Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Archaeology of Death: The Controversial Statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

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This blog post was written by Emma Nugent, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Emma!

Image of the statue of Gaspare Corte-Real, the statue is outdoors and his arms are crossed (image from VOCM).

Across from the Newfoundland Confederation building, there is a statue of Portuguese explorer and slave trader, Gaspar Corte-Real (commonly mistaken for John Cabot). It has become one of the many targets in the recent push to remove monuments of slave traders and colonialists internationally. The push to remove this statue is not only because of Corte-Real’s history as a slaver, but also because of the very shady political baggage it carries.

The history of Corte-Real is a short one. He is presumed to have lived between 1450 and 1501. He was a Portuguese explorer who possibly came to Newfoundland, or maybe Labrador, or maybe Greenland in 1501. After reaching Newfoundland (or Labrador, or Greenland) he kidnapped 57 Indigenous people, took them back to Europe to be sold as slaves, then returned to Atlantic waters where he went missing in 1501 (McLeod 2017). One of his brothers searched for him, only to go missing himself in 1502. There was a third brother, but he was denied permission to search for the first two (Marsh 2008). Overall, his impact on discovering the Americas was a very small one, as well as his impact on establishing a Portuguese presence in Newfoundland. What he did was what many European explorers were doing at the time, kidnapping Indigenous people and going missing. His history isn’t even very conclusive, and he clearly isn’t well remembered (considering he is mistaken for many other prominent colonialists). All of this begs the question: Why does this guy have a monument, especially in such a prominent location?

While the history of Corte-Real is quite short and inconclusive, the history surrounding his monument is much more complex, politically charged, and honestly, has very little to do with the man himself. The statue was gifted to Newfoundland in 1965 as a gift from the Portuguese Fisheries Organization to show appreciation for the hospitality that was offered to Portuguese fisherman from Newfoundlanders (VOCM 2020). MUN historian Jeff Webb argues that “If that monument means anything, it’s a monument to the relationship between Portuguese fishers and the people of St. John’s in the 20th century, not some obscure mariner from the 16th century.” (McLeod 2017) That being said, Portugal was under a ruling dictatorship in the 1960’s, one that was heavily criticized by Canada at the time. The United Nations and NATO countries were pressuring Portugal to dismantle its empire and relinquish its war colonies (Hawthorn 2020). So, the gift was more politically charged than supposedly intended. See, the statue was sculpted by Martins Correia, an artist that the Portuguese right-wing party, the Estano Navo, regularly used to produce their propaganda (Hawthorn 2020). The Estado Navo banked on the golden age of colonialism in their propaganda to influence the international policies in other countries. By placing a monument on Canadian soil that celebrated this history, it helped clean up their image and solidify a relationship between Canada and Portugal.

In this effort to lessen the political pressure from Canada, Portugal was also hoping to claim a stake in Canada’s expanding fishing territory. European countries were in a race to get their hold on it since many of them were already fishing there before Canada’s confederacy. The Portuguese were there as well but their presence didn’t become prominent until after WWII (Lusa 2020).

Image of the statue feature graffiti that reads ‘slaver’ and ‘Why is this guy still here?’ (image from VOCM 2020).

Going back to my (and many other’s) question, “Why is this guy still here?” In the current international political climate, many are campaigning for the removal of monuments that celebrate slave traders and colonialists and Gaspar Corte-Real is no exception. The statue has been surrounded by controversy for years, but only in June of this year did it receive a small handful of media coverage and a provincial promise to evaluate the necessity of its presence. Some of the most prominent backlash came from activists vandalizing the monument with graffiti, writing “Slaver” and “Why is this guy still here?” (VOCM 2020). Many Indigenous groups call the statue insulting, celebrating a history of imperialism and slavery, specifically targeting Indigenous people. One of the first steps of reconciliation is to allow Indigenous people to tell their own history and maintaining these statues that tell a false “glorious discovery” narrative is harmful. Even when it was put up, Indigenous people in Canada were mistreated. Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut, argues that one of the main things the erection of Corte-Real did was show Indigenous people that no one cared about them (McLeod 2017).

The controversy, like always, comes down to whether the statue should be removed or not, some people argue that campaigning for the removal of these statues distracts from the current issues Indigenous people face (clean drinking water, safe housing, affordable groceries, job opportunities, etc) or that it erases history (McLeod 2017). The former argument holds a decent amount of weight. At the end of the day, statues, street names, building names, are all relatively cosmetic issues that are easy to fix and don’t really do much in the way of improving the quality of life for Indigenous people. As for the latter argument regarding history, it’s always important to ask what history is it erasing? A shoddy legend that was promoted by a Portuguese dictatorship? The explorer who enslaved 57 Indigenous people? Who possibly, probably didn’t even come to Newfoundland? Or rather, is the maintenance of this monument really protecting that history or educating people on its history? Most people don’t know who Corte-Real is, again, mistaking him for others. When interviewing for the Telegram, Miawpukek Chief, Mi’sel Joe admitted that he did not know who Corte-Real was beforehand. “I know more about Columbus and Cabot and John Guy that played a prominent role, if you want to call it that, in earlier Newfoundland times. But nothing about this guy,” Joe said. He later went on to explain that an accurate history is important for Indigenous people when discussing reconciliation and combatting colonialism (McLeod 2017). Even many people that campaign for the monument to be kept don’t really know who it’s for.

My own personal opinion is in favour of the removal of Corte-Real. Even if his history was the most accurate and he was the first European to come to Newfoundland and he built a settlement and was the founder of a huge Portuguese population in the province, he was still a slaver and any “glorious discovery” story for the Americas discredits the millennia that Indigenous people spent here creating a rich culture for themselves. One of the first steps of reconciliation is to allow Indigenous people to write their own narrative, and in order to do that, it is imperative that we pave the way by discrediting the harmful narratives that glorify their enslavement and abuse.

References:

Hawthorn, Andrew
2020    How a controversial St. John’s statue is actually propaganda for a Portuguese dictatorship, June 14, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/corte-real-statue-1.5609321, accessed October 14, 2020

Lusa
2020    Polémica estátua do português Corte-Real no Canadá é “narrativa colonialista” e pode ser retirada, June 20, 2020. https://www.publico.pt/2020/06/20/mundo/noticia/polemica-estatua-portugues-cortereal-canada-narrativa-colonialista-retirada-1921304, accessed October 14, 2020

Marsh, James H.
2008    Gaspar Corte-Real, January 7, 2008. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/gaspar-corte-real, accessed October 14, 2020

McLeod, James
2017    N.L. indigenous leaders say Corte-Real statue is an insulting relic, August 25, 2017. https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/nl-indigenous-leaders-say-corte-real-statue-is-an-insulting-relic-25739/, accessed October 14, 2020

VOCM
2020    “Why is this guy still here?”: Graffiti Challenges Status of Corte-Real Statue, July 8, 2020. https://vocm.com/2020/07/08/corte-real-statue/, accessed October 14, 2020

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Archaeology of Death: The Controversial Statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

  1. Pingback: Archaeology of Death: Student Blog Post Mini-Series | Spade & the Grave

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