In the mid-90s, I had to do legal formalities for an inherited property in Almuñécar, a town in Andalusia, Spain. To finalize things, I needed the signed approval of a abogado, a lawyer, who in this case turned out to be a great local. He was a silver-haired man with an imperious allure, and his office was equally intimidating, filled with antique mahogany furniture, intricately caraved with caravels, suggesting a vintage Age of Discovery. A friendly clerk had warned me that if the lawyer didn’t like me, my papers wouldn’t advance. So, in an effort to warm it up, I noticed with awe the furniture which, he proudly informed me, was heirloom heirlooms. Next, I asked, using terminology common to Latin America, if his ancestors had been involved in the Conquista, the conquest of the Americas? He looked at me coldly and said: “Eso no fue una conquista, sino una release“-” It was not a conquest but a liberation.
I managed to mumble something seemingly uplifting enough that he would agree to sign the papers. Yet his anger was a reminder of how unchallenged Spain’s national historiography remains. At the time, although two decades had passed since Francisco Franco’s death, many Spaniards still denied the horrors of the Civil War and the decades of fascism that followed it. But the lawyer’s reaction revealed a deeper and lasting nationalist pride in the days when Spain was a world power: before the United States took the last vestiges of its empire, after its humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898; before losing its Latin American colonies in the national liberation revolts of the 19th century; and before his Armada was crushed by the British, in 1588.
The catalyst for Spain’s shining moment was the capture, in January 1492, of the Andalusian city of Granada by forces fighting for the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. It was the last Moorish redoubt in Spain to fall, after an occupation that had lasted eight hundred years, and its capture the culmination of what the Spaniards call the reconquista from the country. Aided by the terror of the Spanish Inquisition, which Ferdinand and Isabella decreed as a sacred act throughout their expanding kingdom, the reconquered led to the forced conversion or expulsion of Moors – Muslims – and Jews, but more immediately it paved the way for European discovery of the New World.
In April 1492, carried by the capture of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabelle agreed to sponsor the Italian filibuster Christopher Columbus on his first expedition across the Atlantic. He was to find a sea route to India, conquer new lands for Spain, convert their people to Christianity – by force, if necessary – and bring back any riches he found. He sailed in August and, two months later, reached one of the islands of the Bahamas, which he duly claimed for Spain. As he later wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella: “I have discovered many islands, densely populated, which I have taken possession of without resistance in the name of our most illustrious monarch, by public proclamation and with banners unfurled. In total, Christopher Columbus made four transatlantic voyages, touching land in Cuba, Hispaniola, now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, the Lesser Antilles, Jamaica and the coastline of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, among others. These trips changed the world; they helped spark the era of European discovery and colonization in the New World, and, with it, European colonialism.
Columbus began to enslave the indigenous peoples he encountered, forcing them to mine for gold. His favorite punishment for those who did not comply was, apparently, living dismemberment. Such methods earned him notoriety even among his conquistadors, and for a time he was stripped of his titles and properties and placed under arrest by the Spanish crown. Ultimately, however, he was released and his wealth restored. The indigenous peoples of the Americas did not fare so well. Less than fifty years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Taínos aborigines, who lived on islands in the Caribbean and Florida, were almost wiped out. In a hundred years, the indigenous population of the Americas, estimated at about sixty million people in 1492, has fallen, due to disease and hardship, to about four million.
Earlier last month, when President Biden proclaimed in two written statements that the national holiday that has been celebrated since the 1930s in October as Columbus Day would also be commemorated as Indigenous Peoples Day, he noted ” devastation ”that the arrival of Europeans on American shores had taken place. He wrote: “Today may this day be a day of reflection on the spirit of America’s exploration, on the courage and contributions of Italian Americans across generations, on dignity and resilience. tribal nations and indigenous communities, and the work that remains before us to fulfill the promise of our Nation for all. Biden’s statement angered some Italo-Americans and conservatives, in an environment already marred by outrage from people like Tucker Carlson, who recently denounced critical race theory while pushing racist replacement theory out of it. ‘story.
But, in Spain, the political right has reacted as if national identity is at stake. In fact, the date of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, October 12, is an official Spanish holiday known as National holiday, with a military parade and festivities presided over by the king, in Madrid. For years, the national holiday has been heavily criticized by left-wing Latin American leaders. It was exported to Latin America under the name Día de la Hispanidad, to mark the union of the Old and New World across the conquest; in some countries it is also known as Día de la Raza, which probably means the Spanish breed. Many regional governments have renamed the holiday; Mexico, for example, declared it “Día de la Nación Pluricultural” and in 2002, in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez inaugurated “Día de la Resistencia Indígena”. In 2019, shortly after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, he wrote to King Felipe VI asking him, on behalf of his ancestors, for a formal apology to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The government, led by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, rejected the request, suggesting the passage of time had made such a consideration obsolete, but it fueled a storm of derision from Spanish conservatives.
The controversy did not stop there. In September, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Mexico’s independence from Spain, Pope Francis published a letter in which he acknowledged the harm done to the country’s first inhabitants in the name of Catholicism. “You have to reread the past, taking into account both lights and shadows,” he said. The conservative leader of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, criticized the pope’s statement, calling the country’s heritage “to have brought the Spanish language and, through our missions, Catholicism, and therefore civilization and religion. freedom, on the American continent “. Former Conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar said that “the new communism is called indigenism”.
Coming just a week after the pope’s declaration, Biden’s proclamation compounded the challenge clearly felt by right-wing politicians in Spain. Pablo Casado, the leader of the main conservative party, the Partido Popular, asked: “Should the Kingdom of Spain apologize because five centuries ago it discovered the New World, respected those who were there?” , created universities, created prosperity, built cities? I do not think so. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far right VOX party, now the third party in the country, went further. He ridiculed Biden as a “dismal president,” who “struggles to string words together. Abascal insisted that “we should be proud of what our ancestors did” – above all, for “evangelism”, an act he called “the masterpiece of the Conquest” . The colonial rule of Spain “was the best thing a country has done in the history of mankind”, he added, and had built an “empire for human rights“.
False revisionism, of course, has become more common among Western politicians in recent years. But what is perhaps most shocking about the statements by Spain’s leaders – which amount to Holocaust denial – is that they go largely without public protest. We can say that, forty-six years after Franco’s death, ultra-nationalism and right-wing extremism have resumed a place close to the general public, but, in truth, they have never been far. The post-Franco transition to democratic rule was accompanied by the so-called “Forgetting Pact,” underpinned by an amnesty law that the main political parties passed in 1977, in which they agreed not to. go back to the past, let alone sue. Francoist war criminals. Membership of the European Common Market and a more modern economy brought the Spanish middle class prosperity, but issues such as the fate of the 114,000 desaparecidos, victims of Franco’s repression who were murdered and buried in anonymous graves, remained without solution.