Tag Archives: equestrian statue

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. 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.

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.

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).

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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).