Transnational Counter-monuments

Anti-Slavery and Pro-Freedom Memorials

by | Jul 30, 2021

Monument of Toussaint Louvrture in Allada, Benin, 2009 (Photo by Roberto Conduru).

Long before some monuments to enslavers began to tumble down recently, monuments were being erected in Latin America and the Caribbean not to forget the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the Americas. This set of monuments also sought to remember those who succumbed in the Middle Passage, who resisted slavery and fought for its abolition, for emancipation and equality.

When Argentine artist Francisco Cafferata created the bronze sculpture La Esclavitud (Slavery), also known as El Esclavo (The Slave), in 1881, slavery had ended in Argentina a few decades before. However, it was still in force in Cuba and Brazil, where it was abolished only in 1886 and 1888, respectively. Thus, while in the Argentine context, the statue recalled the horrors of the servitude of Africans and Afro-descendants, in the context of Latin America, it could resonate in and help the ongoing campaigns for the end of captivity. Since 1905, when the monument was installed in the Parque Tres de Febrero in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, its memorialist nature has predominated, but without extinguishing its activism. The monument remains a landmark to anti-slavery and pro-freedom.

The sculpture’s titles suggest that the bronze male figure represents slavery in general or an archetypal enslaved man. However, the shackles and the broken chain attached to his right wrist indicate less an agonizing moment in the daily life of captivity and more an instant slightly after the end of torture, with the newly gained freedom, when the pain still overwhelms him, but he already begins to feel some relief. Expressing skillfully the physical and psychological traumas of slavery, Cafferata’s monument keeps remembering us the horrors of captivity and the need to fight its persistent effects.

Zumbi dos Palmares. Darcy Ribeiro and João Filgueiras Lima, Zumbi dos Palmares, 1986, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Broken chains are a recurrent motif in the sculptural celebrations of the achievement of freedom. This sign of victory over violence and domination has been used in many monuments, such as the Benkos Bioho statue at the central plaza in Palenque de San Basilio, Colombia; Le Maroon Inconnue de Saint-Domingue, the monument to the Saint-Domingue unknown fugitive slave, sculpted by Haitian Albert Mangonès and installed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1967; El Yanga, the monument to Gaspar Yanga created by Mexican Erasmo Vásquez Lendechy and unveiled in Yanga, Mexico, in 1976; the Emancipation Statue, created by a Guyana-born Barbadian, Karl Broodhagen, and erected in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1985; the Neg Mawon Emancipation Monument, created by Dominican artist Franklyn Zamore and built in Roseau, Dominican Republic, in 2013. As its title indicates, in Desenkadená (Unchained), installed at the Lucha pa Libertat (Fight for Freedom) park in Willemstad, Curaçao, in 1998, Curaçao-born sculptor Nel Simon decided to represent the liberation of slavery depicting the exact moment of the crucial act of breaking the chains.

Unlike the despondency and dismay expressed in the Argentine monument, these other monuments celebrate the recent conquest of freedom with a much more enthusiastic pathos, sometimes even euphorically. This dramatic variation is related to the thematic choices of commissioners and artists, which determined a wide range of monuments against slavery and for freedom in Latin American and the Caribbean.

El Yanga. Monument of Gaspar Yanga, el libertador del primer pueblo libre de América, currently known as Yanga, by Erasmo Vásquez Lendechy, Mexico, 1976.

Similar to the memory of suffering in Cafferatta’s La Esclavitud, there are monuments to mourn those who died when crossing the Atlantic. That is the case of Memorial Cap 110, erected by Martinican Laurent Valère in southwest Martinique in 1998 to recall the sailors, passengers and mainly African captives who were on board of a clandestine slave trafficking boat and died when it went down on the rocks of the Anse Caffard, in 1830. Giant and curved, the monument’s 15 figures make one think of the persons who died in that wreck and beyond them. Memorial Cap 110alludes to all people who were unable to resist the terrible transatlantic forced crossing, evoking feelings of pain, loss and mourning of great amplitude.

Regarding this expansion of meanings, it is worth highlighting Vicissitudes, an underwater sculptural group created by British-Guyanese sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor and installed at the bottom of the bay of Molinère on the island of Grenada in 2006, which has been related to the slave trade. Although this meaning was not intended by its author, it has been added to the set of 26 statues of women and men. Like the marine inlays that are turning Vicissitudesinto a coral reef, understanding it as a tribute to those who died in the Middle Passage has given it a monumental meaning not initially foreseen.

Vicissitudes. Jason deCaires Taylor, Vicissitudes, 2006, bay of Molinère, Grenada.

But what predominates is the exaltation of slave rebellion, as in Enrique Moret’s 1991 Monumento a la Rebeldía Esclava (Monument to the Slave Rebellion), in Matanzas, Cuba. Like the Haitian Le Maroon Inconnue de Saint-Domingue and the Dominican Neg Mawon Emancipation Monument, this Cuban memorial site use archetypical figures to represent enslaved Africans and African descendants who actively and successfully fought for freedom.

However, public reception has circumscribed the meaning of some of these monuments, personifying the anonymous figures and drawing attention to historical subjects who have been marginalized. People identify the man in the Emancipation Statue as Bussa, the leader of the major slave revolt in Barbados in 1816. As the male figure in the Dominican monument is said to refer to local maroon chiefs such as Bala, Jacko, Pharcel and Qwashi. As the central figure in Desenkadená is identified as Tula, the man who led a slave revolt in 1795 which is considered the beginning of the liberation struggle in Curaçao. Although initially related to the 1763 uprising of more than 2,500 enslaved people in Guyana, the 1763 Monument, created by Guyanese artist Philip Moore and built in Georgetown in 1976 is popularly identified as Cuffy, the leader of that slave revolt.

But there is no shortage of monuments built to celebrate specific heroes and communities in which unambiguously the focus is the decisive role of some individuals and groups in certain historical events and processes. I have already mentioned the monuments to Gaspar Yanga and to Benkos Biohó, Mexican and Colombian national heroes, respectively, which were erected on the still existing sites of the first free communities structured by ex-slaves in the Americas in early 17th century: respectively, the maroon settlement in the highlands near Veracruz, a locality later named as San Lorenzo de los Negros and more recently renamed as Yanga, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and the one in the Montes de Maria region, currently San Basilio de Palenque, in the Colombian department of Bolívar. In Brazil, the Serra da Barriga (Belly Mountain) is a memorial located on the site of the maroon settlement structured throughout the 17th century as a kingdom named Angola Janga, currently known as Quilombo dos Palmares in the Captaincy of Pernambuco, in the region currently located in the state of Alagoas, northeastern Brazil. Since the 1980s, the Serra da Barriga is a Brazilian national heritage site and Zumbi, one of Palmares’ last leaders and a Brazilian national hero, has been honored by monuments and memorials in different cities across the country.

‘Desenkadená’ is an emancipation monument by visual artist Nel Simon (Curaçao, 1938). This bronze sculpture-group was executed between 1996 and 1998 and located in in the Lucha pa Libertat (Fight for Freedom) park, in Willemstad, which like the monument has been informed by La Esclavitud. ‘Desenkadená’ means ‘Unchained’. The scene shows three large figures, two male and one female. Two figures are about to be released from a chain by the figure holding the sledge hammer.

Cafferata’s La Esclavitud was installed in front of El Tambito, part of the traditional tango circuit in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. As tango also has African origins, the sculpture and the building configured a place of memory for Afro-descendants in Argentina, at the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, the monument to Zumbi dos Palmares in Rio de Janeiro, conceived by Brazilians anthropologist, novelist and politician Darcy Ribeiro and architect João Filgueiras Lima,  was erected in 1986 in a region linked to the cultures of the African diaspora, Praça Onze, where Afro-Brazilian migrants and immigrants of various nationalities lived in the early years of the 20th century.

This monument to Zumbi in Rio de Janeiro is quite controversial, as it was carried out without consulting the Black Movement activists who proposed it in 1983. The monument has been criticized because it is located in a place different from that established in the 1983 law that authorized its construction and it uses an image related to the Yoruba (from the Ife Heads currently at the British Museum) although Zumbi was probably of Bantu origin. As if that were not enough, it has come under attack for depicting the heroe with a head stuck in a rod, as his head was displayed in a public square in Recife in 1695, when he was captured and killed by Portuguese settlers. Despite these controversies, the monument was gradually accepted by the Black Movement, other activists and Rio de Janeiro population, becoming one of the preferred places in the city for protests against racism, inequalities, injustices and other sociopolitical issues, as well as for ceremonies to celebrate Afro-descendants and their cultures. As in the understanding of Vicissitudes as a place of memory for victims of the slave trade and in the association of monuments to anonymous heroes to specific historical subjects, as in Curaçao, Guyana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, also in Rio de Janeiro’s monument to Zumbi, acceptance and use by the population were fundamental steps in confirming its status as a public memorial.

La Esclavidud Estatua de “La esclavitud” también conocida por “El Esclavo,” 1881, Francisco Cafferata, en la plaza Sicilia, Parque 3 de Febrero, Barrio de Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Image by Roberto Fiadone

If the monuments in honor of Zumbi are scattered, but limited to Brazil, the monuments to Toussaint Louverture, the most outstanding leader of the Haitian Revolution, have been erected in his native land and abroad. In addition to the monuments built to him in Haiti (Port-au-Prince, Haut-du-Cap and Ennery), he is honored by public monuments in Benin (Allada, 1997-1998, where his family would have come from), Canada (Québec, 2010), Cuba (Santiago de Cuba), France (Massy, Bordeaux and La Rochele, in 1989, 2005 and 2015, respectively) and the United States (Miami, 2005). Present in the Caribbean, Africa, North America and Europe, Toussaint Louverture’s statues punctuate an expanded geographic territory that besides retracing the transatlantic connections of the slave trade, projects him and the Haitian Revolution on a global scale.

Anti-slavery and pro-freedom monuments in Latin America and the Caribbean were not built by a single commissioner, author, program or process. Although similar ideals guided the creation of these monuments, they result from particular demands of different groups in cities and nations not necessarily connected to each other. Some of them are included in Unesco’s “The Slave Route” project and its efforts to recognize and preserve memorial sites, monuments and places linked to the slave trade and slavery.

Permanently attached to their own sites, these monuments echo from there to far beyond. Marking the territory of the Americas, they constitute an open circuit, a set of memory places that are opposed to the monuments erected in honor of enslavers and colonialists, besides offering alternative historic references not only for the African-descendant community worldwide but also to all people who take freedom as a human non-negotiable value. Individually or as a set, they are global signs that reaffirm the struggle against slavery, the memory of those who suffered in captivity and anti-colonialist activism. Indeed, in response to the global dimension of the slave trade and slavery, a worldwide network of monuments to not forget them and to combat its disastrous persistent effects has been outlined specially in the last decades. It’s hard to imagine anyone visiting all the monuments against captivity, even those located only in Latin America and the Caribbean. But it’s easy to imagine how the articulation of physical experiences and propagation on social media can foster a transactional network for freedom.

Roberto Conduru is Endowed Distinguished Professor of Art History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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