No Mercy For Conquistadors, But We Can Let Their Statues Stand

Latin America can do a lot more to right history's wrongs than topple the bronze effigies of its conquest-era villains.

A vandalized Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo statue in San Pedro, California, is cleaned
A vandalized Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo statue in San Pedro, California, is cleaned
William Ospina


BOGOTÁ — It's an ongoing question: How do we grapple now with atrocities of the past? What should our current position be on the genocides of the Spanish conquest, the slave trade, the ransacking of cultural treasures, and the historical figures who did or defended things that today we deplore?

Some would argue that we cannot judge the people of five centuries ago in the light of current values. They lived in a world where the Crusades were seen as worthy feats, where the Inquisition meted out Divine justice, and where trading in slaves was just another form of commerce. In those case, violence legitimated power and institutions. The Catholic Monarchs who expelled the Moors and the Jews from their territories, and persecuted anyone unable to prove they were longtime Christians, were considered paragons of civilization.

For me, though, whenever I read the account of the kidnapping of the Inca ruler Atahualpa and the massacre, one afternoon in 1533, of thousands with him by a gang of well-armed Spaniards, I always say that while the Conquistadors may have preceded the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, they're nevertheless guilty. They declared themselves to be Christians, after all, and were thus subject to the Ten Commandments.

Spaniards burning Inca ruler Atahualpa — Engraver: A. B. Greene

Those who legitimize atrocities cannot claim that the men of the Renaissance could not foresee the wickedness of their acts. In Spain under the Emperor Charles V, Friar Francisco de Vitoria said his "blood froze" on hearing about the massacre at Cajamarca.But should the crimes of the Conquest lead us to hate everything we have been since that time? Let me start by saying it's too late to tell Columbus not to land. It's also clear that the conquering logic is not just European, and the invasion of the Americas and subsequent fusions in race and culture are too vast and complex a phenomenon to be viewed through the narrow prism of the criminal code.

Barbarity did not just happen here but also in Spain, where the powerful committed atrocities in the name of the Cross or the Crown. Human dignity was crushed there for the sake of greed and arrogance just as the Americas saw the arrival, alongside murderers, of apostles of justice able to show their love of the world, kindness and compassion.

Years ago I wrote a reverential book, Dawns of Blood, celebrating one of those poeple: the poet Juan de Castellanos. Though a conquistador, he devoted a lifetime to praising this continent. In performing a most humane and civilized task, he was far above the ferocity and customs of his people and time.

While the Conquistadors may have preceded the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, they're nevertheless guilty.

Crimes abounded in the Spanish Conquest, but so did civilizing acts, irreversible fusions, profound alliances and powerful syntheses. The horror would be to wipe away that complexity and consider ourselves today as merely the product of atrocities. "May our land strive to impede our forgetting/The four centuries we have served therein," wrote the poet Leopoldo Lugones.

We must be able to criticize and condemn all that was wicked in the Conquest and in history generally, because such evils endure and are repeated in myriad ways through racism, class exclusions, militarism, religious dogmatism and political corruption. We should also value all that is noble and humane, and the inherent creativity of historical fusions.

If only all were resolved with the thud of a statue that falls. While politics can channel historical grievances and conflicts around race and tradition into ruthless wars, culture turns those same ingredients into syncretism, dialogue and enduring pacts and symbols. On this continent, there's no better example than music. It is impossible to undo the events of past centuries, but they can be reassessed and reinterpreted, and the worst deeds redeemed with conciliatory symbols and acts of justice, not vengeance.

Statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate — Photo: Advanced Source Productions/Flickr

Colombia's independence two centuries ago was an undoubted, if partial, compensation for the past. Its flaw was that it maintained the exclusion and mistreatment of vast sectors of our society, like native communities or descendants of slaves. Our abolition of slavery was a meager simulation. As the philosopher Estanislao Zuleta said, without a fair chance at building a life in society, the slaves were merely relieved of the "food and shelter they had received." The country has far from paid its debt to the natives and to descendants of slaves, still called Africans by some, not out of respect for their august ancestry but to keep them excluded. As if they weren't a living part of our nation since its inception.

You would be hard pressed to find a conquistador"s statue in Mexico. Here there is barely a district without its Belalcázar on a pedestal. I am not saying take them away, because there are horrors we must remember. I wonder though, where are the monuments to those who fought for dignity and peaceful coexistence?

There's more involved here than just toppling a piece of bronze.

There's more involved here than just toppling a piece of bronze. A more beautiful gesture would be to commemorate more creatively, by paying homage, for example, to the natural patrimony we desecrate. Why not let foliage engulf the statues or reclaim the botanical illustrations so unjustly taken to Madrid from their places of origin? Why not give the symbols of the indigenous universe and resistance to slavery the same amount of public space as other national components? Popular actions and processes deserve an equal place in our collective memory, whence the monument to the unnamed settlers in Manizales.

Destroying symbols is tempting, but better yet would be to put an end to the destructive routines of the Conquerors. Our best homage to downtrodden communities would be to finally assure them the nation's respect and gratitude.

*Ospina is a Colombian novelist and poet.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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