In 1537 Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar founded the city of Popayán in south-western Colombia. Nearly 500 years later and a statue commemorating Belalcázar in the city has been hauled down by members of the indigenous Misak group, who have found him ‘guilty of genocide, enslavement, torture, rape and stealing their ancestral lands’.
Bartolomé de las Casas, that firebrand Dominican priest of the 16th century who deplored Spanish actions in the New World, would seemingly have agreed with the Misak assessment:
In Quito [capital of Ecuador], the governor of all the provinces of Quito, who had come in peace in response to a request from Sebastián de Belalcázar, commander-in-chief to the governor, was burned alongside many other caciques [chieftains] and leading citizens because the gold he handed over did not match the sum demanded of him…I testify that the Spaniards gathered a considerable number of local people and locked up as many of them as they could fit into three large buildings to which they set light, burning to death those inside even though they had done absolutely nothing whatever to merit such treatment (De las Casas, 1992, pp.111-112)
Belalcázar was originally one of the key lieutenants of Francisco Pizarro during his conquest of Peru, Belalcázar conquering the northern Inca stronghold of Quito in 1534 before moving on to Colombia where he founded Cali, Pasto and Popayán. (Williamson, 2009, pp. 27-31)
Now, de las Casas’ testimony has to be taken with a pinch of salt but whilst he was certainly inclined to exaggerate Spanish cruelty, the often brutal rapacity of Belalcázar and his fellow conquistadores is hard to argue against based on contemporary evidence. Even the 16th century chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, hardly a supporter of the indigenous American tribes, remarked on the ‘cruel torments’ Belalcázar inflicted upon the inhabitants as he rampaged across what we now know as Ecuador and Colombia.
Indeed, native peoples were killed off in their tens of thousands during futile attempts to defend their land against the Spanish conquerors and the subsequent pacification of occupied territories, during which time the lust for gold and other riches reigned supreme. The infectious diseases the Europeans brought to the New World proved even more catastrophic, compounding the initial shock of violence that accompanied the conquistadores across the Atlantic.
The felling of Belalcázar’s statue follows in the wake of similar topplings in the US and Europe as part of the fall-out from the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which were reignited by the police killing of George Floyd. Such gestures are highly contentious and not just because they are demonstrable acts of public vandalism. Statues necessarily mean different things to different people, and nothing whatsoever to many others. One person’s freedom fighter is the next person’s terrorist, one’s founding father another’s genocidal monster. Or as another commentator writes, “one group’s ‘act of liberation’ is another’s historical white-wash”.
Whilst the Misak’s decision to upend Belalcázar from his pew atop the hills of Popayán is understandable from their perspective, the town’s mayor has expressed outrage and pledged to restore the statue. The majority of Colombians share a European heritage dating to the time of the conquistadores and without the likes of Belalcázar and his contemporaries, their country probably wouldn’t exist. That much of the population is mestizo – combined European and indigenous descent – will undoubtedly lead to conflicting views on how historical figures like Belalcázar should be treated.
In a culturally-diverse country such as Colombia, ethnic harmony is sometimes difficult to maintain and historical protest/vandalism such as that carried out by the Misak is a risky business, for minorities are potentially making a rod for their own backs. Already disproportionately affected by the long-term violence and instability created by the Farc and other paramilitary groups in their fight against government security forces, indigenous groups can ill-afford to be further marginalised by upsetting the traditional values of the majority, however justified they may feel in their quest.
There is undoubtedly some merit in the words of Popayán’s mayor Juan Carlos López Castrillón: “Discussions about our cultural differences can take place, and we have always been willing to generate this type of space…We cannot justify that violence becomes an instrument to express our disagreements.”
This is not to excuse all of Belalcázar’s actions, or those of other historical figures whose busts have been similarly defaced in cities across the globe. It is a reminder that dialogue is always a preferable starting point, and that it is often the case that violence begets violence. It is therefore essential that a meaningful dialogue is established between the Colombian government and indigenous groups such as the Misak so that opinions on historical figures can be discussed openly and calmly.
Measures should be taken to ensure that any statues are accompanied by suitable, historian-verified information, dispassionately outlining the biographies of individuals, whilst recognising their relevant, if occasionally awkward place, in a multicultural society. Moreover, the geographical placement of statues should be carefully considered. Belalcázar’s statue in Popayán was erected on the suspected site of a pre-conquest pyramid structure. Whether a deliberate act of cultural suppression, or a ill-considered blunder, such careless decisions only serve to fan the flames of ethnic tension still prevalent across Latin America.
De las Casas, B. (1992), A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (edited and translated by N. Griffin)
Williamson, E. (2009), The Penguin History of Latin America