The fall of the colossuses

The back cover of Beheaded. A Story Against Monuments to Racists, Slavers and Invaders, a book by Peio Riaño, reads: "Is it legitimate to put an end to the propaganda of genocides, slavers, invaders and other such despicable characters in the public space? This provocative and fascinating essay proves why it is time to remove the tributes that offend progressive cities”[1]. Such a simple and Manichean question would seem to suggest that there is only one possible answer, although a point is left out: how to put an end to this propaganda and what mechanisms to use.

However, even in the hypothetical case that such infamous figures were to be removed from the public space by non-violent and democratic means rather than by the action of uncontrolled mobs, certain doubts still remain. One of the most disturbing ones is about the parameters by which certain historical figures can be described as despicable, especially when it comes to grey and blurred areas.   Who is to establish such parameters and to what purpose? Another important issue refers to the application of the concept of genocide when it had not yet been formulated.

Then there are other questions, such as whether the landowners in the South of what is now the United States, who used slave labour on their plantations, were all "despicable characters". This gives rise to the debate about George Washington, who has become a controversial symbol. Should this protagonist of the independence of the 13 Colonies be dumped on the ash heap of history for being an "enslaver"? And if so, what is to be done with our Simon Bolivar, who was also a slave master?

Should the answers to these questions be affirmative, then we are faced with more serious problems: how far back in time should we or can we look to discredit those who made use of slave labour? To Julius Caesar's Rome? To classical Greece? Or even further back? What ethical and moral criteria are to be applied? Those of the time, or our own, marked by political correctness? If so, and how are we to regard invaders and conquerors, players neither alien to nor condemned by human daily life for millennia?

At the beginning of 2022, the monument commemorating the victims of the AMIA bombing, located in Plaza Lavalle in Buenos Aires, was destroyed. This incident also raises the question about the legitimacy of every action against statues and other memorials in urban public spaces. Although this case was clearly an anti-Semitic attack, it is important to bear in mind that there may be others with less clear motivations, which poses questions not only about the motivation and legitimacy of the act, but also about the methodology, particularly in democratic societies.

As a matter of fact, the practice of toppling statues is not new. Recently, since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis (Minnesota), and under the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, almost all over the world there has been a resurgence of the trend to tear down monuments once dedicated to commemorating historical figures now denounced as bloodthirsty conquerors, genocides and slave-owners, including the Belgian emperor Leopold II, for the multiple atrocities perpetrated in the Congo.

There have been other resounding incidents associated with this wave of demolitions throughout the Americas, including a significant number of statues of Columbus and other conquistadors, mainly Spaniards, which have also been subject to vandalism in the face of popular wrath. Although Columbus and the other "Hispanics" involved are accused of racism, none of them were instrumental to the discrimination suffered by the black community in the United States, nor did they play any role in the African slave trade.

However, this is not the first time statues have been toppled. After the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous monuments to Lenin, Stalin and other leaders of the former USSR were knocked down by angry mobs. The same can be said of the representations of Saddam Hussein after the US occupation of Iraq. After the fall of a dictatorship, it is not uncommon for its main symbols to be removed or vandalised by those who directly suffered the consequences of repressive actions. In Argentina, after the so-called “Liberating Revolution”, numerous statues and busts of Perón and Eva were removed from the streets or simply destroyed.

Columbus and his statues also suffered attacks before the Black Lives Matter movement. The Chavista regime led to a proliferation of tear downs and displacements of monuments to the Admiral, such as those in Caracas, Buenos Aires and more recently in Mexico City. Furthermore, October 12th, which used to be celebrated in Spain and much of Latin America as "Race Day", went on to be commemorated in different ways, from the meeting of two worlds to the indigenous resistance.

One of the first attacks on Columbus dates back to 1898, during the Cuban War, when, according to the Mexican Francisco de Bulnes, his statue in Granada was stoned by mothers whose sons were fighting on the island. In his book El porvenir de las naciones Hispano Americanas ante los descubrimientos recientes de Europa y los Estados Unidos, Bulnes wrote: "Never was a discovery as detrimental firstly to Spain, secondly to Europe and thirdly to America as Columbus’. If Columbus, a noble figure, lovable for his genius and virtues, had been hanged by the sailors of his caravels as they had intended, civilisation would have been spared three centuries of dungeon and humanity would never have had in its life and thought a procession of victims for three hundred years. The death of Columbus before the discovery of America would have been a million times more valued than that of Jesus Christ. America should have been discovered after the freedom of Europe had been consummated and by a nation smart enough not to think of reactions. The Spanish women who stoned the statue of Columbus in Granada in 1898 undoubtedly had, out of grief, a dreadful revelation of the sentences of historical philosophy"[2].

Most of the Spanish figures "toppled" from their monuments had a clear role either in the "discovery" (or whatever one wishes to call it) of the American continent or during the ensuing process of conquest. To some extent, this tendency to knock down statues is linked to or is a direct consequence of the intense debate on the meaning of the conquest between the supporters of "hispanicity", on the one hand, and the defenders of the rights of the " native peoples", on the other [3]; in other words, the old dichotomy of "Black Legend" versus "Pink Legend". While some see the conquest as the origin of everything, others regard it as the end of a reality linked to the advent of the current nationality.

Here we find a paradoxical and contradictory fact, which adds further dramatism to the discussion on its protagonism. It is the weight of the conquest and its transcendence in the formation, or rather the invention, of the national identity of Latin American republics. Pérez Vejo, referring to Mexico, but with a message that can easily be extrapolated to many of the nations that emerged from Spanish America, stresses that "in the narrative of the Mexican nation, the conquest becomes the axis of a historical account conceived as a cycle of birth, death and resurrection". He even goes further and notes that "the alleged heirs to the nation defeated in 1521 (Mexico) are today mostly Catholic and communicate with each other in the Spanish of their enemies”[4].

During April and May 2021 in Colombia, along with the strong popular demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of the tax reform proposed by the administration of Iván Duque, several statues linked to the Spanish conquest were demolished. Among others, that of Sebastián de Belalcázar in Cali and that of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in Bogotá. The statues of Christopher Columbus and Isabella the Catholic, near El Dorado airport, were also attacked here. Around the same time, the monuments to Columbus in Santander de Quilichao, department of Cauca and in Barranquilla were similarly vandalized.

Many of these actions, such as the one carried out in 2020 in Popayán against another statue of Belalcázar, were promoted by natives of the Misak ethnic group. It is interesting to analyze the arguments used to bring them down. About the Admiral they painted "Columbus murderer" and "for our dead" and about Jiménez de Quesada they claimed that "he was historically the greatest slaughterer, torturer, thief and rapist of our women and children" and that numerous "families of the national elite", who "have reproduced the great problems" of the country are his descendants[5]. Finally, about the founder of Cali and Popayán, they said: "We toppled Sebastián de Belalcázar in memory of our chieftain Petecuy, who fought against the Spanish crown, so that today his grandsons and granddaughters will continue to fight to change this criminal system of government that does not respect the rights of Mother Earth”[6].

These justifications contain some of the elements that most vividly explain what has transpired. To begin with, the discussion is not about the past, about history, but about the current political agenda. It is the children and grandchildren of those who once fought against the Spanish conquistadors who today seek to change the "criminal government" that does not respect "Mother Earth". Or as the back cover of Beheaded puts it, it is about removing monuments that "offend progressive cities".

Certainly, there are different statues, just as there are different protagonists of the past. But while some should be remembered for their positive actions (some speak of feats and prowess), there are others who deserve condemnation and a critical reading of their actions. But both reactions must take two elements into account: the interpretation of the past must not be ahistorical, and the current political agenda must not be confused with claims from other times.



Carlos Malamud is Emeritus Professor of American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Spain) and Senior Researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano. He is a Corresponding Member of the Academy of History of Argentina. His latest book is: El sueño de Bolívar y la manipulación bolivariana. Integración regional y falsificación de la historia en América Latina (Alianza Editorial, 2021).


[1] Peio Riaño, Decapitados. Una historia contra los monumentos a racistas, esclavista e invasores, Ediciones B, 2021.

[2].- Francisco Bulnes, El porvenir de las naciones Hispano Americanas ante los descubrimientos recientes de Europa y los Estados Unidos, México, 1899, p. 18.

[3] Carlos Malamud, "In Latin America there is (and there was) no paradise"., Clarín, 2/I/2022, https://www.clarin.com/opinion/latinoamerica-paraiso_0_2XPa8i6SR.html?fbclid=IwAR1oiKor5xCYUPn4IacZlHtBOMzXuHF7BeUHIlZ4SNkaOyUpfZG37TtNUgg

[4] Alejandro Salafranca and Tomás Pérez Vejo, The Conquest of Identity. Mexico and Spain, 1521 - 1910, Turner, 2021, pp. 150 and 157. Pérez Vejo says: "The conquest must appear as the clash between a timeless Mexican nation and a Spanish nation, equally timeless, but, unlike the former, alien and strange. Such an image would only be credible if all the pre-Hispanic peoples from what would later become Mexico had already been Mexicans at the time of Cortés' arrival. They were Mexicans even though they did not know it... and they had to be judged according to the interests of the Mexico that did not exist until after three centuries.”, p. 174.

[5] DW, "Colombian indigenous people topple statue of Spanish conquistador in Bogota", https://www.dw.com/es/ind%C3%ADgenas-colombianos-derriban-estatua-de-conquistador-español-en-bogotá/a-57467325

[6] El País, Cali (28/IV/2021), Colombian indigenous people demolish a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar for the second time, https://elpais.com/internacional/2021-04-28/indigenas-colombianos-derriban-por-segunda-ocasion-una-estatua-de-sebastian-de-belalcazar.html

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