the original news from the locals from being circulated in Europe. The culture of the conquered peoples should not be known. And if you look at the vehemence with which the Catholic priests ensured that writings in native languages ​​were destroyed, it shows how clearly they were aware that these were high cultures.

DEFAULT:The writer Joseph Andras sees a continuity between colonialism and National Socialism ...

Carpenter: With Hitler, Franco, but also Mussolini, imperial politics flared up again. It was shaped by the late conflicts between the colonial powers in the 19th century. A Mussolini who conquered Egypt and celebrated himself as the new Augustus, a Franco who negotiated with Hitler how to redistribute the territories in the world - those were shadows of colonial history, and they can be seen in the autocratic regimes to this day. Think of Russia! Suddenly desires flare up again in countries that go back to the time of great imperialism.

DEFAULT:To what extent have Spain and Portugal ended their colonial history at all?

Carpenter: The post-colonial era has many legacies to bear. The British Empire, which was once a great colonial empire, is also affected. Gibraltar, for example, is still in British hands. The island of Réunion on the east coast of Africa is still a French branch. And areas like Western Sahara are an afterthought in the hands of these Spanish colonial powers.

DEFAULT:The Catholic Church played an important role in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Carpenter: The bulls for the partition of Pope Alexander IV are kept in the Archives of Seville. It was probably the Spanish royal family that drafted the lyrics. The Pope let himself be instrumentalized and signed it. They were a final sign of his supremacy. The Catholic priests forcibly spread into the colonial areas regardless of loss. At the same time, however, at the time of this brutal rule over the colonial areas there were intellectual warnings.

Already in the first year of the discovery of the new areas, voices appeared reporting horrific massacres and mass suicides by the locals. The famous Advent sermon, which the Dominican Father Antonio de Montesinos delivered in 1511 in the presence of the son of Christopher Columbus on the island of La Española, is the first impressive testimony of critical voices.

DEFAULT:Did these voices find a continuation?

Carpenter: They were received in a variety of ways. Bartolomé de Las Casas, who wrote a history of the new Spain in the mid-16th century, followed Montesino's early criticism. The Spanish atrocities took up a lot of space in his portrayal. The critical voices can be found in literature and intellectual debates up to the present day. Think about liberation theology! Poets like Pablo Neruda or Ernesto Cardenal, who died in March, gave the poor in the former colonies a voice and appeared to put new colonial rulers such as the USA in their place.

DEFAULT:The current Pope, who is from Argentina, visited the Americas to ask forgiveness for the sins of the Church and the crimes against the indigenous people during the conquest. Voices within the church nevertheless say: no apology without compensation. How do you see it

Carpenter: That is a difficult question. What should redress be like, and who should make it? In addition, in many of the countries that were colonies at the time, the political systems and political establishment are not particularly trustworthy. Demands for reparation therefore have little moral force. And yet the former colonial powers have a historical duty to examine their own history critically. The destruction of indigenous structures, exploitation and powerful racism should be addressed. Politicians should also seek ongoing dialogue with the former colonies.

DEFAULT:You put this division of the world from 1494 into a historical context and look back at the past. But if you look to the future ...

Carpenter: The division of the world into you and us, good and bad runs through human history. Today's separation between China and the USA and Europe and China is gaining momentum due to the expansion of the Chinese Empire. This is also a form of colonialism that is operated with a lot of money. Think, for example, of the new Silk Road project! This new division of the world and all the distribution processes and front positions connected with it will occupy us in the coming decades, and we must be careful not to let it lead to armed conflicts. (Ruth Renée Reif, February 20, 2021)

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, born in Berlin in 1938, is a photographer and artist. In her work she explores places on the edge of western perception and deals with demarcations and boundaries. Her most recent exhibition in Paris, "Zone Grise - The Land In-Between", showed a retrospective of her work from 1980 to 2012 with 250 works.

Martin Zimmermann, born in Güldenstein in 1959, is Professor of Ancient History at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. His most recent book publications include "Violence. The dark side of antiquity" (Munich 2013) and "The strangest places in antiquity. Haunted houses. Hanging gardens and the ends of the world" (Munich 2018).

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Martin Zimmermann, "The division of the world. Evidence of colonial history". 28.80 euros / 160 pages. Wagenbach, Berlin 2020