In this article, Charlotte Eaton explores the significance of the recent toppling of the Sebastián de Belalcázar statue in Popayán, Colombia. She looks at the decision of the Colombian authorities to commission this, and other statues, to Spanish sculptors in the 1930s. Thus, she argues that the importance of this act by a group of indigenous protestors lies in their reclaiming of a Colombian identity that they have consistently been excluded from.
The groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd over the spring and summer this year led to statues of various slaveholders and beneficiaries of colonisation being torn down across the Western world. Yet, similar events in the regions most directly affected by imperialism and slavery, such as Latin America and Africa, have either not occurred or not received the same coverage as their Euro-American counterparts. That is, until 17 September, when indigenous protestors in Cauca, Colombia (the country’s most indigenous region) pulled down a statue of Spanish coloniser and slaveholder Sebastián de Belalcázar, which had been located on the ‘Morro de Tulcán,’ site of an indigenous pyramid. This is a watershed moment in the history of a nation that did not recognise indigenous populations’ and other minority groups’ equal rights to participate into society until 1991. However, the links between the statue and the colonial legacy in Colombia run much deeper than who the monument commemorates, and they tell a much bigger story. By tracing the history of how the sculpture came to be, we can see how its toppling represents a reclaiming of Colombian history and heritage in more ways than one.
Juan Sebastián de Belalcázar was a Spanish conquistador who ‘founded’ the now-Colombian cities of Cali, Pasto and Popayán in the south of the country. He had actually initially travelled to Central America in the early 1500s but, by 1534 he had set off on his own mission to ‘conquer’ Quito in Ecuador before heading north to Cali in 1536 and Pasto and Popayán the following year. In 1540 King Carlos I of Spain appointed him governor of Popayán.
Significantly, Belalcázar was a controversial figure even for colonial standards. During the Quito expedition, the conqueror arrived at a village called Quinche to find that all the men were away fighting with the national army. He therefore ordered that all the women and children be slaughtered as a lesson for those who returned home, an act that was later described as ‘cruelty unworthy of a Castilian’ by Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas, Chief Chronicler of the Americas.
In the spring and summer of 1936, the Governor of the Colombian Department of Cauca requested the authority to commission a bronze statue of Belalcázar mounted on horseback for the city of Popayán. Their chosen artist was the Spanish sculptor Victorio Macho, who they had previously contracted to create a slightly less grand statue of the Spanish conquistador for the city of Cali. The Colombian government acceded to this request and the contract was signed on 25 June. The minimum specifications for the statue were 5.4 metres tall, 2.5 metres long and 1 metre wide, and its original cost was set at 65,000 pesetas (approximately $8,500). However, the Spanish Civil War that broke out less than a month later caused disruption to the construction and delivery of the statue, which meant its instalment was delayed considerably.
Considering this, it is strange that the Cauca Governor and the Colombian government were so keen to have a Spanish artist create the statue. Of course, they weren’t to know that Spain was about to become embroiled in a civil war, but even at the time of the contract’s signature, the Colombian Minister in Madrid was expressing concerns over why his country wasn’t commissioning Colombian artists to design and build such sculptures. ‘It would,’ he asserted, ‘be a magnificent stimulus for national art,’ and it clearly would have avoided the logistical nightmares referenced above. Yet, despite all the issues with the Belalcázar monument, in May 1937 the Colombian government decided to appoint Macho as the official sculptor for a monument to commemorate the Liberal military hero General Rafael Uribe Uribe.
These negotiations clearly throw up questions about Colombia’s complex colonial legacy. Firstly, the fact that the Liberal and relatively nationalist government of Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938) approved a monument to a Spanish conquistador indicates that exaltation of the country’s colonial heritage was not the sole domain of the Conservatives, as is often suggested. Secondly, it is one thing to commission a Spanish artist to create a statue of a Spanish conqueror, but it is another matter entirely when the same Spanish artist is hired to design a monument to a Colombian hero. As the Colombian Minister in Madrid said at the time: ‘How nice it would be if within the new Republic the bronze statues that commemorate our men were designed by compatriots who can love and appreciate them.’
The decision to choose a Spanish artist, however, was reflective of a broader tendency of the contemporary government to bring over Europeans to assist in cultural programmes. The so-called Liberal Republic – established in 1930 – placed huge emphasis on reinvigorating Colombian culture and education. Unfortunately, the way this was envisioned was as an ‘uplifting’ of the country’s current offering by imbuing it with European trends, ideas and, as in this case, people. This, again, suggests that by the late-1930s Colombia still hadn’t quite cast off its colonial legacy.
As the Colombian Minister’s comments make clear, not everyone was a proponent of this approach. Yet, interestingly, amongst the concerns voiced over using Spanish artists to create Colombian monuments, there was no reference to the fact that the Belalcázar statue was to be erected on an indigenous site. Indeed, this point is completely absent from all the diplomatic correspondence over the matter despite the obvious issues associated with using an indigenous site to commemorate a Spanish colonialist with a history of brutality towards indigenous populations. Though individuals may have bemoaned the fact that the chosen artist was not Colombian, their idea of ‘Colombian’ evidently did not stretch to include the indigenous population whose history, traditions and culture were being so grossly perverted. This is hardly surprising given that the darker side of the ‘cultural uplifting’ policy was the whitewashing of the country’s indigenous and Afro-Colombian traditions. Whilst the government espoused rhetoric of democracy, popular participation, and a greater sense of Colombian national identity, the reality is that the society it envisioned continued to be hierarchical and exclusive.
Unfortunately, this restrictive form of democracy continued until 1991 when the constitution was rewritten to include recognition and protection of Colombia’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Thus, the actions of this group of indigenous protestors takes on an even larger significance. Firstly, and most notably, they have reclaimed a site that was theirs and avenged the insult of having a colonial figure commemorated there. However, by pulling down a statue of a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s – when what is now known as Colombia was altered dramatically – created by a Spanish artist in the 1930s – during which time attempts to create a ‘Colombian’ national culture relied heavily on European influences – they have also fulfilled the Minister’s wish of making the site ‘Colombian,’ although not in the way that he imagined. To be ‘Colombian’ involves acknowledgement of this problematic colonial legacy and it involves aspects of other external influences following independence. But, most importantly, it involves recognising the many groups, sectors and individuals, who for so long have been ignored in elite visions of Colombian identity. These Colombians have played a very active role in contesting and mediating the aforementioned influences in order to contribute towards the construction of a society that they have so often been officially excluded from. The toppling of the statue of Belalcázar in Popayán is one more example of such action.
Charlotte Eaton is a PhD candidate in International History at the LSE. Her research explores Colombian perceptions of the Spanish civil war in the 1930s and 1940s. She holds a BA in Spanish from the University of Bristol and a MSc in Theory and History of International Relations from the LSE.
Featured Image: Conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar – Morro del Tulcán. Photo by Julian David Muñoz Ortega on 9th January 2016 from Wikimedia Commons.
 José Roberto Paéz Flor, Cronistas Coloniales Tomo II: Apartes de la historia de Ecuador, Perú, Chile y Panamá, Chapter 5, Book 6 (New York, Ediciones LAVP) 1960
 John Hemming, Conquest of the Incas, (Basingstoke and Oxford, PaperMac) 1993, p. 156