Notes on the Columbus Statues of the Caribbean

Ernesto Gilbert – Columbus (1887), Columbus Park, Santo Domingo (Phone: Veerle Poupeye, all righs reserved)

This post is extracted from an ongoing and as yet incomplete research project on monuments and statues in the Caribbean.

There is hardly an island in the Caribbean that does not have a Columbus monument and some have more than one – it appears, for instance, that almost all Cuban towns have one (a very useful and instructive Wikipedia list of Columbus monuments, which includes most of the ones that can be found in the Caribbean, can be found here). Most of the Columbus statues in the Caribbean date from the late 19th or early to mid-20th century, and a few are of more recent vintage. The official investment in the figure of Columbus is particularly pronounced in the Dominican Republic, where a number of prominent monuments, buildings and sites are dedicated to Columbus and his legacy. Guides to the capital city of Santo Domingo proudly state that the city was founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartolomé Columbus and is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas.

Earlier colonial monuments in the Caribbean usually focused on historical figures who had played more specific roles in securing Caribbean territories for the dominant colonial interests, monarchs of the colonizing states, and figures of more localized interest such as colonial governors. The consecration of Columbus as a key figure in Caribbean history does not appear to have a very long history, at least where monuments are concerned. It appears to be related to modern efforts to position the Caribbean as the birthplace of the “New World” and associated notions about the arrival of Christianity in the America. Creating tourist attractions has also been a consideration in some monument commissions.

There needs to be further research and reflection on what provoked this somewhat belated canonization of Columbus and what its role has been in late colonial and early independence national politics, when the position of the Caribbean in international affairs became a more prominent concern. In the Dominican Republic, the manner in which this country has positioned itself as a predominantly white and racially mixed society, vis-à-vis neighbouring Haiti, as the first Black Republic in the Americas, is obviously a crucial consideration but more is at stake. Celebrating Columbus implies asserting the foundational and dominant “whiteness” of the “New World” in its entirety and, by implication, justifies the entire colonial project as a benevolent, civilizing mission, glossing over genocide, slavery and other forms of major human exploitation in the process. It is also related to concepts of Pan-Americanism, and as we will see elsewhere in this post, the more recent Columbus statue initiatives have been associated with problematic postcolonial governmental politics.

Not surprisingly, Columbus monuments throughout the Americas have been the target of protests for several decades now. Demands for their removal have come mainly from Native American activist groups, although other groups, events, and ideologies have also contributed. The Columbus statue on the Port-au-Prince waterfront, in Haiti, for instance, was toppled and thrown into the sea by demonstrators in 1987, shortly after the end of the Baby Doc Duvalier regime, and has not been reinstalled since then although the statue was salvaged. As an entry on Columbus on The Louverture Project, a free Haitian history resource, suggests, this violent popular rejection of Columbus and the history of oppression he and his statue represent. This stands in pointed contrast and perhaps active response to the Dominican Republic, where several Columbus monuments remain to the present day, one major example being inaugurated as recently as 1992, on the occasion of the Columbus Quincentennial, even though there were protests at that time. The Quincentennial was a moment where the historical figure of Columbus, and the momentous events his arrival in the Americas had put in motion, were intensely debated and critiqued. The anniversary observations were boycotted by many in the Caribbean or treated as an occasion for historical reflection and critique rather than celebration.

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