Harriet Marsden explains how the memorial to British Colonial invaders was destined to cause a furore from the outset
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla caused a stir while on their official royal visit to Colombia recently and, since their departure, the situation has only got more heated.
There has been a huge backlash against a memorial that the royals unveiled while visiting Cartagena. The Prince of Wales presided over the inauguration of the plaque, paying tribute to British sailors who died just off the shores of Cartagena in 1741, as the British naval fleet tried to take the city from its Spanish rulers.
An article in British newspaper The Independent suggested that the idea behind the plaque was to “mark suffering on all sides, as well as attract more tourists.” That may well have been the case, but it wasn’t taken that way here. Politicians of all stripes were falling all over each other to denounce the monument with sound-bites the national press was all too ready to publish.
They may have had a point. If the intention was to honour the dead on all sides, why use the example of a colonial invasion attempt? Why mention only the British lives lost? Why attempt to whitewash history by suggesting that the defenders were equally culpable for the loss of life?
And why choose to commemorate an event with such a discrepancy in casualties? 2,000 Spanish lives were lost, over half of which due to infection after the battle, while the British deaths numbered nearly 18,000 – a gap which seems to suggest the commemorative value of the plaque lies heavily on the side of the British.
In a statement, the Centro Histórico said: “The Prince and the Duchess expressed their condolences to the people of Cartagena, the Spanish, the British and the militia from the American colonies who lost their lives to the war.”
“It does seem highly contradictory for British royals to be unveiling a plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives trying to defend their city from the British.”
This statement suggests a mutually aggressive conflict, rather than the defence of a city against an invading force which vastly outnumbered them. And it seems highly contradictory for British royals to be unveiling a plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives trying to defend their city from the British, as well as commemorating would-be invaders. There’s also the fact that the monument makes, or should I say, made, no direct mention of the Spanish lives lost while defending the city. Little wonder then, that one Colombian saw fit to smash it to bits – driving a hammer into the plaque 40 times, according to reports.
It should be stressed that the idea for the memorial came from Cartagena’s Corporación Centro Histórico, and not – as has been insinuated in the resulting outcry – the British royal family.
So is the furore over all this just a case of inadequate consultation and poor planning? Or is it, as I’m beginning to suspect, something blown out of proportion by a media determined to make the British government squirm over its bloody colonialist past? Is this any different from Britain refusing to acknowledge the sins of its fathers, or to atone for its imperial afflictions of yesteryear?
At any rate, somebody should have known better. I wonder what the reaction would be in other countries if something similar was erected. There may well have been the best of intentions, but it seems to me to be an ill-thought out way of commemorating the royal visit.
Juan Carlos Gossain, governor of Bolivar, summed the whole debacle up nicely, asking “Why isn’t there a tribute in London to the Nazi pilots who died while bombing the city during World War Two?”.
Harriet Marsden is a British journalist and English teacher.