(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, May 25, 2015).
A small, symbolic redemption is underway. It has been years in the making.
First, the European was removed from his plinth at the foot of the Casa Rosada rear wall. Now, the Latin American is coming to replace him. A gift from Bolivia’s three-time president and indigenous rights champion Evo Morales, the giant bronze statue of Juana Azurduy has been completed in recent days by maestro Andrés Zerneri and will soon assume the plinth where Columbus stood for so many years.
He was ousted following a bitter and widely publicized struggle that began in 2011. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner led the charge, citing the now widely accepted revisionist view of Columbus that leans more towards the egotistical slaver and less towards the heroic explorer who “discovered” a “new world”. The weight of revisionist historians everywhere and swinging national and international consciousness, less and less satisfied with the dusty Eurocentric version of world history (“Western Civilization”), taught for decades if not centuries in the classroom was behind the President.
But it was a bitterly contested fight.
Columbus on his way out (Image: DyN)
Conservatives across the City naturally flocked under the Keep Columbus banner, led by the center-right mayor of Buenos Aires Mauricio Macri, who is now making a run for the presidency itself with his party Republican Proposal (PRO). He was joined by the Italian community, who claim Columbus as their own. Indeed, the statue was a gift from the Italians living in Buenos Aires to Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century, before much of the latest historiography reassessing his legacy emerged. Columbus himself however, wouldn’t have described himself as such. He died over 300 years before Italy the nation came into existence through the gradual unification process (il Risorgimento) only completed in 1871. If you’d asked him where he was from, he would have almost certainly said Genoa.
This was a man who shaped the course of world history they said, truthfully. This was a heroic champion of Christian morality, who brought civilization and progress to the backward expanses of the Americas, they lied. In the end, it took a group of rebel lawmakers from Macri’s own party to join with the ruling Victory Front ranks (FPV), in power nationally but oppositionists in BA City, and finally break the City government deadlock by 41 votes to eight. No more swimming against the tide of shared historical understanding. No more clinging to colonial mythology.
The Columbus myth itself has been overturned painstakingly by historians and other sensible minds in recent decades in the West. It never existed for the countless generations, descended from native populations of the great Western continents, who survived the inadvertent genocide which followed across the centuries in the wakes of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.
Yet the story is worth looking at again, however briefly, if only to remind ourselves what Macri and Co. were championing when they tied themselves to team Chris Columbus, whether they knew so or not.
In 1492, Columbus made land in what we now call the Bahamas, after months of sailing straight across the Atlantic from Spain with three modest galleys and crews. It was a remarkable achievement of ambition and courage. It happened in the same year the Spanish monarchy violently ended the Islamic Moors’ presence in Spain (and simultaneously threw out over 150,000 Jews that had lived under a more tolerant Moorish rule). It was for this monarchy that Columbus sailed, and in the name of which, over four transatlantic voyages in total, he would establish a Spanish colony on Haiti or “Hispaniola” that resulted in the death of over half the indigenous inhabitants of that island. This was an eerie, yet understated example of what was in store for the rest of the continent in the following centuries, if historian Alan Taylor’s figure of 96 percent of the indigenous population of the Americas wiped out as a result of European colonization up to the late 1800s is accurate.
True, the Spanish and Portuguese never meant for this to happen. They passively passed on their alien Eurasian pathogens, like smallpox and typhus, that more than anything else devastated the indigenous peoples who had healthier but less robust immune systems. And what good was a dead native? Better they be converted to Christianity, put to work, driven into slavery. Columbus was a drop in the wide Atlantic of all the horrors suffered by the indigenous civilizations of the Western hemisphere. But it’s difficult to deny the example he set for those who came after. His contemporaries, in fact, denounced the atrocities visited on the natives after the colony on Hispaniola was established.
Even before that, though, it was Columbus who set the native population by force of arms to work hunting for gold in the wild, and he who bid them be tortured when they couldn’t find any or brought back too little. It was he who incarcerated over 500 men, women and children, locked them aboard a ship and sent them back to Spain (200 died on the voyage) where they became zoological oddities for the Europeans and soon died in drogues after being “put to market” from whichever European disease or psychological malady claimed them first. Though back to front, parallels with the slave trade that would emerge in the centuries which followed aren’t exactly ill-founded.
Azurduy was chosen to replace Columbus because, at the end of the day, it’s probably better to have a war hero who fought for Latin American independence rather than a European slaver sitting outside the Presidential Palace.
Because, whether fairly or not, Columbus is linked for many, by association and example, with everything that came after him. Linked to Cortés, Pizarro and the scores of others who bent the less technologically advanced civilizations they encountered to their will with the three contemporary European weapons of mass destruction: Guns, Germs and Steel. There was a reason the late, great Eduardo Galeano chose the subtitle of his passionate masterpiece of political economy (Open Veins of Latin America) Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.
Though independence by no means ended the hardships, three centuries of creeping Spanish and Portuguese rule after the Europeans arrived was eventually deposed in the name of self-determination. The local populations had had enough and kicked their colonial masters out during the Wars of Independence, their leaders like Bolivar and San Martín inspired by revolutions in far-away lands. The revolutionaries were locals, from Cartagena to Santa Cruz, a mixed melting pot of rich and poor, Spanish and Portuguese, mixed mestizos and indigenous natives. In this context, Juana Azurduy found her calling.
She seems like a better fit than Columbus for the plinth outside the Casa Rosada for a number of reasons. Firstly, what she did. Having married someone at 22 already tied to the anti-colonial struggle and serving under Manuel Belgrano (the 10-peso note guy), she threw herself behind his just cause, after doing the Mum thing for a while, in quite remarkable fashion. As a junior officer, her bravery in battle would astound Belgrano so much he gave her his own lavish saber in gratitude. All the better to fight the imperialists.
In 1816, while fronting a guerrilla campaign in what’s now Bolivia, she captured the Cerro Rico mountain in Potosi, near her own birthplace. The mines there had been for centuries a scene of the horrors of Spanish colonial slavery, and her daring raid deprived the Spanish of their precious source of silver. Months later, while fighting a battle alongside her husband, she was wounded and stranded. So the story goes, her husband Padilla tried to rescue her from the fray and got himself killed in the process, but she fought on and eventually led a counterattack, bringing his body back to the revolutionary ranks with her in the end.
Alongside her heroism, Azurduy also represents modern-day Latin America better than Columbus did. Firstly, she’s actually Latin American – born in Sucre (modern day Bolivia). Secondly, she’s a woman. Her statue, like Evita’s, will act as a cultural counterbalance to all the white men immortalized in bronze and marble scattered across the City.
We rightly celebrate the heroes born out of the Wars of Independence and what came after- the San Martíns, the Puerrydons, the Guemes’ (Azurduy fought under two of this trio, in fact). But for all the glory they got, thousands of others have been forgotten, including the numberless and nameless women who helped kick the Spanish empire out.
As a mixed-race mestizo woman, Azurduy flies the flag for the varied make-up of the independence struggles (of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina specifically) that may have been led by wealthy, landowning white men but were anything but monochrome carbon copies of that.
As a female heroine she represents the greater equality modern-day Argentina has achieved. As far as statues in the City go, right now there’s too many dicks on the dance floor.
Nobody could deny that Columbus is a monumental figure in world history. His cruelty doesn’t change that, neither does the fact that the Vikings settled across the Atlantic centuries before he got there, or that his attributed “discovery” was a great trick of 15th Century newspeak, since the Americas were home to millions of people that had lived there for generations prior to the renaissance arrival of Europeans.
His statue isn’t even being torn down or destroyed, simply moved to another location in time (the Aeroparque has been mooted). Argentina’s connection to Italy and Italians is irrevocable and far greater than a lump of marble and granite anyway; it’s an embedded facet of the nation, as around half of all Argentine surnames attest. And besides, Columbus wasn’t even Italian at all, unless the moniker means nothing other than a geographical expression.
Nations are more than that. They are collections of people who feel certain bonds of shared identity with each other regardless of proximity or interaction: imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson puts it. As such, every nation needs a good story as a foundation. Nationalism has a great many foibles, but its strength as an idea is undeniable. While the nation state exists as the political order of the day, it needs certain things to function as a viable entity. It needs stories, legends and heroes around which people can rally, a unifying set of ideas. Last week’s highly symbolic celebrations of the May Revolution fulfil just this purpose.
Isn’t it better to have a monument outside the Presidential Palace that actually has a robust connection to the nation, its history and its diversity? Juana Azurduy risked her life and forsook many comfortable privileges to fight Spanish imperialism and champion self-determination for Latin America.
That’s a story Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia can be proud of. That’s a story, and a life, worth celebrating.