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Germany will return 500-year-old cross to Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 17. May 2019 - Culture

The two replicas of the original padrão at Cape Cross in Namibia. (Photo by Info Namibia)

Brigitte Weidlich

The ancient, over 500-year-old stone pillar with a cross on its top in the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which was originally erected by Portuguese seafarers on Namibia's coast, will return to the African country.

The return to Namibia was announced by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media at a press conference on Friday, 17 May 2019 in Berlin. The board of trustees of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) has decided so.

"The return is a clear signal that we are committed to acknowledge our colonial past and together with the countries of origin seek constructive ways for a respectful manner to handle it," said Minister of State for the Arts Monika Grütters. Later this year, the column which weighs over a ton, will be transported to Namibia and officially handed over to the government.

The German government is a member of the DMH board of trustees through its Foreign Office which had previously spoken out in favour of the return of the Cape Cross. Minister of State for International Cultural Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, Michelle Müntefering, said on Thursday, 16 May, "The return of cultural assets is an important building block for our common future with Namibia." The same day, the board of trustees of the German Historical Museum had decided to return the cross.

The Namibian government in Windhoek had officially requested Berlin to return the historic cross in 2017.

The cross was erected over 500 years ago

Exactly 533 years ago, in 1486, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão had erected, on behalf of his king, the nearly four-metre high stone pillar with a cross on its top along Namibia's Skeleton Coast. The pillar with the Portuguese inscription and the then royal coat of arms was a symbol of Portugal’s ownership claim on the territory. This claim never realised. The pillar [Portuguese: padrão] withstood the rough coastal climate for over 400 years at Cape Cross. By 1893 it was rather weathered and brought to Berlin.

The German navy captain, Gottlieb Becker, had discovered the stone cross in January 1893, had it removed and loaded on the naval ship called Falke. A few months later the cross was in the imperial naval academy in Kiel, in northern Germany. A wooden imitation of the cross was placed at the original location. It did not last long in the harsh climate.

On the orders of German Kaiser Wilhelm II, a replica of the cross was made of granite and brought by ship to then German-Southwest Africa and erected in 1895 at Cape Cross. The inscription also mentioned the emperor. The original cross was then exhibited in Berlin in the courtyard of the Museum of Oceanography. It survived the two World Wars.

According to the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, the cross was recovered from bomb debris in the 1950s, but broke into three parts while being recovered. It was restored and then exhibited at the Museum of German History in East Berlin on Museum Island. After the reunification it was renamed the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Cape Cross in Namibia was declared a National Monument at the end of the sixties. A few years later another replica of the stone pillar was erected and both replicas are bordered by a stone hedge. Only a few meters away on the beach tourists can visit the large seal colony, where thousands of seals roam.

The original stone cross is more than 500 years old (ltr): Raphael Gross, President of the "Deutsches Historisches Museum", Namibia's Ambassador to Germany, Andreas Guibeb, and Monika Grütters. (DHM, Photo by David von Becker)
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