Columbus, a Spanish Imaginary
By Román Alonso
In mid-June 2020, some media outlets and public opinion-makers were tearing their hair out over the insolent audacity of Daniela Ortiz, a Barcelona-based artist, for calling out well-known television presenter Susanna Griso as a “white woman” during a live interview. The encounter took place amid public debate around the possible removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. The artist explained her opinion that monuments which perpetuate the memory of colonial history should be demolished, to which the television host retorted: “I am not offended by the statue of Columbus. And I would not like it to be pulled down, let alone vandalised”. To which Daniela Ortiz replied: “Of course, because you are white, and you agree with racism”. Both incredulous and indignant, the media and social networks were quick to report the incident, as if accusations of racism or whiteness were disproportionate and completely out of context for someone merely expressing her humble opinion. “We are all Susanna Griso” could have been the naïve headline of a newspaper when it picked up the story, and they would have been right, as the reality is that the presenter was not only expressing her opinion, but her foolishness and the unquestioning respect of colonial symbols that reflects the widely accepted and assumed view of Spanish society. “You extract from the caravels and Columbus a whole narrative that I don’t share”, the presenter said that day in the middle of the interview.
Yet the statues are still there. We are told that historical facts must be accepted as they are, whether we like them or not, whether we agree with them or not. We are told that history cannot be changed while the statues remain present in our daily lives, tacitly preserving biased historical narratives and evoking an imposed collective memory that perpetuates the interests of elites. However, as much as some may strive to emphasise the heritage and aesthetic value of monuments, it escapes no one that any statues placed in public space, which are symbolic objects in and of themselves, take on greater significance because of the special political character conferred upon the urban spaces in which they are placed – around government buildings, institutions, cemeteries, large squares or historical sites. There are always instrumental interests and purposes embedded in these choices that go beyond the mere aesthetic quality of the object itself. Those who defend this heritage choose to ignore the multi-layered narratives that are constructed around these symbols and look the other way in the face of the need to build radically democratic public spaces.
The case of Columbus can help to better understand this problem, as his figure is historically articulated around complex and varied narratives, according to the different contexts within which they are inscribed, that have been reproduced and evolved over time. The identification of Columbus as a national hero in mid-19th century Italy in the face of its impending reunification, or the portrayal of him as an individualistic and enterprising character which linked US exceptionalism and the spirit of its society, are some of the narratives that stimulated the construction of monuments in his memory on both sides of the Atlantic. In Spain, the myth of Columbus and his discovery emerged from a profound transformation in the role of national culture oriented towards the construction of a political nationalism which was led by the state and elites. This process driven by the Enlightenment patriotism of the 18th century was later recovered by national liberalism during the 19th century, with the aim of creating a concept of a culturally and politically unified Spanish nation.
Most of the monuments to Columbus that exist today in Spain were built during the second half of the 19th century, as in the case of the statue in Barcelona, the idea for which was proposed in 1857 but which did not materialise until 1888. The beginning of the expansion of cities brought about by the industrial revolution marked the beginning of significant changes in the production of urban space. The ideal of beautifying cities was imposed and the construction of landmarks in the urban landscape became necessary to help organise a constantly growing matrix. Many of these landmarks found their object of desire in historical figures and narratives, underpinned by the central role that Romantic and Liberal thought had given to historiography. Cartagena, Valladolid, Granada, Seville, and other Spanish cities were also erecting statues of Columbus at a time when his figure was acquiring new interest, amplified by the celebrations of the fourth centenary of the discovery of America. A commemoration celebrated with a certain institutional neglect in Spain, to which only the elites had access, and which nevertheless culminated internationally in the World’s Columbian Fair in Chicago in 1893, helping to update on both sides of the Atlantic a renewed confidence in white supremacy and consolidating an image of the Western world, modern, technologically advanced and devoted to progress, as the driving force of the emerging capitalist society.
The unveiling of the monument of Columbus in the city of Madrid coincided with the celebration of the 4th centenary, on 12 October 1892. However, the reasons for its unveiling differed slightly from the original purpose of the statue. The idea of the monument had arisen years earlier, with the aim of celebrating the wedding of King Alfonso XII and María de las Mercedes de Orleans in 1878, in an attempt to associate the Spanish-Columbian narrative with a declining Spanish monarchy. By constructing a narrative in response to the need for national unity, nineteenth-century conservatives made symbols prevail over facts, and the figure of Columbus was not exempt from ideological twists and narrative arrangements. The relationship between the figure of Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs was recurrent in the artistic productions of the 19th century and the representation of historic episodes relating to both the former and the latter contributed to the formation of a social imaginary and a cultural nationalism inscribed in a broader narrative that, among other things, linked the monarchy to the splendour of an empire –which was steadily waning – and used the virtues of the evangelisation of America to justify the value of its colonisation.
From the time of its inauguration in 1892, the Columbus Monument and the square to which it gives its name have been the scene of various rallies and mass gatherings in the city of Madrid. The statue of Columbus is not neglected as a symbol of the technological advances of the West and is the place chosen for celebrations such as the first transatlantic flight between Spain and Latin America in 1929 or the visit and tribute paid to it by the Apollo XI astronauts during their visit to Madrid in 1969. At the same time, it maintains its central role as a symbol of the union of peoples and an emblem of Hispanic identity. Throughout the 20th century, the Columbus Monument witnessed both Republican and Francoist military parades during the Civil War between 1936 and 1939, witnessed Victory Day celebrations during the years of Franco’s dictatorship, and is a central figure in the celebrations of Día de la Hispanidad (or Día de la Raza until 1958) every 12 October, a date that during the Franco dictatorship gained a special ideological charge as it was linked to the regime’s desire to remake the Spanish imperial project, reaffirm an exclusionary Spanish nationalism and built the nuevo Estado based on the most reactionary Catholicism.
In the mid-1970s, an ambitious urban renovation of the square that had housed the monument since 1892 began. The statue of Columbus was now integrated into a larger urban operation that included a cultural centre and a large public square – Los Jardínes del Descubrimiento – presided over by three large concrete sculptures that narrate the glory of the conquest and hint at a certain imperial nostalgia. After forty years of Franco’s dictatorship, Spain had begun a period of democratic transition in 1975, and the inauguration ceremony was one of many events that sought to relaunch the country’s image as an international power, with Latin America as its preferred partner. In 1977, the remodelling of the Columbus Square – known as Plaza de Colón, or simply “Colón” – was inaugurated in Madrid, and once again, the rhetoric of discovery and of Spanishness was combined in a symbolic act, presided over by the newly crowned King of Spain, and attended by the mayors of the seventeen capitals of the Americas. In an umpteenth symbolic and perverse act of extractivism and domination, each of the mayors – like the Indian kneeling at the feet of the conquistador – happily deposited soil brought from their home countries in the centre of the newly inaugurated square.
The way in which the commemoration of the anniversary of the discovery of America and the myth of Columbus has passed from hand to hand, from one regime to another, shows how from the beginning of the construction of the Spanish nation-state in the first half of the 19th century, different narratives and concepts about being-Spanish or being-Hispanic have converged in Columbus and the discovery of America to weave together, over two hundred years of history, a fundamental part of the collective memory that sustains Spanish nationalism. The discovery and conquest of America served to produce a shift towards a teleological interpretation of the origins of the Spanish nation that allowed the bourgeois elites to justify the formation of a nation state under construction in the face of feudal and absolutist powers. This essentialist memory and historical concept of a Spain that contains the meta-history of having a national destiny, has endured to the present day, perpetuating white supremacism in Spanish society where “hispanity” – as the socio-cultural and historical framework that links Spain to its former colonies – is framed in a double game of integration and exclusion, which both legitimises and continues to reproduce the process of extraction and accumulation that began in the 15th century.
Many of the arguments about the “historical essence of the Spanish nation,” Spain’s contribution to history “by discovering a new world for Europeans,” or the importance of the Hispanic monarchy and the Discovery as a “symbol of Spanish [territorial] integrity,” were used in the parliamentary debates in 1987 to decide which date should be chosen to celebrate the new democratic state after the end of the dictatorship. They had the possibility to declare the National Day as the day on which the recent democratic constitution had been approved, yet the state powers chose October 12th instead. Thus, with the legitimacy granted to them by the new democratic system, they chose to institutionalise a date that was linked to the mythical origins of the nation, whose festivity had been present in Spanish society, almost uninterruptedly, since the end of the 19th century. Ten years later, in 1997, the National Day celebrations were militarised and since then, the figure of Columbus oversees the military parade which takes place in Madrid every October 12th.
Over the last 20 years, the Plaza de Colón in Madrid has become an increasingly important part of everyday Spanish politics. In 2001, almost rivalling the monument to Columbus, the “largest Spanish flag in the world” was placed in the square, lest the passage of time cause the figure of Columbus to lose its symbolic attraction of yesteryear in the face of the growing number of critical voices which since the 1980s began to question the presumed reading of the patriotic narrative regarding the invasion of America. Since then, the Largest-Spanish-flag-in-the-world has turned the square into a stage for various events related to homages to the national flag. Likewise, Colón has played a symbolic role in popular demonstrations and has witnessed demonstrations of the Spanish Catholic Church’s influence in the form of giant masses between 2008 and 2013. These events and demonstrations are genuinely supportive of the institutional framework or the social significance of the protests, but in recent years it has taken even further, and Columbus and its square have begun to be associated in the national press and in public opinion with rallies promoted by Spanish conservative parties and the extreme right. In February 2019, the Plaza de Colón was the place chosen by to stage a so-called reunification of Spain’s three main right-wing political parties. And today it is the place that the ultra-Catholic far-right Vox party privileges for its rallies since June 2016, when it launched here its first general election campaign under the slogan “Make Spain Great Again”.
In recent years, the Plaza de Colón has hosted a multitude of demonstrations in which nostalgia for a glorious and imperial past, territorial integrity and unity, and Catholicism and cultural nationalism, are conjured up around the figure of Columbus and the patriotic cult of the flag. It leaves an obscene image of the extent to which, in a time of multiple crises –economic, social, environmental– reactionary democracies are reactivating essentialist conceptions of history and collective memory. However, it has also become the stage for contesting hate speech and denouncing colonial power. On 17 July 2020, the anti-racist and decolonial movement in Madrid surrounded the statue of Columbus with smoke flares and placed on its pedestal a banner that cried out: “Fire to the colonial order” [Fuego al poder colonial]. With this action they demanded the removal of the statue of Columbus and the colonial and slave-owning monuments on Spanish territory and denounced the genocide and plunder that the invasion of the Americas entailed – and still entails. Perhaps this is the first of many actions aimed at tearing down –literally or symbolically – the statue of Columbus, one of the many rehearsals needed to shatter his figure and that of the discovery of America as part of a foundational myth that has structured a fundamental part of Spanish nationalism over more than two hundred years of history. Perhaps one day no one will worry that the statue of Columbus will have its arm amputated or its head missing, and only then will we know that we have begun to extricate the entrenched narratives that sustain our white supremacy.
A few days after her appearance on television, in the face of harassment and attempts by neo-fascist groups to criminalise her in court following her appearance on the programme, Daniela Ortiz left Spain.