On Race, Colonialism, and Falling Monuments in Spain and the US

Monument to Antonio López y López (1944-2018), before the removal of the statue in March 2018; By Jordiferrer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18806701

By Akiko Tsuchiya

Note: Part of this blog entry is based on my article, “Monuments and Public Memory: Antonio López y López, Slavery, and the Cuban-Catalan Connection,” published in Nineteenth-Century Contexts 2019, Vol. 41, No. 5, pp. 479-500.

On June 4, 2020, the governor of Virginia ordered the removal of Richmond’s monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, amidst demonstrations across the country against police brutality and systemic racism. His announcement provided a renewed momentum, among racial justice activists, to demand the elimination of all public symbols of white supremacy. Other cities across the nation soon followed suit, ordering the dismantling of Confederate statues, even as protesters, in many places, took the lead in toppling these monuments.

The eruption of local movements in the US to dismantle Confederate monuments is, of course, not new. Since the late nineteenth century, efforts to take down public symbols of the Confederacy have consistently met with failure, with the tide shifting only in the aftermath of the murder of a group of African-American worshippers in June 2015 at the historic Emanuel A.M. E. Church in Charleston at the hands of a white supremacist carrying the Confederate flag. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this event prompted the removal of over 100 monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy, followed by counter-protests by white nationalist groups, such as the notorious one in Charlottesville in 2017. The most recent spate of activism that led to the toppling of the statues of Jefferson Davis and of other leaders of the Confederacy, represents a significant landmark in the process of reckoning with our nation’s racist history.

Pedestal of monument to Antonio López y López (front view), May 2018, after the removal of the statue; property of the author

Most recently, the dismantled statues were not only those of Confederate leaders, but soon came to include European colonizers, such as Christopher Columbus and Junípero Serra, responsible for the enslavement and genocide of indigenous populations. Our own city of St. Louis did not escape this controversy. The statue of Columbus was taken down recently from Tower Grove Park after years of controversy, and 3 years prior, a controversial Confederate monument that had stood in Forest Park since 1914 was finally dismantled and taken to the Missouri Civil War Museum in Jefferson Barracks after a long process of negotiation with the city. Most recently, King Louis IX’s statue outside of the St. Louis Art Museum has also become a contested site of memory, as antiracist protesters and the St. Louis Arch Diocese feud to lay claim to their version of the city’s namesake.

The public debate over the fate of these monuments—and the spaces they occupied— is part of a process of reckoning with a racist society, which not only erected these symbols of colonialism and white supremacy, but also played an active role in constructing the myths and narratives meant to preserve the power of these institutions. As sites of social memory, monuments raise important questions about the politics of memory and representation: the ways in which they commemorate a particular version of a historical event and its players, in order to shape it for posterity. It raises the question of who owns the narratives that evoke the “heritage” of a national community. Whose heritage is being commemorated? Whose stories are not being told, or being actively erased? How do these collective sites of memory become contested? How can shifts in historical or political circumstances transform the ways in which we experience history in public spaces? These are among the questions that are finally being asked.

A “Black Lives Matter” tribute to Harriet Tubman projected onto the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (Richmond, VA), by local artist Dustin Klein; photo by Regina H. Boone/Richmond Free Press

Around the same time the controversy was brewing in the US over the removal of the Confederate statues following the June 2015 shootings in Charleston, a parallel controversy was unfolding in Barcelona, Spain, surrounding the fate of a statue that was originally erected in 1883-84 to honor the industrialist Antonio López y López, the Marquis of Comillas, who had traveled to Cuba in his youth and made his fortune through the illegal slave trade. With money earned from slave-trafficking, López built a vast industrial empire in Barcelona. He not only became a pivotal figure in building Catalonia’s economic and political infrastructure, but also in sustaining Spanish colonialism in Africa and Spanish America. Yet, to this day, many Catalans have failed to acknowledge, let alone reckon with, the extent to which Catalonia’s economic infrastructure has been entangled, since the nineteenth century, with imperial politics and slavery. Many prefer to remember López as a patron of the arts, who sponsored writers and artists of Catalonia’s cultural Renaissance; others, since his death, have continued to exalt his image as the self-made “indiano” (returned emigrant from the Americas), who had left the nation with an important cultural patrimony, conveniently overlooking the ignominious origins of his fortune.

López’s statue has had a complicated history. The original monument was inaugurated in 1884, a year after the industrialist’s death, as a tribute to him for having established three major companies (Transatlantic Shipping Company, Hispano-Colonial Bank, and Philippine Tobacco Company) in the interest of Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona. Even at the time, the City Council’s renaming of the public space for the original monument—formerly named after a saint—as the Antonio López Square provoked controversy. The controversy grew further in 1885, when López’s brother-in-law published a book exposing the Marquis publicly as a slave trader. In August 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, the statue was torn down at the urging of local anarchists; the square where the statue once stood was renamed, according to an inscription, after a captain who had lost his life in 1934 defending the Catalan state. Ten years later, during Franco’s fascist dictatorship, López’s statue was restored based on the original model. It would remain in place near the port overlooking the Mediterranean until the 21st century.

On March 4, 2018, following protests by leftist labor unions and anti-racist citizens’ groups, the statue’s removal was finally authorized by Barcelona’s City Council. The city’s decision was, to a certain extent, a product of the larger historical memory movement in Spain (the 2007 Law of Historical Memory mandated the removal of all public symbols and monuments commemorating the fascist dictatorship and its protagonists), which provided the momentum for questioning received historical narratives. Under the progressive leadership of Ada Colau, a grass-roots activist who became the first woman mayor of Barcelona, the City Council made explicit the fact that the removal of the statue was a political act of reparation for the nation’s colonial past and, more specifically, for slavery.

López’s statue, as might be expected, did not go down without controversy. The mayor of Comillas, a town in northern Spain where López was born, expressed her consternation and later demanded that the statue, now in storage at the warehouse of the Museum of the History of Barcelona, be moved to the Marquis’s birthplace, a request that Colau refused. The conservative Popular Party vigorously opposed the removal of the statue and the proposal to rename the Antonio López Square. Even a renowned Spanish literary scholar called the dismantling of the monument a “witch hunt,” defending López as a pivotal figure of Catalan culture in his time. These competing narratives reflect not only the continuing ideological divisions in Spanish society more than 40 years after the end of the Franco dictatorship, but also many citizens’ emotional investment in laying claim to their version of the nation’s history through the act of commemoration.

The statue’s former pedestal, which still remains in the square today, is in itself a major piece of architectural work. The bas-relief on each of the four sides allegorically represents each of López’s commercial ventures, and at its base is a plaque containing a segment of a poem by the Catalan national poet Jacint Verdaguer, who was the Marquis’s personal chaplain and an employee of the Transatlantic Shipping Company. On the other side of the pedestal is an inscription, taken from a telegram sent by King Alfonse XII on the occasion of the Marquis’s death: “Spain has lost one of the men who lent it greatest service.” In other words, what is left of the monument remains a testament to López’s power and influence during his lifetime and beyond the grave.

As in the case of Confederate statues or the symbols of Francoism, following the removal of López’s statue, what should be done with the physical object and the public space it once occupied remains an unresolved and polemical issue. In all of these cases, public debates have centered on how to properly contextualize the space where the monuments once stood, not only for the sake of taking an ethical stance and acknowledging past injustices, but also to educate the general public. In response to the mayor of Comillas’s request to have López’s statue moved to his birthplace, Colau explained her reasons for keeping it in Barcelona: “to contribute to the knowledge and divulgation of our past history” and to “put it to new uses that will allow us to approach in a contextualized manner, with historical rigor and in an educational fashion, the meaning of the life and work of Antonio López and the epoch in which he lived” (qtd. in El Periódico, March 15, 2018).

Since 2018, there have been various proposals to rename the Antonio López Square: one citizens’ group proposed a name commemorating popular uprisings in the early years of the Franco dictatorship; another petitioned to rename the square after a Guinean immigrant who died under mysterious circumstances at a Detention Center for Foreigners in Barcelona in 2012; yet others wanted it named after Nelson Mandela. In spite of the public forum that was planned for after the May 2019 municipal elections to discuss the renaming the square, as of today, both the pedestal and the name of the public square remain. According to historian Martín Rodrigo, a sign that was placed in the square to explain López’s place in history is scarcely visible to the passers-by.

What offers hope, however, is that the López monument, along with other sites and symbols of Barcelona’s colonial legacy, have become points of reference for citizens’ groups (such as SOS Racisme) protesting the Spanish government’s treatment of immigrants, particularly those of African descent. Some of the more compelling initiatives include art activism dedicated to raising public awareness about racism and colonialism. One anti-racist group creatively transformed the pedestal where López’s statue once stood by painting the image of an African immigrant on its front façade, not unlike the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond in which images of Harriet Tubman and other African-Americans were projected, with anti-racist graffiti all around its base. Similar initiatives by other activists in Barcelona have followed.

The names and meanings attached to these contested sites of history—whether in Catalonia or in the United States—may never be settled, even after the physical memorial is gone. What is important, however, is the recognition that these spaces—and the “heritage” they represent—can be refigured, by opening up the possibility of alternative, more inclusive, representations of national history. We can only hope that the current monument controversies around the world will lead to just that.

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