Monuments in New Worlds: Placing Columbus in the Americas

Indeed, the affective relation to the foreign areas prefigures the structuralist paradigms of anthropologists, between the robed monarch and nude natives, the enunciative action of the monarch, whose raised hand suggests declamatory intent, and the crowded field of long-haired indigenous bodies–are they dancing? crowding among one another in fear?–in the upper left, faced by the hatted men who approach the as yet unnamed island. The three caravels that arrive had been designed to maneuver ocean waters adroitly. The image of skillful maneuvering and undisciplined crowding, encoded into the woodcut, prepare a set of structural oppositions even before we read the letters themselves.

The prefatory woodcut must be looked at after removing the ghosts of Columbus’ legacy as a navigator, so often and ahistorically elevated in far more recent iconography, and placing him in a network that was more accessible to the readers of early books.  The legacies of the navigator were magnified in the many statues of Columbus across the built landscape in a craze of commemoration and of memorialization after the U.S. Civl War, that also intersected with the four hundredth anniversary of his first voyage across the Atlantic. Indeed, the onslaught of social media images of slinging red paint on statues of Columbus each Columbus Day, spreading across the United States in ways almost unthinkable a decade or two ago, has revealed a deep rethinking of the relative power of the claims of triumphalism in the statuary of Christopher Columbus, and the ability to idealize the celebration of claims of discovery, without recognizing dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and death that made indigenous people among the first stateless people in the early globalized world.

The images of a now-annual dousing of the figure of Columbus with red paint–figuring the blood of inhabitants–is far removed historically from the moment of contact, but a response to the very perspective that the image of contact offered on how indigenous inhabitants were directly sent a message of European sovereignty.

The building of monuments across states was not only an attempt to find national collective meaning, but a mending wounds of civil war. And the pronounced fetishization of the map as a logic of manifest destiny mirrored may have helped justify the geographic expansions westward by purifying its inhumanity in a discourse of discovery and invention as native lands were confiscated and folded into the nation, happening in the culmination of violent claims of expanding claims to sovereignty into western lands. Columbus offered an apparently safer, purer ideal of conquest, as the Columban encounter was imagined as if with less spilt blood.

Western wars

Processing of the New World’s place on the map still provides a worthy site of reflection, however, and perhaps especially in a globalized world, especially by spilling blood in the New World, or revealing the spillage of blood that was concealed in narratives of discovery and indeed the Colombian myth, as sought to be shown by protestors in Providence RI this Indigenous Peoples Day. The fiction of presenting Columbus as a figure of discovery and taking possession of removed geographic lands is impossible to dissociate from genocide, and perhaps all the more difficult to reconcile in the very lands that were seized from indigenous inhabitants–even if Columbus himself never set foot there.

Vandfalized in new landf

October 13, 2019

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

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