A Plea for Isabella

August 23, 2020   •   By Lucas Barron

A VISITOR TO THE California State Capitol on the morning of July 7 would have witnessed a most arresting spectacle: a monumental sculpture of Carrara marble dangling aloft from a crane, plopped down on a flatbed truck, and hauled away in disgrace to an undisclosed warehouse and an uncertain fate. It was not the only monument to vanish from view this strange summer of 2020, but in this case the statue was toppled by a mob of unusual distinction — the State Legislature — concerned that the Capitol should only house art that “reflects California.”

The offending monument is a Beaux-Arts showpiece by the American master Larkin Goldsmith Mead entitled Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella. It depicts three figures, the two mentioned in the title and an attentive young page, at a moment of singular consequence for world history. The rendering of the drapery is particularly exquisite. Mead got his start sketching battles for Harper’s Weekly in the company of the Union Army and soon after established himself as one of the leading sculptors of Florence. There, in 1868, he began the Last Appeal at the behest of the New York railroad baron LeGrand Lockwood, who expired before its completion. Lockwood’s widow sold it on to the Sacramento magnate Darius Ogden Mills, who presented it to the young Capitol in 1883, a gesture of civic patronage typical of the time. Its arrival aroused considerable pride in a podunk provincial capital at the end of the world.

In the course of its 137-year tenure as the centerpiece of the Capitol Rotunda, the Last Appeal has served the state both as an ornament and a ritual fixture. Legislators would pitch pennies at Isabella’s crown to celebrate the end of the session until the tradition was banned in 2014, when the pageboy was thought to have lost a fingertip to a stray cent. He had been defaced once before, in 1899 — a jingoistic excess in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Now in 2020 the statue has been effaced altogether in response to an iconoclastic controversy ignited across the continent by Confederate memorials: a remarkable fate for a masterpiece by the sculptor of Lincoln’s tomb.

Monuments to Columbus have been commonplace around the world since the mid-19th century, but the Last Appeal represents a rare variation on the standard iconography of the Genoese mariner. Typically found atop a column in a lofty attitude of solitary genius, contemplating the roundness of a ball or the outer limits of the Ocean Sea, here he kneels at his patron’s feet. Mead’s is a historicized rather than a transcendent Columbus: not a titan but a huckster, hustling desperately for a commission, groveling for the titles of a grandee, immersed in suggestive hierarchies beyond his own designs. The towering Queen is the commanding central figure of the composition. She dangles her jewels on her lap, weighing whether to overrule her advisors and pawn them to fund his madcap expedition. The statue reminds us that any visionary is merely a dreamer until his vision gains powerful backing, and its entire emphasis is on her, not his, world-shaking boldness: the moment on April 17, 1492, when Isabella changed her mind. The tableau captures, with neoclassical dash, the Big Bang of the modern globalized world.

It is a striking irony that, in this age that feels so keenly the historical exclusion of women from power, our rulers have found it politic to suppress the statue of a woman making one of the momentous decisions of human history. It is significant that America’s most entrepreneurial state has publicly condemned history’s most successful feat of female entrepreneurship. Of public monuments in this country, it is estimated that fewer than four percent honor women. Lacking queens and saints to venerate, Americans of the Age of Beauty were limited to adorning public spaces with statues of male warriors, politicians, and philanthropists. Female figures were relegated to allegorical reality — as Liberty, Freedom, Minerva, Columbia. But such is the present crisis of progressive values that our legislature (still only 30 percent female) has suddenly repudiated as “completely out of place” the earliest, grandest, and most prominent secular monument to a real woman in this country.

Like all the great potentates of history, Isabella I of Castile comes down to us in a potent blend of glory and disrepute. She defended her throne from Portuguese usurpation and flouted medieval convention to rule her kingdom in her own right and by her own lights. She achieved the unification of a long-fragmented Spain and turned a frontier state on the fringes of European affairs into the world’s first global superpower — and her provincial Castilian dialect into the native tongue of half a billion people today. She also established the Inquisition, expelled the Jews from Spain, extinguished the civilization of al-Andalus, and inaugurated an age of ferocious colonial exploitation in the Western Hemisphere (most of these in the course of a few heady months in early 1492).

The Last Appeal captures a moment of high dramatic irony. For 10 years the eccentric Italian has been pitching his outlandish scheme to chart a sea route west to Asia to one king after another. Each has turned him away, and so now has Isabella. Spain’s most learned men have ruled that his theories “could not possibly be true.” But as Columbus’s mule carries him out of Granada, the Queen calls him back. He reiterates his desperate promises: to go to the semi-legendary courts of India and China, to proclaim the Gospel to the Great Khan. His ships will return laden with riches enough to launch a new Crusade for Jerusalem. The promises are far-fetched. She makes the modest investment of three ships on the remote chance that he will reach those distant ports and capture a fragment of the old transeurasian trade lately interrupted by the Ottoman accumulations at the western terminus of the Silk Road. Instead she will end up with a claim on half the world.

Columbus made his first transatlantic crossing in three months, sailing by the stars and sorely trying the patience of his crew. He didn’t know where he landed (he insisted that Cuba was Japan and felt sure the “cannibals” he heard about were subjects of the Khan), but he was captivated by it — its natural harbors, its wildlife, and most of all the Taíno people, who came out in fleet canoes to greet him. He found them beautiful, intelligent, curious, graceful. He admired what he saw as their kindhearted prelapsarian innocence. To Isabella he wrote, “there is not a better country nor a better people in the world than these. They love their neighbors as they do themselves, and their language is the smoothest and sweetest in the world, being always uttered with smiles.” Though naked, he noted, they carried themselves with reverence and decency.

Isabella sent him back in 1493 with 17 ships and a mandate for permanent settlement. He made this crossing in just six weeks. Alas, he proved as miserable a governor as he was brilliant a navigator. The Queen had instructed him to “treat the Indians well and lovingly, without upsetting them in any way.” But when he found the small Spanish garrison of La Navidad burned and its men massacred, he changed tack and embarked on a new policy of violent subjugation. By making war on the natives he thought to find an easy fix to the commercial problems dogging his venture. For, as many Castilian flags as Columbus could plant on Caribbean beaches, the economic returns of his voyages were so far paltry. Seeking vast stores of silks and spices from the rich bazaars of the Orient, he found in the West Indies little to bring to market but papayas and parrots — and a frustrating pittance of gold. And as the imagined rivers of gold continued to elude his ever more ruthless pursuit, he conceived a new luxury product for mass export, slaves.

Columbus conceived his slaving scheme in late medieval terms, religious rather than racial. He justified his plan to enslave the islanders opportunistically, by classifying them as pagans captured in battle. In the 15th century, the modern concepts of slavery and race had not yet congealed. It is a matter of debate whether race existed at all as an autonomous concept in the pre-modern imagination. When Columbus described the Taínos, he understood their color, “neither black nor white,” to be a function of their islands’ latitude on the 26th parallel between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa: an environmental rather than a hereditary trait. He suggested that, if they were to put on clothes and stay out of the sun, they “would be nearly as fair as the inhabitants of Spain.”

The barbarous institution of racial slavery began to emerge in the early modern period as Europeans exported medieval legal categories to overseas colonial contexts. Slaving had been the established modus vivendi for centuries along the shifting frontier between Islam and Christendom. Muslim and Christian jurists alike held that infidels “legitimately captured” could be enslaved and sold. The practice was particularly entrenched in border regions like the Iberian Peninsula, and was expanding in the 15th century as the Ottomans made staggering gains against Byzantium and the Christian Balkans, and Castile was obliterating the last vestiges of Muslim Iberia.

When the Portuguese established trading posts in Africa, King Alphonso V obtained papal leave to “reduce into perpetual servitude the saracens, pagans and other infidels” of that continent, and to retain a permanent monopoly on their traffic. The reasoning was to restrict the Islamization of Africa, but by eliding distinctions between belligerent Muslims and other non-Christian Africans, and between prisoners of war and persons simply “bought with legitimate contracts,” these early papal dispensations opened the legal floodgates to an international slave trade that was to develop unrestrictedly on new and aberrant conceptual lines.

Columbus attempted to apply the same logic in the Caribbean, envisioning a vast new market for human cargo, now with a Castilian monopoly on Indian slaves imported from its New World dominions to compete with the Portuguese. Isabella saw to it that this original transatlantic slave trade was not to be. On hearing that Columbus had been distributing indigenous captives among his men as slaves, the Queen famously fumed, “What right has the Admiral to give away my subjects?”

As “pagans,” the Caribbean islanders occupied an ambiguous category. If they were deemed collectively hostile or otherwise unfitted to the gospel, they could be legally enslaved, but not if they were susceptible to conversion. Isabella insisted that the Indians be counted as her “vassals” and potential Christians, not as the Portuguese had classed the Africans. When the first shipment of enslaved Taínos arrived in Spain, she upbraided Columbus for defying her command to treat them well and ordered the captives freed and returned home. Few of them made it. As reports came back to her of Columbus’s continued abuses of both natives and colonists, Isabella had him arrested, brought back to Spain in chains for investigation, and definitively stripped of his governorship.

On her deathbed, Isabella dictated a codicil to her will, enjoining her heirs “that they not consent or allow that the Indians […] receive any injury in their persons or effects, but I command that they be well and justly treated. And if they have received any injury, that you should remedy it.”

Isabella’s imperial vision was no humanitarian project in any recognizably secular sense. She viewed the New World as little more than a vast domain for commercial exploitation and forcible evangelization, and she was, at best, naïve to the terrible human costs of her colonial project. She jealously retained the whole hemisphere as the exclusive possession of Castile (excluding even her husband’s kingdom of Aragon from sharing in its plunder), and she recognized the humanity of its native peoples only insofar as they could be made Catholics. But from the beginning she regarded them as her free subjects, not as subhuman chattel or inconvenient impediments to civilized settlement, and she felt responsible for their welfare before God. A vital human rights debate dominated Spanish colonial policy in its early years and indigenous slavery became at least officially illegal in the Spanish Empire well before the first brick was laid at Jamestown. There is no question that indigenous Americans suffered grievously under Spanish rule. The ban on slavery did not save them from repurposed forms of feudal exploitation, a vicious racial caste system, and the ravages of pandemic disease. But, with few exceptions, their experience was not one of chattel slavery or wholesale extermination, and the modern population of Latin America is very largely of indigenous or mixed descent (as many as 93 percent in Mexico).

Such was the case in Old California. Whatever the wrongs of the much-maligned mission system, the Spanish-Mexican province of Alta California remained a remote and lightly colonized region before the US conquest, with something less than 10,000 colonists and an overwhelmingly indigenous population numbering about 150,000 at the time of annexation and speaking up to 100 languages. This picture was to change rapidly after the great land-grab of 1846. Peter Hardeman Burnett, California’s first elected American governor, declared his administration’s openly genocidal policy in his second State of the State address:

The white man, to whom time is money, and who labors hard all day to create the comforts of life, cannot sit up all night to watch his property; and after being robbed a few times, he becomes desperate, and resolves upon a war of extermination. This is the common feeling of our people who have lived upon the Indian frontier. The two races are kept asunder by so many causes, and having no ties of marriage or consanguinity to unite them, they must ever remain at enmity.

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.

Here we have none of the customary American shoulder-shrugging about the unfortunate but unaccountable disappearance of the Indians before the advance of white progress. Their extermination was a matter of urgent government policy from the moment of annexation, precisely because American settlers could not be expected to live by the intercommunal norms of the Spanish system. Through targeted massacres by state and private militias and the US Army (along with the usual spread of disease), the new government succeeded in reducing California’s native population by 80 percent in the first 20 years of statehood. Governor Burnett’s portrait hangs on the first floor of the Capitol.

This genocide, extensively documented in a recent study by the historian Benjamin Madley, was facilitated by actions taken by the California state legislature immediately upon its formation to strip Indians of the citizenship rights and legal remedies they had enjoyed under Spanish and Mexican law. The 1850 “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” deprived them of due process through the courts and provided a legal framework for removing them from their lands and forcing them to work without pay through convict-leasing and other schemes. A “minor Indian” could be “obtained” with the consent of a “friend.” Adult Indians could be freely arrested on such pretexts as “strolling about” and being found in proximity to alcohol. Thus arrested, they were auctioned off to the “highest bidder” to pay their “bail” and subjected to forced labor for a fixed term (whereupon they were ready for their next vagrancy arrest). The law had to be adjusted in compliance with the 13th Amendment, but it remained on the books until 1937.

We may thus appreciate the extraordinary moral moment we have passed: a legislative body that took the earliest possible opportunity to legitimate indigenous slavery and extermination has condemned a woman who undertook the earliest efforts to prevent it. The monument to the enslavement and genocide of native Californians is not the Last Appeal but, quite literally, the Capitol itself. Considering the crimes that body has sponsored — the extinction of entire peoples — it is hard to imagine a gesture more grotesque or callous than its pretense to justice in the censure of a foreign explorer and a foreign queen.

Indeed, the scapegoating of such figures as Columbus, Isabella, and Junípero Serra as avatars of the genocidal proclivities of Anglo-American settler colonialism amounts to a revival of the old Spanish Black Legend, a deep and insidious strain of Hispanophobic bigotry. This tenacious anti-Catholic defamation project, first propagated in the 16th century in support of English pirates and Dutch rebels against Habsburg supremacy, painted the Spanish Empire as a uniquely, barbarically cruel and treacherous enterprise — and thus provided a powerful justification for counter-colonial initiatives by “civilized” northern European Protestants setting jealous sights on the Western Hemisphere more than a century after Columbus had claimed it for Castile. Spanish rule was luridly pictured as a monstrous orgy of mutilation, slaughter, and tyrannical subjugation gleefully presided over by insatiable conquistadors and sadistic, lecherous priests. The image had some basis in fact (it sprang from the polemical writings of Bartolomé de las Casas, which quickly became Reformation-era best sellers in gruesomely engraved editions), but it is discredited for its tendentious exaggerations and its utility in whitewashing the far bloodier records of competing imperial projects.

The Black Legend gained new currency in the mid-19th century, informing the ideology of Manifest Destiny which spurred the United States to help itself to a third of Mexico in 1846–’48. Once it had served its purpose, Americans began to repent of it. In 1883, Walt Whitman decried an official American identity that remained oblivious to the enlarged country’s true diversity: the notion, “impressed by New-England schoolmasters […] that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands only.” Instead, he urged his contemporaries to forge an original “composite American identity” to which the “splendor and sterling value” of “the Spanish [i.e., mestizo] stock of our South-west […] will supply some of the most needed parts.” To achieve this, Americans had to dispense with the Black Legend:

It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and half Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past 200 years. It is time to realize — for it is certainly true — that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition &c. in the resumé of past Spanish history than in the corresponding resumé of Anglo-Norman history. Nay, I think there will not be found so much.

It was in the same spirit and the same year that the Last Appeal was placed in the center of our Capitol Rotunda. Its message was not to glory in a successfully accomplished genocide, but to cultivate the attitude of a gracious conqueror (almost 40 years after the fact) by repudiating the distortions of the Black Legend and enshrining a once-alien spirit of pride in our Hispanic heritage at the center of Californian identity. It is the same spirit that animated the vogue for Spanish place names and the taste for the Spanish revival style in architecture. The Black Legend flared up again in 1898, with new editions of Las Casas, when the United States seized Spain’s last American and Pacific colonies, and when a vandal took a hammer to the Last Appeal. Today, it finds new life in the service of new and no less self-serving political exigencies.

In spite of his sins, Christopher Columbus remains a popular — or, rather, a necessary — figure. A 2015 poll found that 56 percent of Americans reported an overall favorable view of Columbus, compared to 38 percent who favored canceling Columbus Day.

But it is hardly necessary to hold “a favorable view” of Columbus to oppose the suppression of his effigy. The reflexive plea of bewildered iconodules these days is that our statues are worth preserving because they honor men who, while no doubt at fault for a few moral slips, nevertheless led good and honorable lives on the whole. This is to misunderstand the basic nature of a statue. No monument in America has ever been raised to a good life. One might pass a plaque or a tile dedicated to some beloved local figure, but alas we do not sit in the park in the shade of nurses, teachers, and grandmothers. Public monuments were raised, in ages that raised public monuments, to men at the point they ceased to be men: when the culture had discarded their personalities, reduced their popular biographies to a few inane semi-apocryphal anecdotes, and fused their faces with some particular historical development with which it made their names synonymous: Washington with American independence and civil government, Jackson with popular democracy, Lincoln with freedom and union, Columbus with the promise and the fact of the New World. (If Teddy Roosevelt lours less confidently through his spectacles than his peak-mates on Mount Rushmore, it is perhaps because his personality still overpowers his legacy of trustbusting.)

To censure a culture hero is not as simple as stripping a disgraced officer of his medals. The statue acknowledges an irreversible historical development. The iconoclastic impulse to identify the same figure categorically with some alternative historical infamy is more adequate to the nature of the monument, but even this effort to reverse its meaning is better accomplished by confronting a standing statue than by the impotently symbolic and brutally final act of toppling it. The statue is built to bear both meanings, and any other meanings we or future spectators may find in it.

For a statue is never a straightforward declaration, even if it wants to be. By its nature it is a paradox of conceit. The subject is slotted out for immortality. He stares out haughtily, in cold defiance of oblivion and time. But time stares back more defiantly still. The years cover the statue with a patina of irony. It is impossible today to view a statue of Columbus through placid 19th-century eyes — as a straightforward celebration of a man of genius, of the “first immigrant,” or of pride in California’s Catholic-Hispanic heritage or the achievement of Manifest Destiny. Our awareness of this mythos mingles with that of a darker legacy and, more importantly, of our relationship to it. It is right that we should regard these monuments with a mixture of identification and alienation, guilt and pride, admiration and revulsion, and this discomfort strained with pleasure is more honest and honorable than the iconoclast’s smug satisfaction at the statue’s banishment to some innocuous chamber of museal exile, neutered of its sacral public function.

This is especially true when the statue is a significant work of art like the Last Appeal, which departs so strikingly from the typical erect and solitary Columbus. Mead identifies a particular moment in the Columbus legend. It is a poignant moment, pregnant with possibility. It is the beginning of a great adventure, destined to remake the world. It is full of the highest virtues of the Renaissance — genius, vision, boldness of purpose, defiance of superstition, fearlessness before the unknown — and tense with the ironic apprehension that all this will be betrayed in greed, savagery, and self-pity at the moment of fulfillment. It is a moment pregnant with consequences far beyond the horizon of its own possible awareness. Isabella’s pageboy seems to sense this, gaping in awe and perhaps in prescient horror at the business being transacted before his eyes.

The statue has become an allegory of success and its perils. Isabella’s placement in the California Capitol, as the personification of the state, is more eloquent than anyone could have foreseen at its installation. For in the 137 years the Queen has presided there, no country has remade the world so eagerly or so often as California has. If the modern world is one girdled with highways, strangled with silicon, fed with fast food, and bewitched with flickering photographs, this is because no other place has drawn to it so many would-be Columbuses, driven by the voracity of their visions and naïve or indifferent to the consequences of their success. We might simply give the statue a new epigraph: “You may gain the world, but at what cost?”

When the next class of fourth-graders visits their state capitol and enters an expurgated rotunda, their relationship to the colonial legacy will not have been altered. They will not be asked to reflect on this relationship, as its heirs and beneficiaries, but merely to take pride that their state has subjected itself to the cynical “rebranding” exercise of a disconcerted syrup manufacturer by relieving them of their artistic heritage. Some will no doubt wonder why they should tolerate the portrait of Washington in the Senate Gallery of the same building when they have been asked to abhor Columbus. How should they both abominate the European colonization of the Americas and acclaim the fulfillment of that process in the triumphant nationhood of a colonial people? How should they swear allegiance to a national capital named for both men? It is one thing for activists to apply pulleys to our heritage; it is quite another for a representative government to do so.

Maintaining the monuments and even the cults of our culture heroes is not an uncritical payment of homage. Their meaning is constantly revised and enriched in the light of evolving moral attitudes. If our intelligentsia is now engaged in a radical revision of historical values, we must appreciate its insights and await the wisdom of a more dispassionate moment to reach a more permanent accommodation. In the meantime, we should embrace the salutary discomfort of contemplating the dissonant monuments of our past. An ancient statue is not a ticker-tape parade: it is an inheritance. Its demand is not to be celebrated but to be acknowledged.


Lucas Barron is from Los Angeles.


Banner image: “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella (cropped)” by A Yee is licensed under CC BY 2.0.