The Platform

Members of AIM Twin Cities and other Native community residents topple the statue of Christopher Columbus located on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds. (Ben Hovland)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the first European political settlement in the American landmass. Now Latin America is slowly turning against the legacy of the person who is credited with “discovering” the “new world” and in the process unwittingly opened the region to European cultural, economic, political, racial, and religious intervention.

Revered for over half a millennia, as the pioneer who “discovered the new world,” Christopher Columbus’ legacy is now under attack on several fronts, and he stands being canceled altogether from the North and South America’s cultural landscape. What was once a rallying cry for Indigenous activists, who see Christopher Columbus as a symbol of European colonialism and oppression, is now becoming mainstream.

The revenge of the present

In 2020, protesters in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Virginia targeted statues of Christopher Columbus, damaging or pulling down three in a matter of days. During the same time, another of Columbus’ statues adorning a public square in Boston was beheaded.

In a hugely symbolic move in late June, anti-government protesters in Colombia’s coastal city of Barranquilla toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus, vandalised it on camera, and later, dragged his bust through the city, reminiscent of the treatment received by a convict in medieval Europe. This “cultural vandalism” was especially significant in a country that is named after the explorer. Elsewhere, in Chile and Mexico, there have been several such moves in recent years where Columbus’ statuses have been either vandalised or toppled.

Once limited to common citizens and Indigenous peoples, the public anger and fury against Christopher Columbus’ heritage is now sincerely embraced by many top politicians in North and South America. What accounts for this assessment?

Latin Americans are rightly asking whether Christopher Columbus should be worshipped as a hero or put in the docks. That the legacy of Columbus is responsible for establishing a system of exploitation and plundering of the continent to enrich their colonial masters, for five hundred years since the European set foot on the continent is well documented.

Scores of Latin Americans continue to suffer from the racial division brought in by the Iberian conquest to this day. While some critics have spoken of the emergence of a new ethnicity and a new race called mestizaje when the Iberians and the Indians met, in view of some other observers it did not necessarily lead to the creation of a level playing field for all. If anything, this idea of mestizaje is a false idea of racial unity. As the British journalist, Alan Whicker, visiting the continent in the 1970s put it, “in places such as Paraguay the Spanish killed the local indigenous Guarani men and bedded their women creating a new mixed race in the process called mestizos.”

After experiencing half-a-millennia of merciless violence brought in by the European voyages to the Americas, the native Americans in the United States, Mapuches in Chile or the Gojira Indians in Colombia, and scores of mixed-race Latin Americans view Columbus as a villain, an early agent of slavery and harbinger of death and destruction to a continent’s civilisational heritage. To a good measure, Columbus is seen as the very symbol of European greed and genocidal imperialism.

There would appear to be a concerted effort to recast Columbus in a new light according to the present-day realities. Although not a mainstream practice, some Americans have begun to celebrate October 12, as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in remembrance of the sacrifices made by the population which predated the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

Cancel culture

Ostracism against Columbus’ legacy in Latin America is growing at a steady pace. Boycotting and shunning his legacy in the cultural and political domain is fast gaining mainstream approval. Many people and cultures in the region have “canceled” him altogether as a concerted move against addressing the inequity he introduced in Latin America as a whole.

Latin Americans in general and its Indigenous masses, in particular, are no longer shy of speaking out against the repercussions of the European colonial project. This soul-searching manifests in various ways. While some have turned violent and uprooted statues representing the continent’s colonial past, others have been much more subtle.

In May, a delegation of seven members belonging to Mexico’s Indigenous community set out by boat from the country’s easternmost point, Isla Mujeres in the Caribbean Sea. Following the inverse route followed by the Spanish conquistadors taken half a millennium earlier, the delegation crossed the Atlantic Ocean in little less than two months and disembarked in Vigo in Northern Spain.

While symbolic, this reconquista, as opposed to taking over territory, was all about speaking truth to power. It was an attempt at retelling the suffering of the Indigenous people, their rage, and successes and failures all due to the seeds of exploitation planted by Christopher Columbus.

For this delegation, it was about conveying a specific message: “We are going to tell the people of Spain two simple things: one, they didn’t conquer us, we are still here resisting, in rebellion. Second, they don’t have to ask that we forgive them for anything.”

The continent’s Indigenous communities who see Columbus as a symbol of colonialism and oppression have a strong argument to rid the continent of his legacy. In their view, the October 12 Columbus Day celebrated across the Americas is an affront against human dignity and civility. They condemn the celebration calling it the day when Columbus invaded and ransacked a continent. Thus, the ardent opponents of the legacy of Columbus there is nothing to celebrate #NadaQueCelebrar about this man calls for serious introspection.

Moving forward

That Christopher Columbus was an eminently powerful tool in imperial constructs of the entire South and North American political identity formation is hard to ignore. Beyond the world of condemnation and ex-communication that spearheads a cancel culture against Christopher Columbus, it is worth asking whether the continent can overcome his legacy? Or, can Columbus’ bequest be rehabilitated in the spirit of forgiveness and redemption?

For a start, a large portion of the racial makeup of the continent’s mestizaje character [ushered in following Columbus’ arrival in the Americas] cannot be undone. This hybridity is a foundational defining theme in America’s identity. Expunging this bequest from all walks of socio-cultural life and identity is an impossible proposition. At the same time, however, the hurt, humiliation, and dispossession that many of the Indigenous communities experience to this day, owing to Columbus’ so-called discovery of the Americas cannot be brushed under the carpet either. What can be done and needs to be done, in the spirit of equity and moving forward, is to recognise the ills and indignity that Columbus’ discovery ushered in.

Similarly, communities and nations across the continent of the Americas should seek to phase out any public remembrance of Columbus in an orderly and civil manner. This could well be done in the form of removing Columbus’ statues from their pedestals, renaming institutions and boulevards named after him, and perhaps formally replacing the annual Columbus Day with Indigenous Day to acknowledge how much the natives lost out owing to his painful legacy.

In early September, Claudia Sheinbaum, the Mayor of Mexico City, declared that the statue of Christopher Columbus, which stood for over a century in one of the main avenues of the city, will be replaced by that of an Indigenous Olmec woman. Mayor Sheinbaum made the announcement at a ceremony marking the international day of the Indigenous woman. She said, that relocating the [Columbus] statue was not an attempt to “erase history” but to deliver “social justice.”

To this day, the political culture of Latin America privileges the European pure-blooded over the Indigenous. Across Latin America, the whiter-than-lilies citizens overrepresent in all facets of socio-economic, and political life. While countries such as Argentina and Chile have been pushing very hard against their respective minuscule Indigenous population, elsewhere the power structure has been firmly in the hands of the light-skinned European descendants. Mexico, which prides itself on being the most mixed-race country in the Latin Americas has only elected one Indigenous president (Benito Juarez) in its two hundred years of independent republican history.

Columbus is merely a whipping boy in contemporary Latin America’s racial politics. The continent’s political establishment while speaking about the rights of the Indigenous people and their heritage, rarely give concession to this constituency or take concrete efforts for their upliftment. Until there is a genuine move to “emancipate the native” all attempts at dispelling the legacy of Columbus will only be cosmetic.

Amalendu Misra is a professor of International Politics at Lancaster University and author of 'Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence'.