Hans Staden – a German no one knows here, but every child in Brazil knows him

  • Hans Staden’s story is very popular in Brazil, but few in Germany know it.
  • The adventurous travelogue from the 16th century is still interesting for ethnologists.
  • The Frankfurt publisher even created pirated prints because the book was so successful.

Known as a pop star in Brazil, almost forgotten in his homeland: This is – very briefly summarized – the story of Hans Staden of Homberg an der Efze in northern Hesse. But what is it that the popularity of the man who published the first German travelogue in 1557 is so unevenly distributed? Trace search in northern Hesse.

The title of the travelogue under which the work is presented to this day is harmless: “Warhaft Historia”. But the subtitle suggests incredible: “… a description of the landscape of wild, naked, wild cannibals in the New World of America.” Today it would be said: sex and crime. In the then completely unknown new world of South America, the news promised an exciting read.

Hans Staden: His travels to Brazil

Hans Staden, who worked as a mercenary, traveled to Brazil twice. In 1548 he really wanted to travel to India, but when he arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, the ships had already left. Staden hired to bring prisoners to Olinda in northeastern Brazil. There he took part in the fighting with the Caetés Indians, who were besieging the Portuguese base.

In 1550 he set out again on a journey to the New World. This time he joined the expedition of the Spaniard Diego de Sanabria, who wanted to explore the area around Rio de la Plata. But almost everything that went wrong went wrong on the trip. Two of the three ships sank. Staden’s ship, San Miguel, also sailed off the island of Santa Catarina, which is now part of the Brazilian state of the same name. But the captain did not want to stay there. They built a small ship, sailing north hoping to reach São Vicente base. But even this plan failed. For Staden, the situation worsened: he was fired from the Spanish service, the expedition failed.

He hired the Portuguese, who made him commander of a small fortress designed to keep the native Tupinamba in check. One day, while hunting outside the fortress, he was captured by Tupinambami and, believing that he was a Portuguese, and therefore an enemy, was to be eaten. After nine months in captivity, he saved himself on a French ship with a trick and traveled back to Hesse via Dieppe, London and Antwerp. The year is now 1555.

Great success book

At home, the stories aroused great interest. Johannes Dryander, a professor of mathematics and medicine at the University of Marburg, apparently known to Staden’s father, helped publish “Historia”. He opened the door to the university printery. The success was huge: in the year of publication, printer Andreas Kolbe had to print the second edition after the first edition – between 1,000 and 1,500 copies – sold out quickly. Success is even greater when you consider the conditions at the time. Gutenberg first invented the printing press in 1450. University printers printed 404 books between 1527 and 1566, of which only 66 were foreign authors – one Staden.

The success of the book flew around the wheel. In the same year, the Frankfurt printer Weygand Han produced two pirated prints – easily recognizable from the illustrations. Instead of original drawings, which of course he could not get to, he simply used drawings from a trip to Asia. Elephants suddenly appeared in Staden’s “History.” And Han went even further. In his pirated copy, he changed the release date to 1566 to simulate the first release.

The success of Hans Staden’s report abroad

After much success in the early years, Staden’s report fell silent. At that time, it was common to summarize thematically related reports in proceedings. However, the report does not appear in some important compendiums, such as the volume called “Ritterspiele” by Drillisch published in Kassel around 1600. “Staden was suddenly gone,” says Germanist prof. Jürgen Schulz-Grobert, who heads the House of History in Homberg (Efze).

“You have a respected eyewitness in Hesse, but he obviously didn’t find it interesting for the book,” Schulz-Grobert still marveles, especially since the book features a “human-eating discourse,” but there’s no mention of Staden. It was not rediscovered until the German-speaking countries around 1650 by Johannes Just Winckelmann of Giessen. Since then, Staden’s history has been firmly entrenched. The Grimms referred to Staden in the list of sources in their dictionary, as did Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt. There is also a passage in Grimmelshausen’s “Simplicissimus” which suggests that he must have known Staden’s text.

Income abroad was far more successful. Latin was initially the language of scholars. The first Latin edition was published in 1592 by De Bry. Demand literally exploded in the 17th century and long into the 18th century, especially in the Netherlands. The Dutch have been trying to gain a foothold in northeastern Brazil since 1640. “The text was apparently used as a kind of handbook,” says Wolfgang Schiffner, who runs the regional museum in Wolfhagen in northern Hesse. The city, which since 2019 may officially call itself “Hans-Staden-Stadt”, is considered the place of Staden’s death. However, the text did not reach Brazil itself until the middle of the 19th century as a translation from French.

Great advertisement in Brazil – thanks to the children’s book

Schiffner has a very simple explanation for the current discrepancy in book awareness between Germany and Brazil: a children’s book by Monteiro Lobato. The São Paulo publisher died in 1948. In the 23-volume children’s book series “Sítio de Picapau Amarelo”, Lobato published the adventures of Hans Staden alongside Peter Pan. The series is still successful in Brazil, it is still published and used as a teaching material in schools.

In the metropolis of São Paulo, there is the Instituto Martius-Staden, founded in 1916, a research institution and library that specializes in the history of German immigration in Brazil. In 1999, director Luiz Alberto Pereira filmed Staden’s life story and won a number of awards for his work.

There is another aspect that keeps “History” in mind. The descriptions of the life of the indigenous people of Tupinambá in it are not only extensive. For historians and especially ethnologists, they are still considered an important primary resource. “The description of cannibalism certainly encourages arguments,” says Mark Münzel, professor emeritus of ethnology in Marburg and responsible for America for many years at the Museum für Weltkulturen in Frankfurt. It is certainly due to the perception of cannibalism from today’s point of view – from horror movies or because of terrible crimes. At the beginning of the millennium, for example, the actions of the so-called “Cannibals of Rotenburg” from Rotenburg an der Fulda – only about 30 kilometers from Homberg, by the way.

More knowledge topics can be found here

Is Staden’s report authentic?

Unlike the psychopathic crimes, Tupinambá ate people for a reason: it was a form of funeral. The idea of ​​ending up in the stomachs of relatives seemed more pleasant to the natives than the rot in the land. “It wasn’t fun, but it had to be done for religious reasons,” Munzel explains.

“Staden is interesting for those who deal with the cultures of South America,” says Muenzel. Staden spent several months with Tupinambá, one of the most important indigenous groups of the time.

The authenticity of the report lends Staden his use of many indigenous terms. Münzel does not assume that the adventurer and other travelers to Brazil at the time could copy each other. Staden, for example, used terms from Guaraní, another group he may have learned on his first trip. And the later liberation of Staden by the French can be documented by other sources.

Used sources:

  • Personal interviews with Jürgen Schulz-Grobert, Wolfgang Schiffner and Mark Münzel

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