BUENOS AIRES — Anti-racism protestors who've demonstrated in recent weeks, and in countries all over the world, are taking their frustrations out on historic figures, toppling or defacing statues of people who embody past injustices. And one of the more typical targets in all this is the man who, back in 1492, famously sailed the ocean blue.
Christopher Columbus, long hailed as the person who "discovered" the Americas, was also a a mass murderer, critics argue. And he was indirectly responsible, they say, for the horrors of La Conquista, as the Spanish conquest of the continent came to be known.
Tearing down monuments is not a new phenomenon or one that's exclusive to the wave of protests sparked by the police killing in Minneapolis, Minnesota of George Floyd. We have the statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin destroyed at the end of the Soviet Union, the Buddhas of Bamiyan bombed by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein pulled off a pedestal in U.S.-occupied Baghdad.
In all of these cases, the fury represents a need to rewrite history. The Congolese want to remove statues of the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II. During the 2019 protests in Chile, people targeted the Spanish conquerors Pedro de Valdivia and Francisco de Aguirre, along with 19th-century politicians and generals who represent the country's white elite.
Chile's native Mapuches used the protests for their own demands to confront the country's "official" history. They have dismissed complaints that defacing statues is "vandalism," defending this as a powerful symbol of reactions to a falsified version of events following the Spanish conquest.
In Britain, the Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton defended the toppling of the statues of people who made money "selling a human being." But should the list also include African merchants and rulers who began selling their own people to the Europeans in the 16th century? Because that, if we're being honest, was also a crucial component of the transatlantic slave trade.
The fury represents a need to rewrite history.
Those who topple statues usually invoke historical revisionism as part of their alternative political narrative. But there is no history here, as they are mainly driven not by established facts, but by feelings and opinions. They would justify violence for the sake of an ideal, and want an overhaul based on a tale of the good and the bad, winners and losers.
The most eager among them prefer historical memory to the information such statues yield about the bygone periods of their builders and societies. It goes beyond the distorted memory of a personage in bronze or stone, for statues are a better reflection of their time than the subject itself. We would do well to think twice before consigning them to oblivion, because collective memory must also include the bad memories.
Christopher Columbus is one of the biggest characters in this intermittent war of statues, as is Spain, the country whence he sailed to the Americas. A recent example is California's removal of a statue of Isabella of Castille, the monarch who backed his expeditions. But actions of this kind date back decades, in fact — to the lead-up to 1992, the quincentenary of Columbus's arrival.
The United States changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day. Los Angeles removed his statue in 2018. Critics recall that Columbus didn't in fact "discover" the Americas. The accuse him, furthermore, of being responsible for history's "greatest genocide." By 2019, when Washington D.C. joined the fray, 131 cities and eight states had dropped Columbus for Indigenous People's Day.
This dichotomy seemingly includes good and bad statues, and pardonable or irredeemable acts. Should the statues of the worst people be toppled? Who decides? Many of those who want Columbus removed must have opposed the toppling of 11 statues of Hugo Chávez (10 in Venezuela and one in Bolivia), or the removal of Néstor Kirchner's ugly statue at the UNASUR headquarters.
Should we call Columbus a mass murderer and leave it at that? Or delve into complexities? The reactions are from our time, and omit to consider the historical moment in which he lived. As a man of his time, he was a pioneer of European maritime expansionism. What would he have done in our time though? Would he be racist or denounce segregation? Difficult to say.
This mêlée over monuments has a parallel in the demands made intermittently for apologies over the events of decades or even centuries past. In 2019, Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote to King Philip VI suggesting Spain apologise for the crimes of the 16th-century conqueror Hernán Cortés and his soldiery. His letter reflected a pervasive view in Mexico and Latin American countries, so it may not have been the last such request.
Vast sectors of Latin American society have a vision of La Conquista that Spanish society does not share. If Spain wants to strengthen ties with the continent, it must face the issue without sticking to its "civilizing" guns (the culture, language and religion it gave the Americas). It is a two-way commitment of course: If Latin Americans want stronger ties with Spain, they too must loosen the Manichaean version of history, with its villains and victims.