Moving Statues

Argentina Columbus MonumentMost Buenos Aires guide books will point you towards a statue of the famous seafarer Columbus on Parque Colon, behind the presidential Pink House. Go there today however and you’ll find an empty plinth. The federal government decided to move the 100-year old monument and replace it with a Bolivian indigenous leader, the little known Juana Azurduy de Padilla.  The move caused a storm of controversy with many citizens up in arms, a petition undertaken and a social media campaign started to keep it there. A court injunction eventually prevented its intended move to the seaside city of Mar de Plata and BA city mayor Mauricio Macri declared the statue would not leave his district, opening up another front in City Hall’s already abrasive relationship with the national government. While the dispute continues, the 40-tonne statue remains wrapped up and sadly prostrate, stuck in storage and in a legal and political limbo.

Nothing seems straight forward when it comes to Christopher Columbus. The discoverer of the Americas did not even get the privilege of having the New World called after him. That went to Amerigo Vespucci in what is probably the most spectacular factual mistake (and typo to boot) ever committed. Columbus’ luck was even tainted when he made landfall on that momentous day in October 1492. Instead of reaching the main lands of North or South America, his little fleet wandered into the labyrinth waters of the Caribbean – one of the most complex archipelagos in the world with 700 islands and numerous inlets, estuaries and watery blind alleys. It is a land system that subsequently prolonged and confounded his desperate search for China over four voyages and also dazzled and perplexed his Spanish sponsors. Columbus endured violent storms, epic hurricanes, deadly doldrums and terrifying tsunamis in his misguided quest for a western passage to India. His descriptions in his journals read like a magical realist crusade through butterfly storms and milk water lagoons. When he finally did make landfall on the main land on his third voyage, entering the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela, what he encountered made him admit for the first time that he had not reached China. Instead, he wrote, he had found the gates to heaven.

Columbus’ brilliant sailing abilities and almost instinctive talent for navigation was tempered by poor leadership skills and a vain obsession with titles, honours, property and wealth.  Over the four voyages he made to the Americas, he was slowly abandoned by his royal patrons, suffered numerous mutinies and was stripped of all his belongings by the Spanish state. On his fourth voyage he ended up shipwrecked for over a year on a desert island with only his sons and a handful of loyal crew to support him. Rescue was denied by a colonial administration that had come to look upon him as a liability.

Even his death is clouded in controversy and indignity. Whilst he did not die in utter poverty as legend claims, he passed away in isolation, with few allies in the north western Spanish city of Valladolid. Initially buried in Seville, his remains were moved to a cathedral in Hispania (modern day Dominican Republic) only to be disturbed 200 years later and moved to Cuba. In 1899 his lead casket was moved to Seville Cathedral but there is however a strong suspicion that the wrong remains were re-interred and both the Dominican Republic and Spain now claim to hold his true tomb. It seems his corpse is in the same limbo as that BA statue.

By Charlie O’Malley

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