IS HISTORY DEAD OR ALIVE? Monument debate begs a deeper question

Several weeks after the violence in Charlottesville that was sparked by a decision by local officials to take down a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee  the debate has gone national about which of our historic monuments we should keep up and which ones to remove. 

Last week in New York City Mayor de Blasio appointed a committee to begin the process of reviewing New York City’s inventory of municipally owned  statues for potential “symbols of hate”. The panel will screen the city’s statuary portfolio and devise a way  to handle statues that  are judged as “oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York City,”

On the possible endangered list is the Central Park statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the ‘father of modern gynecology’ who also performed operations on enslaved black women without anesthesia or informed consent. 

Some elected officials are calling for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus that sits at the center of Columbus Circle citing the navigator’s subjugation and enslavement of the Caribbean Arawak Native peoples, who by the explorer’s own accounts, greeted him with kindness and generosity.


New York Governor  Andrew Cuomo pushed back on the removal of  the statue of Columbus Cuomo, opining that the Columbus statue  “is really about honoring Italian-Americans” and their contributions to America. His remarks were made at the West Indian Day Parade

Not surprisingly, there’s little consensus on this question of statue vetting and Mayor de Blasio’s panel concept got serious pushback. “He’s going to create some kind of star chamber to see who’s politically correct and who’s not,” Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University told the New York Times. “It’s almost like McCarthyism of a reverse sort: Let’s find out who has got something in their closet that they should be ashamed of. I don’t think we need this.” 

Governor Christie did his best to steer clear of the initial controversy over the fate of the Charlottesville statue of General Lee. “Everyone is going to have a different approach to this and I don’t think the governor of New Jersey should be dictating what happens in those particular states that have those issues,” Christie told reporters.  “I am not someone who believes in erasing our history. On the other hand, the people who are there need to decide who they want to build tributes to and memories of.”

As is so often the case with these kinds of loaded controversies, the public discourse that is sparked generally falls into the rut of charged racial and ethnic identity politics.The central issue here is not which statues should come down and which ones remain. The vital question is do we believe that our history is static, as fixed as the statues we erect to  commemorate it, or is it living and breathing with the possibility of new discoveries? 

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future,” wrote the poet Robert Penn Warren.

It takes courage to keep digging into our history, past the comfort zone of the memorialized narrative that already has society’s collective buy in. That established and agreed upon version of events is like our comfy furniture. It supports us as we want to know us. No doubt, President Trump spoke for many Americans when he expressed anxiety that by dismantling monuments we were putting the nation at risk because we would be “changing history” and  “changing culture.” 

Walking from Newark’s Broad Street Station WBGO’s studios downtown near the Performing Arts Center the other day I encountered the larger than life  bronze Christopher Columbus statue in Washington Park.  It was unveiled on Columbus Day 1927 with crowd on hand that was estimated to be as large as large as 50,000. 

The statue’s base bears the inscription: “To Christopher Columbus, immortal Genoese, erected by the Italians in this land perceived through his genius in 1492.” Yet, in reality, as we know, other sentient beings were already here in what Europe called the “New World”, meaning it was new to them. 

What gets left out of the Columbus narrative is that he and the other explorers of the period were being sponsored by European Monarchs who were granted by the Catholic Church the right, to not only exploit the new world’s abundant natural resources  as their own, but they had the authority to subjugate and enslave all the Native people they encountered. This was articulated in a succession of Papal Bulls that were titled The Doctrine of Christian Discovery

As Howard Zinn writes in “A People’s History of the United States”   when Columbus and his crew  came ashore “the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. According to Columbus’s own log: “They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

In short order Columbus captured several Arawaks to press them for where he could find the gold he had assumed he would find. “And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold,” writes Zinn. “In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.”

Zinn continues. “Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”

Columbus died in 1506 and the exploitation of the Caribbean natural resources and the ethnic cleansing of the Awaraks accelerated. “When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.”

Much of what is known about what befell the native population after Columbus’s arrival according to Zinn is from the writing of a Father Bartolome de las Casas. He played a role in the conquest of Cuba and even owned a plantation with Indian slaves worked which he gave up.  He documented the plight of the Arawaks who had greeted Columbus so warmly and now were enslaved in mines and on plantations. 

“Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides … they ceased to procreate.” Las Casas wrote. “As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation…. in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile … was depopulated. … My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. …”

Scroll forward to 1797 and New Jersey’s own  Supreme Court would invoke their version of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of a Native American known to the court only as “Rose” hoping to win here freedom. “They [the Native Americans] have been so long recognized as slaves in our law,” the Court wrote, “that it would be as great a violation of the rights of property to establish a contrary doctrine at the present day, as it would be in the case of Africans; and as useless to investigate the manner in which they originally lost their freedom.”

The seeds of slavery that Columbus planted in the Caribbean would sprout all over the New World, particularly here in New Jersey. Just like Columbus, New Jersey saw non-white people as objects, as property to be used to work the land. 

According to the late Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, “support for the institution” of slavery “was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony.” Back in 2008, on the occasion of the New Jersey State Legislature’s formal apology for slavery, Price told the public television program “Due Process” that “slavery was very important to New Jersey’s colonial economy.”

From its founding, when it was called the “New Netherlands,” as a Dutch colony in the early 1600s , and even after their English successors re-named it “New Jersey,” promoting slavery was hard-wired into the state’s political economy. According to the New Jersey State Library’s Unit on African American Slavery in the Colonial Era, the colony’s first constitution, the Concessions and Agreement of 1654/1665, actually “provided additional acreage” for each slave a prospective settler had.

In the early 1700s, the ongoing chronic shortage of manual and skilled labor for an expanding empire prompted Queen Anne to order that “a constant and sufficient supply of merchantable negroes” be available “at moderate rates” to New Jersey settlers. The crown also wanted to ensure that there were no “encroachments” on the slave-trading franchise enjoyed by Royal African Company by any enterprising locals.

Slavery really got traction in the northern and eastern portion of New Jersey. The major slave port of entry for the slave traffic in New Jersey was through Perth Amboy. From 1737 up until 1800, the slave population went from just under 4,000 to well over 12,000. By far the highest concentration of slave labor was in Bergen County, where by 1800 there were close to 3,000 slaves, almost 20 percent of the population.

From slavery’s inception in New Jersey, slaves were subject to a separate set of laws and courts that had the power to dispense brutal punishment for any infractions. “In contrast to New England’s liberal laws, the slave codes of New Jersey and other middle colonies resembled those of the South,” writes David Mitros, in his comprehensive “Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841).

“Judged in separate courts with no access to trail by jury, Blacks and American Indians accused of crimes in colonial New Jersey had little hope of receiving justice,” writes Mitros. “When a slave received the death sentence, the slave owner received monetary compensation from the state.”

In April 1712, two dozen armed African-American slaves teamed up with Native Americans and set fire to a building in New York City and attempted to fight off the efforts to extinguish the fire. The slave rebellion was suppressed by the militia and 21 of the slaves were executed, some by being burned at the stake.

During the American Revolution the British offered slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting for the crown and thousands of African-Americans took them up on the offer. In New Jersey the state itself sold the slaves they confiscated from loyalists sympathizers. In 1786, while the state banned the importation of slaves, it prohibited free black people from moving into the state.

New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War but, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding on to slavery, years after other Northern states had ended it. Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier.

Gigantino, author of the book “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865,” says that after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.”

“So when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.”

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