I continue with the case of Latin America.
We have already seen that the nineteenth-century European consuls, officials, and archaeologists sent by France, England, and Germany to Egypt, Greece, or Mesopotamia were all thieves. Brazen thieves who looted the cultural wealth of those countries and dedicated themselves to excavating and damaging their temples, tombs, pyramids and palaces to steal statues, friezes and entire walls full of beautiful and amazing reliefs. But that they did it because they appreciated what they stole, because they knew its enormous historical and artistic value and because the theft, in addition to providing them with personal benefits, was the only way they had to get these treasures to the museums of their countries in Europe, because they could not take away the entire temples and palaces. And that is the essential difference between these modern European looters and the ignorant Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century, who were also thieves like them, but the statues, friezes, reliefs and pieces that they took from the temples were to destroy them with hammer blows with hatred or contempt because they were not Christians, and only in case they were gold or silver pieces they were interested, but to melt them down and turn them into ingots. That destruction fills the Spanish Conquest, starring a long line of brutal conquistadors and murderers.
One of those madmen, a massacre of indigenous people and destroyer of their cultures, was the Franciscan Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatán, who did everything possible to destroy the Mayan culture, even if he preserved valuable information about it in his book About the things of Yucatan. Landa dedicated himself to persecuting the “heresy” of the Mayans, who did not accept the Christianity imposed by the conquerors. He organized autos-da-fe, burned indigenous men and women alive, destroyed temples, statues, and monuments, and burned Mayan manuscripts. It is true that there were exceptions like Bartolomé de Las Casas and that even within their inevitable Christian intolerance, there were also monks like Motolinía and Sahagún, who Christianized indigenous Mexicans and used them as informants of their beliefs and cultures. But as regards those cultures and his works, the dominant tone among the Christian friars was that of Landa, not that of Las Casas and not even that of Motolinía or Sahagún.
What saved many indigenous architectural works in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia was the indigenous resistance and the Spanish difficulty in destroying these monuments, which were huge and made of stone. However, in Tenochtitlán and almost in Cuzco the Spanish razed everything, and even fragments and stones from temples were used to build Christian temples. And above all, the fact that many of them were in remote or already uninhabited areas, without gold and silver to steal or lost in inaccessible jungles, helped to save the monuments of those cultures. That is why these great monuments, part of cities by then abandoned or lost, survived the greed, destructive fury and religious intolerance of the Spanish conquerors and colonizers.
We could even admit that this looting was not cultural but mere looting, because for the conquerors and then the Creoles, the indigenous, not being Christian, was not culture and could be destroyed, a vision that dominated until the mid-nineteenth century and in cases until today. Discovering the interest and value of the American Indian took centuries and the already independent criollos had a hard time abandoning the Spanish vision. And in Argentina and Chile, hating and destroying the Indian, since admitting it would make mestizo Creoles and non-white Europeans, was the central task of the Creole elite, in this more brutal than the Spanish conquerors. The discovery of the value of indigenous temples and cities that survived the conquest and the colony is a late phenomenon of the 19th century and only occurs in a few countries while in most of them contempt and racism against the American Indians, their works and cultures continue. . Discovering that value capable of attracting European looting was only possible since then. But those Europeans were only interested in appropriating the rich artistic treasures of the Old World and not the poorly known of this America. This is largely why, although mistreated, many ancient cities or indigenous architectural complexes were preserved in our America: Teotihuacán, Tula, Palenque, La Venta, Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, Quiriguá, Copán, Tikal, San Agustín, Machu Picchu, Tiahuanaku, true architectural treasures; and also many indigenous pieces that today are kept and displayed in our museums and were saved from going to the museums of Europe. Exploration and occasional looting have been frequent since then; and in this case, more than Europeans, it has been US archaeologists who have taken on this task, often being pioneers in valuing our indigenous art. Their explorations left their mark and looting was made difficult in the 19th century by our civil wars and by geography itself: the indigenous cities were in inaccessible places and especially in jungles far from the sea. Its pieces were large and heavy and the rivers to remove them were difficult to navigate.
The main explorers of these ruins and hidden indigenous cities were the American John Loyd Stephens, the British Alfred Maudslay and the Yankee Hiram Bingham. Stephens, a cultured man and great traveler, explorer and amateur archaeologist, accompanied by the brilliant English cartoonist Frederick Catherwood, made 2 valuable expeditions that covered Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, that is, looking for the great Mayan cities, poorly known and not very accessible, explored by both between 1839 and 1842. Stephens’s work is valuable, his lively books are interesting classics of American archeology and travel writing, and Catherwood’s drawings are masterpieces. Stephens, who explored Quiriguá, Copán, Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, recognized the importance of Mayan art and sculpture and ratified their historic relationship with the indigenous people, which, if it was clear to some, was only through the dissemination of his work that was recognized by the European scientific world.
Stephens did not loot. In order to explore Copán, he had to buy the land for 50 dollars from the landowner who claimed to be its owner and although he thought of taking several pieces and stelae from the city, his weight and the rapids of the neighboring river made him give up the idea and limit himself to exploring the ruins. . Also in Palenque he had to buy the land for another 50 dollars, but only to be able to settle on it and explore it.
Maudslay, an Englishman, with Stephens’ book and the support of the German consul Sarg, explores the Mayan ruins of Quiriguá and Copán since 1882 and crosses the Petén to reach Tikal, an exceptional Mayan city, already known but still almost inaccessible. From then on he made detailed studies of the Mayan culture and the Guatemalan fauna and flora. His work is valuable, but it is accompanied by his British vocation towards looting. He makes casts of pieces and large stelae and sends them to the insatiable British Museum, which has wanted them since 1855.
Looting is the one that accompanied Hiram Bingham’s expeditions to Peru in search of Machu Picchu. Bingham explores, lies and steals. in his book the lost city of the Incas, Published in 1911, a remarkable description of the city, he claims to have discovered it, knowing that it was already known and that the Peruvian farmer Agustín Lizárraga had explored it in 1902. Bingham, a professor at Yale Yale University, took advantage of his visits to the city to steal 46 thousand pieces, which he took to that University and which Peru has been asking for their return ever since. Since 2011 alone, Yale has returned several of them.