Catalans are increasingly uncomfortable with the Statue of Columbus, which has been an emblem of the city of Barcelona for over a century, feeling we should not be celebrating what was essentially a massacre, not a discovery of a new continent, America.
However, it must also be remembered that while some Catalans were indeed military commanders, the primary motivation for participation in the enterprise was trade and anthropology. Hence, for example, the presence of Friar Ramon Paner, ecclesiastical leader of the expedition but who, encouraged by Columbus and Rome, set out to learn the native languages and document their cultures and customs, becoming thus the first ethnographer of an American culture: the Taina.
Significantly, Catalonia is the location to which Columbus’s maiden voyage to America returned, and the king and queen received Columbus in Badalona and Barcelona, hence the construction of the statue next to the port.
Although it is increasingly difficult to deny the Catalan origin of Christopher Columbus, the discussion about the discoverer’s nationality should not deflect attention from the central fact that the discovery was an essentially Catalan venture. This is indicated by extensive documented evidence, such as the financing provided by Lluís de Santàngel, adviser and treasurer to King Ferdinand II the Catholic, who was financially involved in Christopher Columbus’s venture and the Capitulations of Santa Fe (a Catalan-style legal document) which was an agreement between the monarchy and certain individuals to carry out a general political-military venture, the only copy of which is kept in the Royal Archive of Barcelona (currently known as the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, in Barcelona) and which was signed by various Catalan figures such as Pere Garcies, Bishop of Barcelona, who went to Rome to collect the papal bull for concession of the new lands and bring it to Barcelona.
Further, the roles granted to Columbus are also from the Catalan tradition, such as the virrei (viceroy), and as a result the administrative structure of the new conquered territories, the viceroyalty, was also of Catalan origin.
Etymologically, the Spanish word virrey (viceroy) is a linguistic borrowing from Catalan (as documented by the linguist Joan Coromines).
In the early years, however, direct trade from Barcelona was forbidden, with all trade passing through Seville via the port of Cadiz, in Andalusia. Not to miss out, however, a Catalan colony formed in Seville, demonstrating the adaptability and pragmatism that is so characteristic of Catalan culture.
Clearly the way in which the colonisation of the Americas was traditionally portrayed hid many atrocities. However, the early history of Catalonia in the Middle Ages, her influence extending throughout the Mediterranean, shows a preference for trade over battle. This lends credibility to the notion that the original intention behind the Catalan venture to the New World was indeed trade.
There is little doubt, however, over the importance of Catalan participation in the discovery of America, and such an ambitious and outward-looking venture is very much a feature of the character of her people. Perhaps the statue of Columbus can therefore stand to represent this enterprising nature, a thirst for discovery and betterment. And a reminder that we should always aim for the improvement of all lives, not just our own.