The mayor of Barcelona does not want the city’s landmark statue of Christopher Columbus toppled but is open to a debate on Spain’s colonial legacy.
The likeness of Columbus has been decapitated, defaced, or quietly removed for his own good from pedestals across the United States in the wake of the protests for racial justice sweeping the country.
In Spain, however, he is still safe on his many perches.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau is one of only a few public officials who say Spain must revisit its colonial legacy although the city’s monument to Columbus located at the end of its famous Las Ramblas promenade will stay in place for now.
Instead, she wants to encourage a public discussion about the Italian explorer whose landing in the Caribbean in 1492 gave birth to Spain’s overseas empire.
That empire transformed Spain into a world power and spread Christianity and European education across the Americas, while in turn decimating indigenous populations through disease and war.
“Was Columbus a slave trader? No, but he does represent the colonial era. There is an open debate and we think that is positive and necessary,” Ms Colau said in an interview.
“We are consulting the experts and listening to voices from citizen organisations to see how we can explain this monument,” said Ms Colau.
“We are not going to rewrite history, but we have to explain history in its entirety because history was usually told by the winners and has avoided telling about the bloodshed, the exploitation and the slavery also associated with that age.”
The city hall headed by Ms Colau, a housing activist-turned-politician, in 2018 removed a statue of Barcelona aristocrat Antonio Lopez who had made fortunes from slave trading.
But in Ms Colau’s view, the monument commemorating the encounter between Columbus and Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella on his return from his first voyage in 1493, should undergo a redo, not a removal.
Ms Colau said that she would back removing some figures on the nearly 200-foot-tall pedestal that lifts Columbus above Barcelona’s old port because they could be considered offensive for their depiction of native peoples.
She also would like to put up explanatory plaques that would balance Columbus’ achievements and the negative impacts of the period of European colonialism his explorations inaugurated.
“That was an age when there were positive things, but there was also exploitation of people who were living happily, and there were authentic massacres of indigenous peoples, and if you believe in human rights and democracy that is not defensible,” Ms Colau said.
In the US, statues of Columbus have been toppled by crowds or removed by authorities in the wake of protests for the death of George Floyd, as the demands for social and racial justice spread beyond the plight of African Americans to the legacy of European colonialism.
Tensions reached dangerous levels in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a man was shot when armed men fired at protesters who were trying to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador.
In Spain there have been rallies supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since Mr Floyd’s death.
Some were organised by a group of Spaniards of African origin along with African migrants and they drew crowds of several thousand.
African migrants wanted to raise awareness of the precarious economic situation and the discrimination they suffer.
But while Spaniards are largely sympathetic with the BLM movement in the US, many are puzzled by the extension of the demands to remove Confederate-era statues to include figures of the colonial past that has successfully reached European countries like the UK and Belgium.
Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia ran a photo of a Cervantes statue that had been sprayed with red paint in San Francisco on its front page.
The accompanying story mentioned that the author of Don Quixote, who had no involvement in Spain’s colonies, was himself enslaved by Barbary pirates for several years.
Last month, a statue of Spanish priest Junipero Serra was pulled down in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Three days later, another statue of Serra was defaced on the island of Mallorca, his 18th-century birthplace, in a rare incident in Spain against its colonial-era monuments.
One government minister supported the questioning of Serra’s figure, but the government has defended Serra’s legacy, saying he was a pioneer in the defence of the indigenous population, a claim disputed by his critics.
In 2016, a statue to Hernan Cortes in his hometown of Medellín in western Spain was doused with red paint by a group of activists for the conquistador’s bloody conquest of present-day Mexico.
That protest, however, did not gain momentum.
Nor have the other statues to Columbus, who many Spaniards consider a discoverer and not a coloniser, become sources of contention now.
Spain’s government is actively using its diplomatic weight in the US, writing letters to authorities to counter the narratives against what it considers the “Hispanic legacy” in the country.
David Garcia, a history professor specialised in Spain’s American colonies, lamented what he called the “superficial” view of history held by some protesters.
“There are people in Spain worried for where this will lead because the future cannot be based on ignorance.
“Junipero Serra held ideas that were considered progressive for his time, while Cervantes wrote one of the most moving works of all time,” Mr Garcia said.
“We are all children of our past.
“What we cannot do is judge what happened centuries ago by our own standards.”