When most of us think of Africa in Europe, Spain isn’t the first country to pop into mind. True, those who have a fair knowledge of Africa know about their early colonization of what is now the Western Sahara, Equatorial Guinea and part of Morocco. But, there is so much more to Spain’s connection with Africa; sometimes direct, sometimes less so.
Spain’s connection with Africa started way before colonialism. In fact, as early as the 7th century, there were “close ties between Africa and the Iberian peninsula. Many African monks fleeing the wars or the persecutions traveled to Spain with their manuscripts, where they organized centers of monastic learning, which were important for intellectual activity in the kingdom of the Visigoths. Africa contributed much to the preservation of ancient learning, even though the region itself was seized early from the people of the West.” (Manuel pratique de latin médiéval by Dag Norberg, Paris, 1980, English translation by R.H.Johnson).
Another lesser known connection between the region of Catalonia and Africa comes through Peter Claver , born in 1581 who later became known as “Slave of the Blacks” and “Slave of the Slaves.” A farmer’s son from Verdu in Catalonia, Claver studied at the University of Barcelona and at age 20, he became a Jesuit priest. Claver went to South America as a missionary where he ministered to African slaves physically and spiritually when they arrived in Cartegena, Colombia. It is estimated by some that Claver converted 300,000 African slaves to Christianity. For 40 years he worked for humane treatment on the plantations. Claver organized charitable societies among the Spanish in America. Claver said of the slaves, “We must speak to them with our hands by giving before we try to speak to them with our lips.” (http://home.snu.edu/~HCULBERT/black.htm)
Now, let’s move on to today’s Barcelona:
I only spent part of the day in Barcelona; but I thought you might like to share what I saw during my visit:
My major point of interest in Barcelona was the Sagrada Familia, an immense cathedral that was designed “in 1877 by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar who also led the construction which has been in progress since 1882. Just a year later, Antoni Gaudí, (born June 25, 1852), took over as the lead architect and drastically changed the original neo gothic style. The neo gothic style made way for Gaudí’s trademark modernist style, which was based on forms found in nature. When he died in 1926 only one facade (the nativity facade), one tower, the apse and the crypt were finished. Because Gaudí was constantly improvising and changing the design while construction was going on, he left few designs and models. And most of these were destroyed during the civil war in 1936.” (AViewonCities.com)
Gaudí dedicated the last 12 years of his life totally to the construction of the Sagrada Familia. In his personal life he seems to turn his back more and more on the earthly world and turns more to the spiritual world which is clearly visible in the building activities at the cathedral. On June, 7th 1926, he died and the work on the cathedral is still ongoing based in large part on his vision and sketches.
Even for me, an amateur of architecture, it was apparent that Gaudí, like many of his contemporaries (of the modernist period), was heavily influenced by African art. From the Moorish influence in the interior to the pivot-like towers, Africa is present in the incredible architecture of the Sagrada Familia. I also learned that that in 1892 Gaudí made a design for the catholic mission at Tanger where the pivot-like towers appear for the first time. Yes, another African connection.
But, Barcelona is more than the Sagrada Familia (even if a major focus of tourism in the city). What about day to day life in Spain today? I have some Spanish friends who return home regularly from the United States. Over the years, I have heard more and more about the influx of immigrants from former colonies in South America and their influence on modern Spanish culture. But, I didn’t hear much about African immigrants to the country. In previous visits to Spain, we’ve spent more time in the countryside than in the city and that is probably why I was so surprised to see so many African faces in Barcelona.
From the metro to the city streets, there were young African faces everywhere.
While entering the metro, I saw a group of young African men carrying large plastic bags of items that they were selling on the street somewhere. I instantly got the images of young men with similar faces doing the same thing in cities like New York, Paris and Vienna…
When driving to find a parking space, I spotted two young African men crossing the street. One of them noticed me looking with a smile and stopped to wave hello. He was almost hit by a car, which he rapidly proceeded to hit the top of and yell something in Spanish to. I couldn’t help but laugh and think of the fact that it’s often the same wherever I travel: When two Africans spot one another in a place they don’t expect to… we often smile and communicate to each other, without speaking a single word… how happy we are to have found “family” among the crowd of passers-by. It is something I’ve noticed in every country I’ve ever visited, large city or small town alike. My French husband says that it’s the advantage of being able to so easily recognize one’s own people. I think he’s right.
So, whether you are heading to Spain on vacation or you are interested in teaching your children about African influences on European culture… know that Spain in general and Barcelona in particular is a great place to look for clues about the historical and current Africa-Europe connection.
¡Viva España! And may God bless Africa!