1492 and all that. Muhammad XII of Granada, King Boabdil, surrendered the Emirate of Granada, the city of Granada and the Alhambra palace to the forces of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Christopher Columbus came across an island he named San Salvador, checked out Cuba and Hispaniola and eventually made it back to Spain in March 1493. In Barcelona, he met the Catholic Monarchs and reported his findings.
Spain was thus on the way to being a fully Catholic society. The Muslims of Granada were given the options of being exiled, converting to Christianity or becoming slaves. The Jews were at the same time being offered the same deal. An enforcer of strict Catholicism was the Spanish Inquisition, which had been established in 1478 by Isabel and Ferdinand. Coincidental with this religious cleansing, Columbus had laid the groundwork for Spain’s imperialism. The rivers of gold beckoned.
In Palma, as you will no doubt be aware, there is a statue of King Jaume I. Rei en Jaume conquered Majorca, and in the process thousands of Muslims were slain. This was part of the Reconquista, the centuries-long elimination of Muslim occupation that came to its conclusion in Granada. Yet Jaume’s conquest owed as much to his own empire-building necessities as it did to crusading against Islam. The hero of Majorca, no one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seriously suggested that his statue should be removed. But Jaume, viewed from a distance of almost 800 years, could be styled as having made the “Moors” his victims.
Over 250 years later, Columbus made his discovery. What happened to the indigenous populations after the first of his voyages and the arrival of the conquistadors is a matter of debate, as is the scale of the decimation of these populations, the Taino especially. Disease (smallpox), brutal repression and slavery are all part of this debate. For some, Columbus was responsible for genocide, even if there is stronger evidence related to conquistadors such as Juan Ponce de León. But Columbus was the symbol, and in Barcelona they created a monument to him, one that commemorated his meeting with the Catholic Monarchs, pursuers of Jews and Muslims and the patrons of the Inquisition.
At the weekend, some 200 or so people demonstrated in Barcelona. Their call was the removal of the Columbus statue. The reason for demanding this was the genocide. Political voices, such as that of the coordinator for Podemos in Andalusia, Teresa Rodríguez, support the dismantling of this statue and the statues of others who “made their fortunes out of the slave trade”. “Let us stop paying tribute to these figures out of respect for people of other races who were victims of this (slavery) in former times.”
Events in the US had already filtered through to Spain, but now it was events in England which were having an influence. But whereas Edward Colston was someone with whom familiarity was not widespread, Columbus is known by all. The day in 1492 when he came across San Salvador is the twelfth of October. It is Spain’s National Day, less often referred to nowadays as the Día de la Hispanidad. On this day each year, the largest Spanish flag in the world is raised on a mast in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón. Cristóbal Colón is Christopher Columbus. Perhaps it might therefore have been expected that there would be a protest in Barcelona. But sentiment against Columbus has little or anything to do with Catalan nationalism; there are, after all, hypotheses that he was Catalan and indeed that he was born in Majorca. The belief that he should not be revered stems not from nationalism but instead, as Teresa Rodríguez has remarked, by considering him according to the values of today. She accepts that there is a debate about “contextualising” him in terms of how things were 500 hundred or more years ago, but it is current values which should count.
But how far should this all be taken? This is why I mention Jaume I, whose mediaeval aspirations and barbarism were hardly unusual. A case against him and his statue could be made, but for what real purpose? He is an iconic figure, so therefore his statue is iconic. Jaume was the founder of Christian Catalan Majorca. Columbus is likewise iconic, and he is so on a global level. One does perhaps have to accept that real and total saintly behaviour from history is hard to find. There is in Majorca, but especially more so in California, opposition to a Majorcan saint - Juniper Serra - whose missionary activities were a legacy of the conquistadors and which were, it is argued, based on the mistreatment of indigenous people. Statues of him have been been vandalised.
There are sensitivities, and one fully appreciates these. It is a dilemma, absolutely it is, but there are certain figures, e.g. Edward Colston, about whom there is far less dilemma than with others.