Sunday, 29 September 2013

Hispanic Africa

Both Spain and Portugal have had colonial links with Africa. The first major links were a result of the movement of peoples around the Mediterranean coastal regions. The Roman Empire was the first to bring the whole Mediterranean under single rule, and later the Muslim empire controlled the coastal region along north Africa. Both of these influenced Iberian history and culture, and the development of an lgbt heritage.

When the Muslims invaded Spain from north Africa they launched a golden age for the Iberian peninsula, and al-Andalus (the Muslim country which gave its name to present-day Andalusia) is regarded as one of Europe’s cultural highlights. The ease with which the Muslims entered Spain has been put down, in a small part, to the existing puritanical attitude towards sex enforced by the Visigoths of Iberia.

al-Andalus was sufficiently remote from the Islamic homeland far in the eastern Mediterranean for the Muslims to not worry too much about such similar restrictions imposed from Mecca or Baghdad. They had their own north African culture and remnants of the Roman culture which merged with Islam to produce something unique.

This amalgamation was more sexually tolerant than eastern Islam and, apart from a period when Moroccan-based Islam was imposed in the 12th century, it was celebrated in art and literature. Particularly of note are the writings of the 11th century Andalusian Muslim Ibn Hazm and the poet Ibn Quzman in the early 12th century, who both celebrated the love of boys.

There were trading ports and routes along north Africa which were used by Spanish and Portuguese merchants for centuries before what we might call “sexual tourists” began to take advantage of them. This was to prove very important when the Muslims were driven out of Iberia by 1500.

Once Iberia had become a Christian region in the 15th century its influence began to filter to the rest of the world. The Spanish conquered the Canary Islands in 1402 and concentrated their expansion on north African bases and the New World, while the Portuguese ventured into uncharted waters further south, first by colonising Madeira and the Azores and then heading south to reach the Guinea coast in the 1460s. It is unlikely that Europeans introduced homosexual activity into their central African colonies, as it is more likely that the Muslims from north Africa had got there first and brought their own practices with them. Most of the native tribes across Africa seem to have had same-sex rituals, and the Europeans introduced the more recreational same-sex activity that was demonised as sodomy by the Christian Church.

After the fall of Islamic al-Andalus some Christians found the new restrictions imposed by the Catholic monarchy too much, and those who chose Islam over Christianity and converted were called “renegades”. Many of these “renegades”, including, it is said, 400 Spanish Franciscan friars, moved to the Muslim ports along north Africa. It was also a destination for visits from Spanish writers such as Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). He spent some time in Algiers and wrote of an acquaintance who was one of the “renegades” who kept a harem of young boys purely because of the sexual freedom the city gave him.

Spain had less influence in Africa than Portugal as most of it’s empire was in the Americas. Portugal’s main influence lay in southern Africa in what is now Mozambique and Angola.

One of the contradictions seen in Portuguese colonies was that same-sex activity was accepted more so than in other European colonies in Africa. As long as “sodomy” and same-sex attractions were kept out of sight and private they were tolerated. It certainly wasn’t included in the laws codified by the Portuguese colonial powers in the 1880s, unlike it was in other European colonies.

Following independence from Portugal in 1975 Mozambique suffered a civil war. Rebuilding itself in the aftermath has been a success story in post-colonial Africa. Angola, on the other hand, also independent in 1975 and plunged into civil war, became the centre of a Cold War battle between the east and west. A Marxist government controlled Angola until democracy was eased in after 1989. However, the power of the previous ruling party remained until 2002. The present government refuses to accept homosexuality and it is illegal.

Today Mozambique retains tolerance towards the lgbt community and homosexuality is not illegal. There is an equal age of consent and anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation, but no partnership or marriage rights yet.

Hispanic influence on the lgbt community in Africa has been varied, and little of it has filtered out of the continent. The biggest influence Spain and Portugal has exercised worldwide has been through the Americas where many lgbt Hispanics (Latinos/Latinas) have shaped the world-wide lgbt community. That is the subject of my next article for Hispanic Heritage Month on 3rd October.

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