Belalcázar Falls from his Popayán Perch: the Historical Statues Debate Reaches Colombia

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’.

The de-throned statue in Popayán

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)

Belalcázar fell victim to the infighting typical of the conquistadores post-conquest. He died in 1551, having been convicted of treason in absentia

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 engravings that accompanied de las Casas’ ‘A short account of the destruction of the Indies’ ignited a political and religious debate in Spain about the treatment of the native American inhabitants

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.

Source: Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística

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.

Another statue of Belalcázar, this one in Santiago de Cali

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.

Other Sources

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

Historic Opportunity for Zimbabwe: Government Offers Compensation to White Farmers in Bid for Rapprochement

In a bid for rapprochement with the West, Zimbabwe has agreed to compensate white farmers who were dispossessed of their land by the regime of Robert Mugabe at the start of the 21st century. This gesture may have more to do with the desperation felt by the Zimbabwean government at the country’s miserable plight rather than any remorse but it is an opportunity that Western states would be unwise to ignore.

White people seized the best agricultural territory during colonial rule but were savagely dispossessed of their productive farmland in the early 2000s

“Southern Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] and Northern Rhodesia [Zambia] are both excellently suited to temperate-zone agriculture and the production of pastoral and dairy products”. So wrote Roy Welensky in 1952, who also noted that “Europeans have gone in extensively for farming, and have provided the skill and the capital for agricultural development”.

After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, Rhodesia – the de jure British colony of Southern Rhodesia and the forerunner to Zimbabwe – set about solidifying white majority rule in a manner not too dissimilar to the notorious Apartheid regime in South Africa. Under the premiership of Ian Smith – himself of farming stock – the Rhodesian government utilised white money and expertise to set about turning the country into southern Africa’s breadbasket. Of course, this meant giving over the best land to white farmers at the expense of the black population, who were shunted to the margins or forced to work as labourers on white-owned land.

Ian Smith was defiant in his defence of white rule

Over 200,000 white immigrants had arrived in Rhodesia between 1945 and 1970 and their enterprising nature not only engendered agricultural success but also sparked investment in mining and manufacturing so that the country had one of the most balanced and sophisticated economies on the continent.

After Zimbabwe achieved true independence and Robert Mugabe assumed its leadership, efforts were made to redress the unequal distribution of wealth in the country. At first, this was carried out in a relatively subtle manner as the government assumed control of large sectors of the economy and prioritised black employment and opportunity, whilst still preaching racial harmony. After all, the white agriculturalists and industrialists were still vital to Zimbabwe’s export economy and the 1980s saw good levels of growth. 

However, by the turn of the century there was still no noticeable improvement in the lives of many black Zimbabweans, many of whom had begun to grow weary of government promises regarding their advancement. With his Zanu-PF party particularly reliant on support in rural areas, Mugabe, by this point already experiencing a soured relationship with the West, decided to take more draconian steps. White land was seized and redistributed to black people, often at gunpoint. Overnight, white Zimbabweans were turfed from their homes, some of them wounded or killed by vigilante groups of ‘war veterans’ desirous of the choicest land.

Black ‘war veterans’, spurred on by Mugabe, turned up at white farms ready to seize whatever they could lay their hands on

These ‘war veterans’ – many of whom weren’t even born at the time of Zimbabwe’s civil war – had begun to politically hamstring Mugabe. Their support and compliance was increasingly essential to the preservation of his rule and when the opportunity arose, he gave them free licence to seize whatever took their fancy.

Unsurprisingly, the economy tanked and commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe died. Instead of exporting surpluses around the world, the country could no longer feed its own people and food shortages and price hikes led to the printing of ever more fanciful denominations of money, sparking a horrific hyperinflation crisis.  The new black owners of the once-productive farmland had not been provided with the skills or experience to shoulder such weighty economic responsibility and large swathes of fertile land went to waste.

A new constitution of 2013 stated that the process of ‘land reform’ was irreversible and the damage caused to Zimbabwe’s economy has been astonishing. The new promise of compensation to dispossessed white farmers won’t revive the agricultural sector, but it does offer the possibility of a relief in foreign sanctions and provision of more development aid from the West.

Whilst the new regime of Emmerson Mnangagwa is seemingly as inept, corrupt and unconcerned of human rights abuses as the Mugabe regime was, you sense this narrow opening needs to be forced wider by a willing West. Zimbabwe’s people have suffered for decades, society politicised in a bipartisan fashion that means bloodshed is always just around the corner. Any aid should be conditional on political reform and, where possible, should be channeled through NGOs and international and regional organisations with a presence in the country.

Hyperinflation reached crazy levels in 2008; the economy has never recovered

With severe debt and junk credit status, the future of Zimbabwe’s economy looks bleak to say the least and there is the very real prospect of mass starvation. However detestable working with corrupt and abusive regimes can be, to really redress the plight of black Zimbabweans disenfranchised by white colonial rule and trampled upon in the post-colonial era, a concerted international effort is required. The potential for success is not absent; the land is still very fertile and the country has significant natural resources. It has a young population eager to work and a decent education system, one of Mugabe’s few legacies.

To simply dismiss the compensation scheme as a political stunt, even if it is a reality, would be a shameful waste given the opportunity provided to revive the fortunes of one of Africa’s most debilitated states.