It occurs to me that I write about statues a lot.
I didn’t mean for this to happen. Frankly, before I became a tour guide in San Francisco, I never understood the point of examining public statues. I suppose I saw them simply as pretty decor for the city landscape. They were there to make things more aesthetically pleasing but they weren’t especially worthy of my attention. Like a generic painting on the wall of a hotel room, they faded into the background.
The fact that a majority of public statues tend to be naked women enforced this attitude. Sure, you could call your statue “Lady Victory” or “Lady Justice”, but really, you’re just a rich old man with public influence using some sketchy historical colonial event as an excuse to put more boobies into your daily commute to work, right? And it’s ok because they’re classy boobies, the kind you only expose when something good and virtuous has happened …like a war. Not the kind of boobies you arrest the ladies in the red light district for flashing in the street.
A perfect example is San Francisco’s Dewey Monument.
Built to commemorate Commodore Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish Fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay at the end of the Spanish-American War, the Dewey Monument is a glorification of one entitled country taking over for another as occupiers of the Philippines.
The statue was sculpted by Robert Aitken in 1902 and it’s a representation of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. She’s got a trident in one hand and a wreath in the other, so she really can’t spare a hand to pull the front of her dress up over her boobie. According to The Encyclopedia of San Francisco by Christopher Craig, “This statue was selected from a number of entries and only barely made the cut, thanks to the crucial vote of the chair of the Citizens’ Committee, Adolph Spreckels.”
You see, Adolf — wealthy owner of the Spreckles Sugar Company — was obsessed with the young woman who had modeled for the statue, Alma DeBretteville.
Alma (also known as “Big Alma”) was the six-foot-tall daughter of Dutch immigrants. While attending the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, she became a nude model and earned enough money to gain entry into certain social circles.
Alma’s “relationship” with a local miner named Charlie Anderson became news when she successfully sued him for “personal defloweration”. What this means, exactly, is debatable. Either Alma was led to believe that they were going to get married and he backed out at the last minute or this was one of the only ways a victim of sexual assault could get any legal justice back then.
After a 5-year courtship with Adolf, that sugar baron whose deciding vote had put her up on the most prominent pedestal in town, Alma married the old man and began calling him her “sugar daddy”, coining the term. When questioned about their 25-year age difference, she said, “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave”.
Alma didn’t spend her whole life stuck between a rock and a marble slab, though. Adolf died in 1924 of tertiary syphilis he never told her about and Alma, having narrowly avoided contracting the disease herself, became rich beyond her wildest dreams.
She spent the rest of her life giving back to the community by running an endless list of charities and building what I would argue is the best art museum in San Francisco, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. She was a brash, sassy, autonomous woman; a rags-to-riches story who spoke her mind and drank a lot, and yet she was extremely socially conscious and politically liberal — the perfect San Francisco mascot.
The Dewey Monument now lives a double life. Locals adore it for its secret association with Alma, whereas visitors may curiously read the plaque at the bottom about some “hero” of some largely forgotten war, shrug, and go have lunch at the nearby Cheesecake Factory.
One would think that, with the recent debate over statues in the American South that glorify certain confederate figures and victories, the Dewey statue would have come under some scrutiny as well, but there’s been very little.
In 2012, local artists performed a public art piece at the base of the monument to “draw attention to the costs of war and consider the ways that war can set human migrations in motion — including the resettlement of Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area”, but local government has never seriously considered taking the statue down.
You see, statues have this way of only becoming important to people the moment someone suggests taking a critical look. Like the Columbus Monument in Barcelona, Spain.
Did you know that the Philippines weren’t the only territory Spain lost to the U.S. in the 80 or so years before the Dewey Monument was erected? They lost California itself when they handed it over to Mexico, who then lost the land to the U.S. just one year before the start of the Gold Rush. So, in a span of 80 years (that’s how old Tina Turner is), Spain had ceded an awful lot of territory to the U.S., including land that was riddled with gold.
Columbus must have been rolling in his grave.
Which is fine, we hate him.
But think about it, Columbus had set out from Spain to the Americas looking for gold a full 410 years before the Dewey Monument was erected, writing to King Ferdinand V that —
“Gold is most excellent; gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world.”
But he never found much gold, did he? Just people he thought were Indian but weren’t actually Indian, some kind of bark he thought was cinnamon but wasn’t actually cinnamon, a few parrots, and an iguana.
And sure, he made a ton of money off the bent backs of indigenous peoples, but he never found El Dorado. And he got tossed in jail and stripped of all his fancy titles when word got back to Spain about the sheer extent of his atrocities in “India”. Do you realize how BAD those atrocities had to be for Isabella and Ferdinand to strip him of his titles? This is the royal couple that started the Spanish Inquisition.
Once again, we should probably throw the whole statue, and everything it represents, away. But the history of how and why the statue was put up in the first place is so effin’ fascinating that it makes people pause.
The massive Columbus Monument was conceived and erected entirely within that 80-year period when Spain was getting its ass kicked in the West, as if to say, “We ‘discovered’ you once, don’t make us do it again”. But the more research I did into the origins of this statue, the less it appeared to be a “fuck you” to the U.S.
In fact, I think it was a “fuck you especially” to Madrid.
The Statue was erected for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exhibition, a world’s fair that took place at a time when Catalonia (the region containing Barcelona) was having a resurgence of their culture and original language, Catalan, in defiance of Castillian Spain.
I didn’t know this before I moved to Spain, but it turns out these regions have been pissed off at each other for far, far longer than the U.S. has been a country. Tensions remain high to this day, to say the very least.
Ever since Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand V of Aragon were married, there’s been bad blood between the regions. Castille contained today’s modern Madrid, Spain’s capital. Aragon, at the time, included the region of Catalonia and today’s modern Barcelona, but Catalonia had been hit so hard by the plague that it was considered a bit of a ghost region and was largely ignored.
Aragon and Catalonia felt that Ferdinand had ceded all his power to Isabella when they married and they weren’t big fans of the violent police forces she’d installed to keep them in check. The Catalonian people, especially, weren’t the type to take that sort of injustice lying down. They have a long, long history of demanding equality, beginning with the very first Bill of Rights ever written, a full 100 years before England’s Magna Carta. Their loyalty oath to the King reads like Alma DeBretteville’s wedding vows to Adolf Spreckels:
“We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws — but if not, not.”
The Columbus Monument is a confused mish-mash of Catalonian pride. When it was built, Catalonians were under the impression that Columbus was one of their own. He apparently often signed his name “Colom”, which could be interpreted as a shortened version of the Italian “Colombus” but could also be a Catalan name which, ironically, means “dove”.
It’s even been speculated that “Colom” was a Catalonian Sephardic Jew who’d been forced to convert to Christianity, and that his “exploration” was actually an attempt to find prophesied refuge for his people. While an interesting theory, I think it’s safe to say that today’s population of Sephardic Jews (200,000 — 300,000 of whom reside in the U.S. and have been granted Spanish citizenship as a very late atonement for the Inquisition) wouldn’t be quick to jump on it.
Can we pause for a second to collectively raise our eyebrows at this picture someone painted of Columbus looking like Henry Cavill in The Witcher? WTF?
The man looked like this!
Catalonia claiming Colombus as their own in such a public manner was a spit in Madrid’s eye, but kind of a weird one, as Colombus was actually one of the worst things to ever happen to Catalonia. When he came back from the Americas and more and more Spanish expeditions started heading West, Catalonians were barred from taking part (bad blood) and were forced to continue trading throughout the Mediterranean. Could this be why the Columbus statue points East rather than West, his back to Madrid?
These days, Catalonia, like San Francisco, leans politically to the left. And now that Columbus’s true history of barbarism, tyranny, murder, rape, and slavery has come to light ….the statue still isn’t likely to go anywhere.
Several Barcelona City Council members submitted a proposal in 2016 for the statue to be replaced with a memorial to honor the indigenous peoples of America. Most people rolled their eyes at this. Councillor Joaquim Forn described the proposal as “frivolous”, and said the city had “other problems to face at the moment.”
You see what I mean? Statues are frivolous and also deadly serious. They’re meant to be considered, but not too much. We ignore them most of the time because they’re nothing but massive city landmarks and we protect them so we can go on actively remembering to ignore the terrible history they often represent.
Is the solution to tear these statues down? Amend them? Stick them in a museum where a more nuanced conversation can be had? I don’t know. Personally, I think it would be a pretty fantastic gesture of diplomacy to allow those most hurt and offended by the statue to take those decisions into their own hands — similar to offering Sephardic Jews their citizenship back. But I can see why stalwart statue defenders might balk at the idea of taking something that was meant to be permanent and subjecting it to change and possible destruction. Thank God it’s just a statue and not your entire culture, all your land, and the lives of your loved ones, huh?
What I’m trying to say is that life isn’t a statue. Boobies don’t stay perky forever and public opinion changes. It’s real tough to take a nuanced look at anything that’s so high up on a pedestal, but I’ve done my best.