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.

Protests actions against Columbus statues have intensified in the Caribbean recently. In Trinidad, which has a small Native American population, the Columbus statue in Port-of-Spain has become a source of contention in recent years. It was erected in 1881 as a gift from Mr Hypolite Borde, a wealthy cocoa baron. The first major action I am aware of was just before Columbus Day in 2017, when the monument was defaced with red paint.  This was followed a few days later by a formal request to Government for its removal by an activist group which calls itself the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, even though this group distanced itself from the vandalism of the statue. There have been several other actions against the statue and petitions to remove it since then, most recently in 2020, although it remains in place.

There have been artistic interventions into some of the Columbus statues of the Caribbean too. Joiri Minaya, an artist from the Dominican Republic, has dedicated a number of projects to critiquing the Columbus legacy. This has included a project proposal for the Columbus statue in Nassau, the  Bahamas, as part of a 2017 project for the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, but her request for an actual, temporary and non-destructive intervention into the statue, by wrapping it in colourful “tropical” fabric, was turned down by the authorities there.

Other historical Columbus monuments in the Caribbean, such as the one in St Ann’s Bay Jamaica, had up to recently not attracted a lot of attention or controversy but this does not mean that they are collectively supported. The Jamaican statue, which is truly unremarkable artistically, is located in a quiet, somewhat out of the way part of the town and has trees sprouting from its base. I doubt that most Jamaicans even know where to find it. I have called this “eloquent neglect,” which appears been the attitude of refusal of many Jamaicans towards the country’s colonial heritage and landmarks. Just compare this to the nearby statue of the popular black nationalist leader and National Hero Marcus Garvey which is well kept and uncontroversial, and located in a central, heavily trafficked area in front of the Parish Library. There have been some calls for the Columbus statue to be removed, spearheaded by UWI history professor and cultural activist Verene Shepherd and spurred on by the recent decolonial iconoclastic fervour, but nothing has materialized thus far. I do not have much information on the statue, other than that it dates from 1957, and appears not to have been a Jamaican government commission. Perhaps it was related to the establishment of the Columbus Park open air historical museum in nearby Discovery Bay, which is now largely derelict, but which was sponsored by the Alcan bauxite company. Further research into the history of this statue is needed.

The remainder of this post focuses on the two most recently erected Columbus memorials in the Caribbean, which are among the most problematic and controversial public monuments in the region, and which, oddly but tellingly, also stand among the largest monuments in the Western Hemisphere, namely the Faro a Colon (1992) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and The Birth of the New World (2016) in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Ironically, both monuments have been erected in countries that have a strong, albeit conflicted investment in their Native American, Taino heritage as part of their national identities.

While there are several monuments to the Taino in both countries, this conflicted attitude is exemplified by the 1887 century statue of Columbus, by the sculptor Ernesto Gilbert, in front of the Santo Domingo cathedral in the Zona Colonial – the oldest cathedral in the Americas, and as such a symbol of the arrival of Christianity in the hemisphere. This statue was a gift from France which was, no doubt, still smarting from the loss of Saint Domingue as one of its most lucrative colonies. This statue holds pride of place in Santo Domingo tourist guides, despite its very problematic iconography, with a female Taino figure, presumably the warrior chieftain Anacaona, trying to climb up to Columbus’ level on the base. This reference is particularly troubling, since Anacoana was executed by hanging in 1504 at what was then the plaza of Santo Domingo’s. There is no acknowledgement to this violent history in the statue design and the gender, race and ethnic subjugation of the figure is completely naturalized, to the point where it is represented as beneficial. In fact, the Taino figure is inscribing “Illustre y Esclarado Don Cristoval Colon” (“the illustrious and enlightened Christopher Columbus”) onto the base, which alludes to the presumed (and incorrect) role of colonialism in bringing literacy to the Americas. While the iconography is troubling, the statue is, like many public monuments, also inadvertently comical: the outstretched arm of the Columbus figure makes it a convenient perch for the many pigeons that inhabit the square – pigeons, it is well-known, have no respect for history, power and the official.

Faro a Colon (1992), Santo Domingo, viewed from North-West (Image source: Wikimedia)

The Dominican Republic sought to play a lead role in the Quincentennial, which was also highlighted as the moment of the arrival of Christianity in the Americas and the occasion involved a visit of Pope John Paul II. A former Spanish colony, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the modern Dominican Republic has a history of bloody, repressive military dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, and a less repressive episode of authoritarian government under the Trujillo associate Joaquin Balaguer, who was president, with some interruptions, from 1966 to 1996. The Trujillo dictatorship is infamous for the so-called Parsley Massacre in 1937, in which thousands of Haitian migrant labourers (potentially as many as 30,000) were killed, mostly along the Dominican-Haitian border.

The history of the Faro a Colon (or Columbus Lighthouse), an architectural monument, starts in the early 20th century, when ideas began to circulate that the Dominican Republic ought to be the site for a major monument to memorialize Columbus’ arrival in the Americas and that this ought to take the form of a monumental beacon. The actual project was initiated at the Fifth International Conference of American States in 1923 which was held in Chile, an initiative of the Pan American Union (which was in 1948 reconstituted as the Organization of American States), and the initial plan was that all member states would contribute. An architectural competition was organized which was adjudged in Brazil in 1931, with eminent judges such as Eliel Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the project selected was by the Scottish modernist architect Joseph Lea Gleave. Construction initially started in 1948, during the Trujillo regime, but was halted when the promised international contributions were not forthcoming. The project was revived in 1986, under Balaguer and rushed to completion for the 1992 Quincentennial, when it was inaugurated.

Gleave’s plan, which was executed under the oversight of the Dominican architect Teofilo Carbonell, was for a giant cross-shaped beacon that would serve as a mausoleum for the presumed remains of Columbus (which Seville in Spain also claims to have) but it now also aspires to serve as a museum of world cultures, with half-hearted and rather depressing displays from a few countries. The structure is about half a mile long and 190-feet high and its beacon consists of 157 powerful light beams, which can be seen from space as well as from neighouring Puerto Rico. The beacon has its own power generation plant, even though the Dominican Republic has major power generation challenges and power outages are a frequent occurrence. The construction cost is estimated at US$ 70 million and some 50,000 inner-city dwellers were displaced to facilitate its construction.

Conceived as an uncritical, quasi-utopian tribute to the emergence of the New World, the Faro a Colon represents a disturbing incursion of what I can only describe as fascist architecture into the Caribbean environment and represents a level of social, cultural and fiscal irresponsibility for which it has been severely criticized, locally and internationally. Anti-Faro demonstrations in 1992 cost two lives. Because of its enormous size, it is unlikely that it will ever be removed or demolished and its architecture is too impractical and specific for it to be repurposed usefully.

Zurab Tsereteli, The Birth of the New World (2016), Arecibo, Puerto Rico (Image source: Wikimedia)

The story of The Birth of the New World, in Puerto Rico, is no less troubling. It was created by the controversial Georgian-Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, who is infamous for the gigantic, intrusive monuments he has sought to donate to and erect in various parts of the world (which includes the Tear of Grief  9/11 monument which was unveiled in 2006 in Bayonne, New Jersey). The Birth of the New World was originally conceived in 1991, with the Columbus Quincentennial in mind, and Tsereteli first offered it to various American cities, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York City and Columbus, Ohio, who all declined. In 1998, it was offered to the municipality of Cataňo in Puerto Rico, which spent US$ 2.4 million in public funds to import the statue. This marked the start of what has amounted to significant public expenditure on this project and this has, in itself, been the subject of several investigations and ongoing controversies.

After years of back and forth about the expenditure and location, and public and private sector involvement, it was finally decided to erect the statue in Arecibo, along the Atlantic Cost of Puerto Rico, in what was conceived but not yet completed as a Columbus theme park. There was one major attempt at halting its installation with the submission of a petition by a major neo-Taino activist group, the United Confederation of Taino People, which stated plainly that: “Columbus is a symbol of genocide, not a hero to be celebrated.” The installation at Arecibo nonetheless went ahead in 2016 and The Birth of the New World is now the tallest statue in the Western Hemisphere, and at 360 feet it tops the Statue of Liberty in NYC and Christ the Redeemer in Rio. Like the Faro a Colon in Santo Domingo, it serves mainly as a tourist attraction. The cost of this project, which is estimated at US$ 90 million thus far, is particularly problematic in this neglected US dependency which has struggled significantly with its economic sustainability in recent years.

In Puerto Rico, as in the Dominican Republic, this Columbus mega-monument is associated with failures of governance and it is just as unlikely that anything can or will be done to bring this unfortunate project to an end or to remove the statue. There is an ongoing petition on Change.org for this monument to be removed. The damage is already done, however, and if anything, both megalomaniac edifices stand as tragic, embarrassing and tone-deaf monuments to the troubled socio-political histories of these two countries.

Sources (not linked in text)

“Birth of the New World.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_of_the_New_World

“Columbus Lighthouse.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbus_Lighthouse

“Columbus Square.” National Archives Trinidad and Tobago. http://www.natt.gov.tt/node/57

“Making of Christopher Columbus Statue in Jamaica.” Jamaica Gleaner, July 5, 2020. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/art-leisure/20200705/making-christopher-columbus-statue-jamaica

“Spain: DNA tests confirm remains of Christopher Columbus.” Tulsa World, May 20, 2016. https://tulsaworld.com/archive/spain-dna-tests-confirm-remains-of-christopher-columbus/article_cd7e638f-0fab-5f98-b174-8ff40c5e0606.html

French, Howard. “The Santo Domingo lIghthouse: A Fete that Fizzled”. New York Times, September 25, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/25/world/santo-domingo-journal-for-columbus-lighthouse-a-fete-that-fizzled.html

Gonzalez, Robert. “The Columbus Lighthouse Competition: Revisiting Pan-American architecture’s forgotten memorial.” ARQ (Santiago), December 2007. https://scielo.conicyt.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0717-69962007000300014&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en

Lluveras, Lauren. “Joiri Minaya’s Tropical-Inflected Critiques of Colonialism.” Hyperallergic, December 19, 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/533961/joiriL-minaya/

Rampersad, Sharlene. “Columbus Statue Defaced.” Trinidad Guardian, June 15, 2020. https://www.guardian.co.tt/news/columbus-statue-defaced-6.2.1137263.337bb5b874

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