WHY on earth would an invading force swipe a big stone cross that weighs more than a tonne, and ship it from southern Africa all the way to Germany?
It’s not as if a cross was something new to the Germans. They had plenty of their own.
Crosses date back to the 4th century after Italian Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.
The stone cross was erected in the 15th-century in what is now known as Namibia, serving as a navigation landmark on the coast.
The padrao, or stone cross, was erected by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1486.
Adorned with the Portuguese coat of arms, it soon became known as Cape Cross, a little to the north of Walvis Bay.
Cão had sailed the African coast seeking a way into the Indian Ocean and reached as far south as 22°10 S before turning back.
The next explorer to pass that way was Bartolomeu Dias who succeeded in becoming the first European to round the southernmost tip of Africa when he sailed into the Indian Ocean in 1488.
Dias went only as far as a little north of Algoa Bay before turning back, leaving the glory of opening a trade route to India to Vasco da Gama who sailed along the east coast on Christmas Day, 1497 and left the name ‘Natal’ on what later became a province of South Africa.
The stone cross remained a useful marker to all navigators.
Quite a few were made and erected in various parts of the world.
Some were destroyed by the inhabitants of the land on which they were planted by a European race claiming the land. Others, like the one in Namibia, were later swiped or moved to different positions.
The padrao at Cape Cross was one that remained in situ until the 1890s when the occupying Germans carted it off to their homeland and colonised the land.
Many years later – in 2006 – it went on display at the the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
In 2017, Namibian authorities asked for its return, which has been agreed to, and which might be the start of a return to Namibia of other artefacts and even human remains.
Namibian ambassador to Germany, Andreas Guibeb, described the return of the cross as “important as a step for us to reconcile with our colonial past and the trail of humiliation and systematic injustice that it left behind.”
That ‘systematic injustice’ included the killing of about 70 per cent of the native population by shooting and the poisoning of the underground water wells in the arid land, as commanded by the somewhat less than charming General von Trotha.
German culture minister Monika Gruetters said the restitution of the stone cross of Cape Cross showed Germany was committed to coming to terms with its colonial past.
“For too many decades, the colonial time has been a blind spot in our remembrance culture,” she said.
The museum pointed out that while it has agreed to return the 533-year-old cross, despite it not being of African origin, it acknowledged the outstanding significance an artefact like this padrao had on the people of Namibia and the special contribution it could make on site in the future of understanding Namibia’s history.
The cross, it said, highlighted how “descendants from Europe and Africa can engage in dialogue that does historical justice” to it.
The Cape Cross padrao is 3.5m high, weighs 1.1 tonnes and, as with the others, was intended to be seen from out at sea.
After the original Cape Cross padrão was removed in 1893 by Corvette captain Gottlieb Becker, a simple wooden cross was put in its place, but replaced two years later by a stone replica.
At the end of the 20th century, with the help of private donations, another cross, more similar to the original one, was erected at Cape Cross — that’s why there are two crosses there now.