A few years ago I saw myself in front of a collection of photos of monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus. In all appeared a tribute to the navigator and by his side, the friend who showed them to me. That had been his favorite pastime for many years. John, that’s his name, assured me that he had been to most of columbus’ known statues. I found your claim exaggerated because there are all over the world and the photos didn’t go past a dozen, but I must admit that your hobby was curious.
Noticing disbelief in my face, he asked, “Do you doubt it?” I answered him with another question: “And where are the pictures of Havana?” He immediately connected to the Internet and “asked” Google about the Columbus effigy I was referring to. There he found her, in the courtyard of the Palace of the Captains General. The Admiral in skirt, standing and stroking his triumphant sphere, like a soothsayer to his crystal ball. I took the opportunity to start a long history that I ended up in Havana a year later. It’ll be the same one I’ll share with the readers today.
That’s where Columbus came in.
While John was in Cuba in 2016, I told him that, after consummating the Basel Peace Treaty and the imminent Spanish departure from Santo Domingo, Friar Fernando Portillo y Torres, archbishop of the diocese, worried about the remains of Christopher Columbus who were in the Primate Cathedral of America. He went without delay to the Crown and proposed to move them to Havana. The request was accepted, but would be “as a deposit” (this is a key aspect throughout history).
The remains arrived on the island aboard the ship San Lorenzo on the morning of 19 January 1796. Multiple tributes were paid to him, all previously agreed at extraordinary meetings of the Cabildo, in which it was decided until the design that should have the niche mortuorio.
It has always been in doubt whether these mortal remains were those of the Admiral or those of Bartholomew Columbus, his older brother. Some have sown the same doubts with those of their son Diego Colón. It has all been due to other remains found during repairs made in the Dominican Cathedral in 1877. The Dominicans say they’re the real ones with the Admiral.
Thus came the remains of Columbus – or a Columbus – to Havana, a major in this whole story. From here began the stories related to attempts to erect a sculpture or monument of the Genoese navigator in the city.
Stone would be the first attempt
In 1794 the Patriotic Society of Havana, on the proposal of Dr. Tomás Romay, decided to erect in the city several statues of relevant personalities. One of them would be Christopher Columbus. The bottoms were not many, so it was determined that the only marble was that of Charles III, the others would be sculpted in St. Michael’s stone. That of the discoverer of the evil called New World became contoured, but no further work continued on it. In 1827, Francisco Rodríguez Cabrera, ruler and curator of the city’s sources, defended the idea of concluding it, but the captain general suggested that it would not be appropriate for this work to be sculpted in that material, and in this way the first attempt was thwarted.
Another new attempt
In 1850, the councilor Ramón de Montalvo y Calvo proposed in the Cabildo of February 22 the need to raise a worthy mausoleum to Columbus. The city council voted in favour of the proposal. In the motion submitted to the governor, the reasons were expressed, accompanied by a drawing as the first monumental proposal and urged to allow a public collection with the aim of forming the necessary funds.
Four years passed without any result, until Governor-General José Gutiérrez de la Concha worried about the matter, and took him to Cabildo on May 9, 1854. There it was determined to elevate the petition to the Crown and request proper authorization to consolidate the initiative. The Queen did not take time to give her approval. Known the news in Havana, Cabildo Extraordinario was summoned on July 29, and the precise decisions were made to start working. The obelisk would be placed in the center of a park in the former Military Or Mars Camp, which would now be named Christopher Columbus Park.
Diocesan Bishop Francisco Fleix and Solans strongly opposed the project. He made the matter known to the governor, the Cabildo and the Queen. He asked that the monument to Columbus be made inside the Cathedral. The pretext was very clever, “not to jeopardize columbus’ ashes deposited in it.”
On April 18, 1859, the City Council issued a sharp solution. The work would have a civil character and the remains would remain in the Holy Cathedral Church that was its depositary. The funds would come out of Havana’s donations and municipal flows. An international call for the best project would be launched. The captain general then imposed a straitjacket on the coordinating board and the City Council. The homage was to have a religious character and contain the ashes. Clearly, the authority took sides in favor of the ecclesiastical objectives, which were no other than to preserve custody of the remains and to provide, without erogation, a work of artistic value to the Cathedral. This immediately halred the consolidation of the new attempt.
Walking to the Columbus meeting
One June morning in 2016, John and I went out looking for the statue of Columbus that he didn’t have in his collection. I explained that Fleix and Solans’ successor Bishop Jacinto María Martínez y Sáez continued in the line of his predecessor, but neither the board nor the City Council ever issued any criteria in this regard.
Then appeared in Havana the Italian artist Philippe Garbielle with a pedestre figure of Christopher Columbus, who had an acceptable artistic invoice and was made of Carrara marble. Its author was another compatriot, J. Cucchiari. Garbielle offered it to the City Council for the value of 4,000 pesos. The purchase was made with the money of the universal subscription that had long been made to erect it a monument to the figure. In this way, an important piece was already available, which could be integrated into a sculptural assembly afterwards. Surprisingly, it was installed on January 9, 1862 in the courtyard of the Palace of the Captains General. This was a government backing to the real interests of erecting a public memorial to Columbus.
In 1870, by political juncture, a statue of Elizabeth II was removed from Central Park and Columbus moved to that place. This was the first public sculptural tribute to the Admiral in the city. He didn’t stay there long. In 1875 it was returned to the courtyard of the Palace and the sovereign’s courtyard was placed again on its old pedestal. In Cuba it was danced to the beat of the chords of the metropolis, “outside the Kings of Spain, lower Isabel. The Kings return, go up to Elizabeth again.”1
So John knew the history of Columbus that already had in front of him in the courtyard of the City Museum. I didn’t notice it surprised or excited about the photo that had just been taken, he probably thought he’d find something bigger because of my previous stories.
A tomb for Columbus and a monument for the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America
On the occasion of the celebrations for the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America, in 1891, the Crown was authorized to open a competition that would seek the best works for the erection of two monuments in Havana. The first would be sepulchral. In it would be deposited the remains of Christopher Columbus and would be located in the Cathedral of Havana. The other would be resealed in a commemorative nature for the discovery, its location would be made in the Habanero Central Park. In Cuba, budgets for both works were released.
The tomb prize was awarded to Arturo Mélida.2 The work consisted of four Kings of Arms on a black Marmo painting of Belgian stone. The Kings would wear luctuous costumes and wear the coffin of Columbus on foot. The bronze elements were melted in Spain by master Ignacio Arias. Simultaneously with the works on the Peninsula, the cruise of our Cathedral completed the black marble base. The burial pantheon was completed and perfectly installed on its site on 19 March 1898.
Payments for the work were made with Cuban money, according to the agreements of the foundations of the contest. The remains of Christopher Columbus were never placed in the monumental sarcophagus.
The work of the Spanish artist Antonio Susillo3 was awarded for the construction of the monument by the Fourth Centenary. Despite this, the author was asked to replace in the auction the figure of the Aboriginal who appeared and put in his place that of Christopher Columbus. Susillo accepted the signs and recomposed the artistic design.
The monument would be made of marble and bronze, so the French smelter house M.M. Triebaut Freres, based in Paris, was hired. It was the one that had the best conditions for the realization of the sculptural ensemble of the monumental finish. Everything was going well, but in 1896 Antonio Susillo committed suicide. Some sources claim that the motive was a nervous depression, while others allege economic issues. The play was almost ready and was finished by his team. This time all payments were also made as established.
Just at that historic moment, the greatest inconvenience occurred, the American intervention in the war between Cubans and Spaniards in 1898. The monument for the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America was retained in Spain.
Who said the story ends here?
Having reached this point, it was necessary to make a historical parenthesis with my Australian friend. I explained that after the dark events of Maine, sunk Cervera’s squadron in the bay of Santiago de Cuba and signed the treacherous treaty of Paris, Spain lost its last colonial possessions, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The Overseas Ministry instructed the last captain general of the Island of Cuba, Adolfo Jiménez Castellanos and Tapia, to proceed to dismantle the tomb of Christopher Columbus and to exhume the remains that would be transferred to Spain. The order was fulfilled and on December 12 of the same year they were shipped, without taking into account that the tomb had been paid, penny by penny, by the people of Cuba. Thus consumed a despotic and opportunistic stripping, perhaps the last of the Spanish colonial stage. Columbus’ ashes, as a deposit, could be taken away, did not correspond to us, but the monument was our property.
After some requests from Spanish cities to be depositaries of the snuffed mortuary trophy to Havana, he was granted to the city of Seville. It was placed on another pedestal – different – in its Cathedral. In that place it remains to this day.
The monument destined for the Habanero Central Park, also paid in cash with the island’s money, did not run any better luck. When finished and packed, other cities on the Peninsula disputed it. Valladolid was the lucky one. There the sculptural complex is located, without any modesty, in Plaza Colón.
Now the surprised one was me seeing John’s face, but I immediately understood the cause. On that table where he showed me the photos in Australia, were those of Seville and Valladolid, but he ignored the stories and their relationship with the distant Cuba.
A final surprise
Having shown John the statue of the Palace of the Captains General and the niche of the presbytery of the Cathedral, he thought there was nothing else to do with Christopher Columbus in the capital of all Cubans, but he was wrong. We went back to the Cathedral, walked to the entrance of the Padre Félix Varela Cultural Center, we crossed the first gate and right in the cobbled garage, I said, “Look over there.” She was more petrified than the very image of Don Cristobal which is almost hidden in the place.
It is a stone sculpture, modest and almost unknown. It was created by Cuban artist Sergio López Mesa in 1956. On October 12 of the same year it was placed in one of the niche on the front of the Cathedral, where it remained for some time. Later, he retired from the site because it broke with the aesthetic and architectural conception of the facade. Since then, it has been located at the entrance of the current Cultural Center.
Now John had a new piece to show, he knew the true stories of two of his traveler trophies and had at his fingertips another statue of Columbus, unknown to many, so he did not keep the photo waiting. He enjoyed a new and novel opportunity to thicken his personal collection. A few days later, he hung the image on his Facebook profile, like Rodrigo de Triana’s “EARTH!” cry and said in an email: “At the end of the day Columbus didn’t leave Cuba, they took him away and the rest appropriated him. Greetings, John.” Ω
1 Spanish period known as Revolutionary Sexenio. It began with the triumph of the Revolution of September 1868 and concluded with the pronouncement of December 1874, which began the Bourbon Restoration.
2 Arturo Mélida (July 24, 1849 – December 15, 1902) completed his architectural studies at the Escuela Superior de Arquitectura in Madrid in 1873. Professor of modeling, he entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in 1899. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the French Academy and the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
3 Antonio Susillo (Born 18 April 1857 – 22 December 1896) is considered one of the most famous Spanish sculptors of the second half of the nineteenth century.