Erasing, understanding history
Can history be erased? Should history be erased? I have been reflecting on these questions as I work from home and follow the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials across the US in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. While one side defends these monuments as markers of history and heritage, the opposing side argues that history has many points of view, and that these monuments are racist reminders of slavery in America.
Erecting a monument is a physical act of remembering; taking it down is an act of forgetting. These acts are not new, and go all the way back to ancient Rome. Damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) was when monuments and memorials for one emperor were defaced, mutilated, removed, or destroyed by a succeeding emperor. These physical acts of memory and amnesia are fascinating as an exercise in history and historiography.
The toppling of Confederate statues has been ongoing in the US for some years now, but recently extended to other controversial figures like Junipero Serra in the West Coast and Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) in the East Coast. Serra, a Franciscan, was canonized in 2015 for his saintly life and the evangelization of the California coast in the 18th century. Protesters argue that Serra invaded California and took the land from native Americans.
On the other hand, Columbus statues have been vandalized and defaced with paint and graffiti, beheaded in Boston, pulled down in Virginia, and now the City of New York is studying what to do with both the iconic Columbus monument and Columbus Circle that have spawned thousands of tourist selfies. Columbus Day is celebrated in the US every second Monday of October, but in some states Columbus Day has been renamed Indigenous Peoples Day.
While Columbus is to the US what Ferdinand Magellan is to the Philippines, we do not celebrate Magellan Day, and the most famous Magellan Monument in Manila was not a statue of the explorer killed in the Battle of Mactan, but a pillar with dolphins and a globe destroyed during the 1945 Battle of Manila. The 19th-century coral stone memorial to Magellan still stands in Mactan, but it has since been overshadowed by the Lapu-Lapu and Battle of Mactan Shrine that is being enlarged and renovated for the 500th anniversary in 2021.
Today being the 449th anniversary of the foundation of Spanish Manila, we must remember that the Araw ng Maynila is truly an Araw ng Kastila, because it makes people forget that Manila was in existence long before Miguel López de Legazpi took over it from Rajas Soliman, Matanda, and Lakandula.
Legazpi raised it to the rank of a city on June 3, 1571. It became the capital of the Philippines and, in 1596, was granted its own coat of arms by Philip II, who also bestowed on it the title “insigne y siempre leal” (distinguished and ever loyal). Araw ng Maynila is reckoned to be the feast of John the Baptist. It was on June 24, 1571 when Legazpi organized the municipal government by appointing 12 regidores (councilmen) to the Cabildo (City Council or Municipal Corporation of Manila), two alcalde (municipal magistrates who exercised both administrative and judicial functions), and one alguacil-mayor (sheriff who executed the orders of the Cabildo). Three notaries were appointed the next day, June 25, one for the Cabildo and one for each alcalde.
Nobody has protested the Legazpi-Urdaneta monument across the street from the Manila Hotel and the Rizal monument yet, Legazpi’s memory having been defiled in the 18th century when the British sacked Manila. They opened Legazpi’s tomb and threw away his remains. Legazpi’s empty tomb can be seen to the left of the main altar of San Agustin church in Intramuros.
Erasing memory isn’t just about removing monuments but also the names of cities and streets. St. Petersburg in Russia was founded in 1703, renamed Petrograd at the start of World War I to remove the German words “Sankt” and “burg” from the capital city, and it remained so from 1914 to 1924. Then it was renamed Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin died, and stayed so from 1924 to 1991. In 1991, the original name was restored to the city, and it is St. Petersburg today.
Monuments, memorials, and street names are meant to withstand time and provide points of engagement for our understanding of the past. Erasing history does not resolve conflict, understanding history does.
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