As monuments to controversial figures face a reckoning around the world, protesters in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia have targeted statues of Christopher Columbus, damaging or pulling down three in a matter of days.
In St. Paul, demonstrators toppled a ten-foot-tall statue that stood in front of the Minnesota state capitol. In Richmond, protesters pulled down an eight-foot-tall statue in Byrd Park, carrying it about 200 yards before setting it on fire and throwing it into the nearby Fountain Lake. And, around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, police in Boston received a report that a marble statue of the Italian explorer and colonizer had lost its head.
As with Confederate monuments in the United States and statues of racist figures in Europe, controversy over Columbus is nothing new. But now, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the debate has taken on renewed resonance.
“This continent is built on the blood and the bones of our ancestors, but it is built off the backs and the sweat and the tears and the blood and the bones of Africans,” Vanessa Bolin, a member of the Richmond Indigenous Society, told protesters the day the Columbus statue was torn down, report Ali Sullivan and Zach Joachim for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Bolin added, “We’re not here to hijack your movement. We’re here to stand in solidarity.”
Though Columbus is widely credited with “discovering” America, Smithsonian magazine’s Brian Handwerk points out that Native Americans lived on the continent for some 15,000 years prior to his arrival. Moreover, the explorer never even set foot on the North American mainland. And, during his four voyages to the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America, he enslaved and killed thousands of indigenous people.
When Columbus died in 1506, he was “kind of a forgotten figure, as was John Cabot,” an explorer who also reached North America in the 1490s, University of Bristol historian Evan Jones told Smithsonian in 2015. “Both of them were largely ignored within a decade or so of their deaths. In the mid-1700s, they were mentioned in history books but as rather peripheral figures, not as heroes.”
Americans seeking an origin story that didn’t involve Great Britain revived Columbus’ legacy during the Revolutionary War, lionizing him to such an extent that he eventually received his own day. (Both Cabot and Columbus were Italian, but the former sailed under the British flag, while the latter ventured out on Spain’s behalf.) More recently, the controversial figure has been touted for his Italian American heritage: On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would not support efforts to remove a statue of Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, adding that it “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York.”
As local broadcast station WCVB Boston reports, the Massachusetts statue of Columbus—erected in a historically Italian American neighborhood in 1979—was previously vandalized in 2006, when its head went missing for several days, and 2015, when demonstrators spray-painted it with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” On Thursday, workers removed the decapitated statue and placed it in storage, according to CBS Boston.
“We don’t condone violence, and it needs to stop,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told reporters on Wednesday. Still, he added, “[G]iven the conversations that we’re certainly having right now in our city of Boston and throughout the country, we’re also going to take time to assess the historic meaning of the statue.”
The submerged statue in Virginia has been removed from Fountain Lake and taken to an undisclosed location, parks and recreation department spokeswoman Tamara Jenkins tells the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In St. Paul, where protesters tore Columbus’ likeness down to the sounds of “singing, drumming and joyous chants,” as Jessie Van Berkel writes for the Star Tribune, police informed American Indian Movement activist Mike Forcia that he would be charged with criminal damage to property.
“I’m willing to take that,” Forcia tells the Star Tribune. “The paradigm shift is happening and it was time.”