Tag Archives: colonialism

What the Belalcázar Monument in Popayán Teaches Us About Confederate Monuments

The current debate about Confederate memorials in the United States highlights their importance in terms of current symbolic meaning, location, and original intent. The equestrian statue commemorating the conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar (1479/80-1551) in Popayán, Colombia, can help us understand what these monuments signify today and why they have become objectionable.

In Latin America, there are many statues in honor of liberators from Spanish colonial rule, like Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and others, just as there are monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the United States. Colonizing powers are known to have erected monuments remembering colonizers, like the Columbus monument in San Juan, Puerto Rico, erected in 1893. However, there are also are a handful of statues commemorating conquistadors that were erected in the post-colonial period. Notable examples are the Columbus monument in Santo Domingo and the Pizarro monument in Lima, about which I wrote earlier. The Belalcázar monument in Popayán belongs to that list as well.

Belalcázar monument in Popayán, Colombia (1937). A great place to watch the sunset.

Sebastián de Belalcázar and his mercenaries arrived in Popayán in 1537, claimed the territory for the Spanish crown and founded the city of Popayán. Belalcázar already had founded the city of Quito, and he went on to found others, like Cali, and is considered a co-founder of the city of Bogotá. Creating colonial settlements was the most important method for the Spanish to establish control over newly subjugated territories. So why was the colonizer honored with a monument in 1937?

The Belalcázar monument was created by the Spanish sculptor Victorio Macho (1887-1966) in 1937 to commemorate the quadricentennial of Belalcázar’s conquest and the founding of the city of Popayán. It was first placed in the center of town in the Plazoleta de San Francisco. In 1940, it was moved to the top of the Morro de Tulcán, a hill ad the edge of the colonial core of Popayán that offers a great view of the city. The poet Rafael Maya (1897-1980), a member of the conservative and anti-modernist literary movement Los Nuevos, told Macha that the statue should symbolize Popayán’s best: “a heroic race, wisdom, beauty, holiness, poetry and song.” It is evident that the the statue was intended to celebrate hispanidad –that is an Iberian and Catholic identity with affinities to contemporaneous Spanish fascism.

El Morro de Tulcán in Popayán where the Belalcázar monument was placed in 1940.

El Morro del Tulcán is a poorly researched pre-hispanic pyramid, perhaps dating back to 500 CE, although some archeological finds point to use as late as the early colonial period. During road construction at the foot of the pyramid in 1928, adobe structures, vessels, bones and other pre-hispanic objects were found. When the top of the pyramid was removed to create a level space to place he equestrian statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar in 1940, it was well known that this was a sacred Indigenous site.

Thus the quadricentennial of the founding of Popayán only served as a nominal pretext to erect this equestrian statue. Its real purpose was to assert the rule of Colombians of Spanish descent over Indigenous Colombians. Placing the equestrian statue on top of a sacred pyramid was a conscious act of desecrating a native site, of staking a claim to the land, and of establishing cultural primacy. Only the amount of graffiti on the base of the monument seems to indicate that its placement is controversial in contemporary Colombia.

And herein lies the obvious connection with the Confederate monuments. They were mostly created between 1900 and 1920, decades after the end of the Civil War. Their purpose was not primarily to celebrate the accomplishment of the Confederate leaders but rather to reassert White supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Their intent was to put the White brand on public spaces and to intimidate Blacks. The point is not that the monuments of Sebastián de Belalcázar and Robert E. Lee might offend some people today. The critical point is that they were erected with the intent to offend and to intimidate.

PS: The Belalcázar monument in Popayán was toppled by an Indigenous group on 16 September 2020.

Francis Drake’s Sack of Santo Domingo: A Case of Terrorism?


Santo Domingo, sacked by Francis Drake in 1586. Note the small harbor protecting only a handful of ships.

We believe that we live in an age of terrorism. But terror is as old as humankind. Just ask the unsuspecting population of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola which on January 1, 1586, woke up to Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) and his marauding mercenaries ransacking their city. Santo Domingo, founded in 1496, is the oldest colonial city in the New World and at that time as the seat of a real audiencia still was a Spanish administrative center for the Caribbean. But it long had lost the political and strategic centrality it enjoyed during the years of the Conquest, and its pivotal role in the Transatlantic trade had been passed on to nearby San Juan, Puerto Rico, as I have discussed in a different post. When Francis Drake arrived, Santo Domingo was well past its prime.


The Fortaleza Ozama, built 1502-1505, with its modest size was no match for Drake’s forces.

Drake’s men took the city by surprise, both by shelling the Fortaleza Ozama and by entering the city through the poorly defended gates on the land side. The pirates plundered and vandalized the city, burned down parts of it, and started to destroy stone buildings and monasteries to extort a ransom. He set up his headquarters in the cathedral where he looted the altars, destroyed all religious art, plundered the tombs, taking anything that was of value, and quite literally defecating on all things Catholic. Finally, a ransom of  25,000 ducats was negotiated–an extraordinary sum that only could be amassed by forcing citizens to surrender gold and jewels. At the nearby Casa del Cordón Drake installed a scale to weigh the exact amount of gold and jewels that were turned in by citizens.  Drake and his men left again a month later, turning their attention to Cartagena which was sacked and plundered in a similar fashion.


Catedral de Santa María la Menor: Drake housed in a chapel to the right of the main altar.

Drake left behind not just a city that was a smoldering ruin, he also left behind a humiliated and traumatized city. To be sure, most of the churches and houses were restored, but the Spanish did not update the defense installations as they did in San Juan, Cartagena and other strategic points in the Caribbean. Simply put, the Spanish stopped investing into Santo Domingo. Very little of importance happened here after 1586, and the Spanish colonial Baroque architecture and culture of the 17th and 18th centuries which flourished in Mexico and South America completely bypassed Santo Domingo.

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The Puerta de la Misericordia, built in 1543 and expanded in 1568, could not stop Drake’s attack on land.

In a modern definition, terrorism involves non-state actors fighting enemy states, their representatives, institutions, and populations in asymmetrical warfare. In that sense, Robespierre‘s Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France in 1793-94 does not qualify: this is just a case of a despot savagely abusing his own people. We have seen many since: from Stalin and Hitler to native sons “El Jefe” Trujillo and “Papa Doc” Duvalier who more recently traumatized the two nations that now share the island of Hispaniola.

Obviously, we have to see Francis Drake’s savage pillaging in the geopolitical context of the time: England challenging the Habsburg hegemony (the Habsburgs ruled Spain, Austria, and the Low Lands and controlled the Empire), supporting the Dutch in their wars of liberation against the Spanish, taking an active role in fighting Catholicism, and striving to become a maritime and colonial power in its own right.

In fact, Francis Drake, Sir Francis Drake if you are British, was sailing to the West Indies in something of an official mission. His acts of piracy in the Caribbean clearly were part of an English strategy to weaken the Spanish control over the Caribbean and the Transatlantic trade. But his fleet of 30 ships was financed by merchants who clearly had an interest in developing a trade network in the Caribbean, and his mission was not to take land and plant the English flag. His mission was to plunder and destroy, to take ransom, in short to inflict terror. Drake may have been the original of the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He ushered in a century of piracy that left the Caribbean an unsafe, violence-filled space.

Like most explorers and navigators of the time, Drake also was a privateer, entrepreneur and free agent who worked for himself first and foremost. This agency is also an attribute of modern terrorists. Like many terrorists today, Drake had the implicit support by a state actor, the English crown, and had the financial backing of his own commercial network. Most importantly, the trauma of this humiliation he inflicted on Santo Domingo more than four centuries ago lives on today.* That is the very definition of terror.

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Iglesia de San Francisco, constructed 1544-1556. The Franciscan convent in Santo Domingo was mostly destroyed by Drake, then partly restored, damaged again in earthquakes in 1673 and 1751, abandoned in 1795.

* Note added 5/22/14: Gabriel García Márquez in his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold (NY: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 98) describes the Palace of Justice in Riohacha on Colombia’s Caribbean coast with this apparently random phrase: “decrepit colonial building that had been Sir Francis Drake’s headquarters for two days.” This is the only overt historical reference in the book and indicates how Drake’s terror lives on in the collective memory in the areas he affected.

Santo Domingo, San Juan, and the First Age of Globalization

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were the two first cities the Spanish built in the Americas, in that order. But the histories of the two cities located on two neighboring islands in the Caribbean and only 254 miles apart could not be more different. A close look at the architecture in these two cities makes this evident.

Santo Domingo became the early hub of all Spanish activities in the Americas and was booming in the first half of the 16th century. The first stone houses were built there in 1502, just ten years after Columbus first had arrived, a real audiencia was established in 1511, and a magnificent cathedral followed. All early conquistadors, like Cortés and Pizarro, came through this city, owned or rented houses, and spent months or years preparing for their respective conquests. The earliest fortifications were built starting in 1502, and in the 1540s a city wall was built to protect the entire city. Yet, building activity dropped off in the second half of the 16th century, and the fortifications remained modest in size and scope.


The modest Fuerte de San Gil, erected 1503-1510, overlooks the entrance to Santo Domingo harbor.

The Spanish established the Real Audiencia (1528) and the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1532) in Mexico City, and political power gradually began to shift there. The Pedro de Mendoza expedition to the Río de la Plata region in 1534 was the first allowed to bypass Santo Domingo altogether, thus diminishing the role of the city as the hub of the Conquest. The sack of Santo Domingo by the pirate Sir Francis Drake in 1586 dealt a final blow to the aspirations of this city, as I have discussed in a different post, and little of significance seems to have been built in the 17th and 18th centuries.

San Juan, by contrast, features two of the most massive forts the Spanish ever built in the Americas to protect city and harbor, and the entire city was surrounded by a massive wall 40 feet tall and 18 feet thick. The military installations were a work in progress: starting with the first small fort in 1534, the Spanish continued to expand walls and bastions until 1790.


Castillo San Felipe del Morro, built 1539-1786 to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and San Juan harbor.

And all this in spite of the fact that San Juan never played a major role in the Spanish colonial administration. Ironically, it remained under the jurisdiction of the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo. But Santo Domingo failed to thrive because it could offer only a modest seaport consisting of the mouth of the Río Ozama, a minor river, which was protected by a small barrier island. The harbor was difficult to defend, in spite of the Fortaleza Ozama next to it, built 1502-1505. As trade picked up substantially within a few decades, this port could neither provide the needed capacity nor offer sufficient protection.


Entrance to the Santo Domingo harbor, protected by a small barrier island, seen from the Fortaleza Ozama (1502-05).

The Spanish needed a large and safe seaport as the Western anchor of the Atlantic crossing. This was critical as ships sometimes needed to wait for weeks or months for favorable trade winds to guarantee safe and expedient passage to Spain. Inversely, Puerto Rico was the first large island with food, a reliable fresh water supply, shelter and a secure deep-water port the weary sailors en route from Spain encountered in the Americas. It also was important to have a safe place to repair ships and to tend to sick crew members. San Juan Bay offered all of that.

These factors, plus the favorable location on the course of the eastern trade winds, gave San Juan and Puerto Rico great military, economic, and strategic importance: its harbor could protect merchant fleets and offered a safe point from which warships could be dispatched to maintain control over the Caribbean. While the Spaniards ceded the Western portion of Hispaniola (now Haiti) to France in 1697 and lost control of Santo Domingo in 1801, they vigorously defended San Juan and its strategic harbor entrance for almost 400 years–until Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898.


Castillo San Felipe del Morro controlling the entrance to San Juan Bay–the most important half mile in the Americas.

Puerto Rico is only a footnote in the history of the Conquest as it never played a major political role–in contrast to Santo Domingo which was the political center of the first phase of the Conquest. So the fact that the Spanish invested heavily in the massive defense infrastructure in San Juan is surprising to the uninitiated visitor. But we tend to overlook the centrality of trade and commerce in the Conquest of the New World. San Juan became a major hub in the Spanish trade in silver and gold, and that is the true significance of the city: the San Juan seaport was used by merchant and military ships traveling from Spain as the first stopover in the Americas, but it also was the port where ships heading to Spain prepared for the transatlantic voyage. So the fortifications served to protect the lucrative trade in silver and gold and thus one of the major hubs in the early modern trade network and of the first age of globalization.


The large, protected San Juan Bay could give shelter to large merchant fleets and to Spanish war ships. Today, it is lined with harbor installations. As these two large cruise ships indicate, San Juan now is part of a different kind of global network.


Pizarro in Exile

The monument of Francisco Pizarro (1470/71 – 1541) in Lima is the work of the American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey (1879 – 1922). In 1913 Rumsey received an invitation to contribute a large equestrian statue of Pizarro to the Panama-Pacific International  Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. His work appears to have been well-received. Other copies were cast later, and three of them are extant today: in Buffaly, NY, in Trujillo, Spain (Pizarro’s place of birth), and of course in Lima, Peru. This particular bronze statue was donated to the city of Lima by his widow Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881 – 1934) and unveiled on January 18, 1935, on the occasion of the fourth centenary of Lima’s founding by Pizarro.

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The Pizarro monument in the Parque de la Muralla (2010)

Francisco Pizarro led a brutal and bloody campaign to conquer and subjugate the Inca empire. His expedition reached northern Peru in 1532, and he founded the city of Lima in 1535 which was going to become the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1541. Later in 1535 he entered the Inca capital of Cusco, thus completing his conquest of the Inca empire. Pizarro was murdered in Lima in 1541 by a fellow Spaniard as a result of political conflict among colonizers–which was a common feature of the Conquest.

While the landscape of South America is dotted with monuments to the two main South American liberators Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and José de San Martín (c. 1778–1850), why would the city of Lima set up a monument to Francisco Pizarro? The reasons lie in the way the Peruvian Republic, which declared its independence in 1821, dealt with the colonial past.

Even though the revolutionaries and liberators of the early 19th century, like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, were of Spanish descent, they pursued a distinct nationalist Peruvian (and South American) identity that was detached from the Spanish colonial masters, following the path the United States had taken from 1776 onward. In the 1860s, the Republican governments started to transform Lima into a modern capital which was modeled after Paris; it featured wide avenues and large stately buildings in the then-dominant neo-classical style. The imitation of the European colonial masters had become acceptable again.

After World War I, a neo-colonial style became more fashionable, the palace of the archbishop (1924) next to the cathedral perhaps being the best example. This conscious reflection on the civilizing legacy of the Spanish colonizers on the Peruvian Republic was in part in response to growing indigenist viewpoints that framed the Spaniards as brutal colonizers who had committed genocide. It also was a tribute to a rising European fascism which had a significant impact in Latin America and to which many in the elites had an affinity. It is in that context that the veneration of Pizarro became a point of identification among the Peruvian elites. In 1928, a chapel celebrating Pizarro’s achievements was dedicated in the historic Lima Cathedral, including a memorable mosaic showing Pizarro entering a primitive and depraved Peruvian landscape.

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Mosaic showing Pizarro’s conquest of Peru (chapel in Lima Cathedral, dedicated in 1928)

This was followed by the erection of said monument to Pizarro just a few steps away in 1935. In his opening speech at the unveiling of the Pizarro monument in 1935, Lima mayor Luis Gallo Porras (1894 – 1972) called the statue a “figura preclara del héroe y del civilizador” (illustrious statue of the hero and civilizer).


The Pizarro monument in front of Lima cathedral after 1935

Initially, the monument was located in front of the Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor), the most prominent and symbolic space in the entire city of Lima.  From the very beginning, the placement of the monument caused conflict.  Due to complaints from the Archdiocese of Lima, the statue was moved to a small square off the Northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, between the Presidential Palace and Lima’s Palacio Municipal, in 1952. The small square then was called Plaza Pizarro.

Pizarro monument in a corner of the Plaza de Armas (1950-2003)

Pizarro monument in the Plaza Pizarro, off the Plaza de Armas (1952-2003)

Conservatives saw it appropriate to commemorate the founder of the city and to celebrate the colonial roots of contemporary Peru. They likened the Spanish conquest of Peru to the Roman conquest of  Spain and argued that Peru in its essence was Spanish. Progressives viewed the monument as a symbol of colonialism and oppression and argued that Lima should not honor the destroyer of the Inca culture and oppressor and murderer of Peru’s indigenous people. They viewed Peru as a nation rooted in indigenous culture which survived centuries of efforts to eradicate it.

As a clear majority of the Peruvian population identifies with indigenous cultures, the political mood was changing in this direction in the last quarter of the 20th century. In 2003, Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio ordered the removal of the statue. The plaza was remodeled and renamed “Plaza Perú”. The statue was eventually placed into a remote corner of the Parque de la Muralla (park of the wall), a park that was developed at the time as part of a project to protect remnants of the historic city wall which were discovered  during a construction project a few years earlier. The statue also has been deprived of the large and commanding base which it enjoyed in its previous two locations–the equestrian monument has been demoted to a pedestrian level. While the statue still is publicly displayed, it is clear that Pizarro has been exiled to an insignificant spot outside the boundaries of colonial Lima.

Pizarro is founding father to some and war criminal to others. His monument is a lightening rod for ongoing political conflicts between the conservative elites mostly of Spanish descent and progressive forces who identify with and support the cause of Peru’s indigenous majority. It is symbolic for the negotiations to create a unified national identity and for the ongoing effort to define a hybrid culture that in some form existed ever since Pizarro arrived. As the conflict surrounding the Pizarro monument illustrates, even two centuries after Peruvian liberation, the legacy of colonial rule is omnipresent in Peruvian culture and political discourse.

Pizarro in exile today--apparently not commanding a lot of respect

Pizarro in exile today–apparently not commanding a lot of respect (2010).