The recent uprising following the police killing of George Floyd in May has provoked an old debate about the significance of colonial and Confederate monuments. Activists across the nation have called for their removal, emphasizing the role these symbols play in promoting ideas that are racist and undemocratic.
President Trump, along with many other leaders, has insisted that the attacks on monuments would somehow erase history or “bring people apart.” But studies of iconoclasm present the irony that the will to destroy monuments provides a precise testimony to what they mean to people.
More than just representations, monuments are often the focus of political participation. Those who make and break them invest them with their ideas of the kind of society that should exist, a purpose pinned upon the primary function of honoring figures and certain ideas they upheld. We can thus understand how Confederate monuments appease the bruised egos of those sympathetic to the losing side of the American Civil War, whose nostalgia for slave-owning days stems from their sense of impotence and diminishing social power.
The motives behind the breaking of monuments contradict the charge that protestors are trying to erase history and show rather, that they have a keen understanding of history. To illuminate these points, I revisit two instances, both in the colonial past of the United States of America and my native Philippines. For the former I will discuss the monument to England’s King George III, which was erected in New York in 1770, and for the latter, and for which I will devote the bulk of this essay, I revisit the monument to Spain’s Carlos IV, erected in Manila in 1824.
The monarchs depicted in these two felled and restored monuments reigned roughly around the same time from the late 18th century and they present us with object lessons about iconoclasms which resonate deeply with the recent attack on Confederate monuments. These two instances present a curious interplay between image making and breaking. In what follows, we will reconstruct the outraged sentiments of the people who took them down, vis-a-vis the invisible labor of the artisans who painstakingly made the monuments.
George III and Carlos IV: an overview of two monuments
I first knew of the George III monument when I came across an article by the New York Historical Society about the origin of a bronze horse’s tail found in a Connecticut swamp. The bronze tail was once part of the statue of George III which previously sat for six years (1770-1776) on a plinth on a heavy pedestal at the center of Bowling Green in downtown New York. It had been removed after the Declaration of Independence had been read aloud in lower Manhattan, announcing that the Revolution against British rule had begun. The iconoclasts were a company of colonial soldiers and sailors under the command of Capt. Oliver Brown who crept into a dark alley near the park at Bowling Green to “erase history,” that is, by pulling down a statue of George III.
The monument was sculpted by Joseph Wilton (1722-1803) in England and depicted the king astride a horse in a pose that was modeled on a statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. It stood at about 15 feet and was made of lead gilded with gold. A New York Times article suggests that the monument was commissioned by the British government to serve as a reminder of who was in charge at a time when the colony seemed to be slipping away from its grasp.
According to the New York Historical Society, destroying the monument was spontaneous: the patriots “climbed the statue, tied ropes around it, and—after a one failed attempt—heaved it to the ground.” Additionally they noted how “a furious George Washington quickly heard about the act and, while he commended the soldiers’ zeal, decried anything that looked like “a riot or want of order.”
After the gold was removed, the broken statue was carted off to a foundry in Connecticut, where the 4,000 pounds of lead were melted down into musket balls for the coming war. In all, over 42,088 musket balls were made, but some key segments went missing along the way: the head, for instance, was returned to England, where it disappeared from record. As for other pieces, the legend goes that the cart’s drivers stopped in a tavern and local loyalists took the opportunity to spirit some of the segments away. The legend illustrates a phenomenon which David Freedberg would point out as the “sense of the living in the image,” which in this case transformed fragments of a statue as an object of veneration.
In a statement to the New York Times, Philip Mead, chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution, said that the breaking of the English king’s monument “immediately makes you see the Revolution as revolutionary;” that the presentation of the fragments, endowed with magical lore by both sides of the revolution should “shake visitors out of the idea that the Revolution was ‘controlled, tame, elegant.’” In an analysis that resonates with our current political situation, he also mentions that “early revolutionary America was marked by such populist groups,” who were moved to rioting, but he cautions against “thinking of these people as callous rebels looking for a fight.”
An article in the Scientific American described the iconoclasts as “people of lower social and economic means,” who didn’t have the connections or the money to lobby parliament for their welfare. “Toppling monuments was their means of gaining a voice and their means of writing the social history they wanted to represent their values and vision.”
The same article traces the patriots’ iconoclasm back to the ancient process of Damnatio Memoirae, the Roman sanction against memory, which involved defacing someone’s images and “purging all public traces of the individual.” Damnatio Memoirae amounted to nothing more than Derridean erasure; unable to obliterate the record of the person but registering his banishment from society. But it served as the most “expedient means for angry citizens to take control of the representation of their social history.”
My research into the lives of the immigrant workers in the foundries of early nineteenth century brought me to the story of the statue of Carlos IV which strangely recalls the account of the George III Monument, but in reverse. Carlos IV’s monument was commissioned in 1796 but only completed in 1824 following a deadly mutiny that almost overthrew the colonial government. Heavily vandalized and looted all throughout the nineteenth century, it was removed in the 1960s amidst the wave of the civil liberties movement in the Philippines, a movement that roughly coincided with the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Like the George III monument in New York, the Carlos IV monument in Manila was commissioned to remind the people of who was in charge in a colony that increasingly demanded autonomy. But unlike the George III monument, it was allegedly commissioned not by the Spanish Government but by Manila residents in gratitude for sending smallpox vaccines to the Philippines. Current findings disprove this and suggest that the statue was initially commissioned to celebrate the assumption of direct rule by the Spanish monarch on the archipelago previously administered through a viceroyalty in Mexico.
When it was removed from the Plaza in the 1960s, the statue was briefly replaced by a monument dedicated to three priests who were executed in 1872. The priests were among the early Filipino leaders who propagated liberal ideas that eventually led to the Philippine Revolution. The statue of Carlos IV had been gathering dust in the basement of the National Library until dictator Ferdinand Marcos ordered the statue of the three priests removed and the statue of Carlos IV returned to its original location in 1978.
These events in Philippine history foreshadow in my mind a likely scenario in the future of Confederate monuments in the United States, once nostalgia overtakes the passionate rhetoric of a protest movement. A relapse guised as a historical lesson might entail the restoration of felled monuments in public squares. Notwithstanding a careful curatorial program that memorializes the iconoclasm more than the icon, a reconstruction of the George III monument is currently the centerpiece of a historical tableau at the Museum of the American Revolution.
The Hidden Labor of Monuments
Bearing in mind that monuments give us a portrait of the ideals of society, an often overlooked aspect of monument making and breaking is the labor required to build them. The story of the workers of the Carlos IV monument presents an intriguing irony: the laborers’ participation in the civic exercise of monument making increased their political consciousness and desire for meaningful assimilation into the society that enlisted their labor; this desire would grow through generations and eventually lead to the repurposing or removal of these statues. In what follows, we shall trace the arc of the labor that created the Carlos IV monument, drawing mainly on historical data presented in a recent paper by Pedro Luengo Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez locates the origins of the Carlos IV monument to the Spanish sculptor Juan Adan (1741-1816). Adan had made a lifesize model of Carlos IV in 1796 and shipped the mould of the monument to Manila in 1801. Thereafter, it took a full decade for the monument to be cast in a bronze workshop in Manila’s Maestranza, where Chinese mestizos operated a foundry to make cannons and ammunition. It wasn’t a lack of funds that caused the delay, but a lack of skilled Spanish laborers in Manila. Juan Adan initially resisted the idea of having mestizos cast the monument to the Spanish monarch. His hesitation reflects the political aftershocks during the intermittent liberal upheavals and the resultant laws that alternately banned, and then later allowed, greater participation of Chinese immigrants in Manila society.
Colonial Manila was an epicenter of fine craft work in bronze, which benefited from the influx of Chinese immigrants who settled in Parian, an enclave specifically designated for the Chinese population. Known as sangleys, these traders and craftsmen constituted the largest community outside of mainland China.
In a study on Philippine religious images in the British Museum, Rachel A.G. Reyes writes that craftsmen had a ready market for their sculpted images in bronze, gold, and ivory depicting sacred and divine subjects that adhered to Christian themes. In the Parián, there was an organized and efficient production line that churned out the same images in large quantities.
Studying Gutierrez’s sources, I was intrigued by the description of the workers in the foundry. In particular, the story of an ex-convict who participated in one of the many rebellions against the monarchy in Manila. What could possibly make such a rebel contribute his labor to the creation of a monument for this king?
Before going into the lives of the workers, let us explore the circumstances that prompted the building of the monument. Earlier researchers attribute the commissioning of the landmark to the gratitude by the Manila residents for the Real Expedición Filantrópica de la Vacuna led by Dr. Javier Francico Balmis (1752-1819) during the reign of Carlos IV.
This origin story is officialized through the granite marker on the pedestal of the sculpture which was only dedicated in 1824. The placement of the bronze monument occurred much later than the arrival of the vaccine and while this reason for the commission is accepted as historical fact, there are some chronological inconsistencies.
The Balmis expedition arrived in Manila on February 8, 1805. In a letter written in Macao, Balmis explains to José Antonio Caballero that China was the focus of the smallpox contagion and the Philippines, as a trading post, was badly hit by the contagion. The letter proves that the vaccine was sent at the height of the smallpox pandemic, giving Gutiérrez reason to doubt that the commission was triggered by gratitude.
The belief that the smallpox contagion originated from China may have exacerbated the racist views of colonists against immigrant Chinese, perpetuating segregationist practices in the colony. Chinese immigrants may have been coaxed by civic leaders with the promise of a vaccine. This must have been a strong inducement to laborers who were racially stigmatized and socially marginalized. Ultimately, the vaccine allowed them to continue work within the walls of Manila.
In the summer of 1802, the governor continued to doubt whether the casting would be carried out in Spain or on the islands by a “famous Indian professor” whose exact identity we cannot yet determine. The only institution capable of bearing the task of bronze casting in the archipelago was the Manila Maestranza Cannon Foundry, which had been closed years before. The factory had to be revived specifically for the making of this monument. The closure partly explains the scarcity of documentation of both the organization of work and the identities of the laborers involved in the project.
Fortunately, the names of the foundry masters, Mateo Villanueva and Felipe Alonso, appear in the foundry documents. Villanueva had just been released from prison, exonerated for a robbery at the Maestranza, while Alonso worked with the new cast for the bell for the Manila Cathedral years before.
According to the documents in the National Archive of the Philippines, a Chinese mestizo named Ambrosio Casas, signed the payments to the workers and the business address of the foundry is attributed to his residence. Records demonstrate tremendous diversification of work. Casas commanded an artillery squadron proficient in casting cannons with a military engineer at the helm, probably Ildefonso Aragón y Abollado. Aragon’s signature also appears in some of the documents—along with several master stonecutters and a “maestrillo” dedicated to making the pedestal. In addition to these men, anonymous master smelters also contributed their labor to the project who are mentioned in later documents as numbers but whose names are not yet known.
The sources about Ambrosio Casas help to explain his involvement in the project. He entered military service in 1779 as captain of the eighth company of the Prince’s Royal Battalion. Then in 1794, he was appointed a commander of the Prince’s Royal Militia Regiment. His expertise in casting cannons is well documented but he has no experience in making sculptural monuments. Casas may have been exclusively left in charge of the foundry since he had already assimilated himself in the colony as a civic and military leader. Authorities relied on his network in the Chinese-immigrant community for skilled laborers. Given that the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively barred Chinese from Manila, Casas’ ability to circumvent racial exclusionary laws is a testament to his progressive sensibilities and social influence at the time.
Aragon’s position as the city engineer makes him the second most important person in the capital of Manila. Aragon authored books, worked on a number of important public structures such as the Manila Cemetery project. He is also a founding member of the Sociedad Economica, a group that helped establish the first Academy of Art employing Western techniques of instruction in 1821. This Academia would be headed by the son-in-law of Ambrosio Casas, Damian Domingo.
Domingo is credited in Philippine art history as the “First Filipino painter.” His descendants claim that he worked in his father-in-law’s foundry as a young man. This has been contested by scholars but he may have been a child laborer and thus absent in the official payroll. In any case, at a time when naval cadets were enlisted as young as 12 years old, the possibility of a young Damian Domingo helping out in the foundry during the middle and later phases of construction is highly plausible.
Ambrosio Casas, Ildefonso Aragon, and Damian Domingo, give us a cross-section of the first generation of Filipinistas who figured in the early 19th century as active civic leaders. A nascent national consciousness drove these men to defy racial segregation and work on this monument, which they understood to be an important endeavor for the colony.
Apart from these three influential men, the identities of the individuals who contributed their labor to the monument remain elusive. The scale of the project required more engineers and a number of sculptors. The fact that the organizers in Manila were so confident that a small sketch from Adan was all that was needed for artisans to execute the work suggests that the technical infrastructure was available. Now that we know some of the figures involved in the casting of the monument to Carlos IV, we will now discuss the tedious process of its construction.
In December 1807, the extraction of jaspers for the pedestal began in the Mariveles mountains, in Bataan, 54 kilometers from Manila by ferry crossing. This endeavor required the rigid supervision of the Spanish military. In addition to the captain, the party included a second master of stonework, as well as military and civilian officials. The mestizo Chinese militia headed by Ambrosio Casas must have been overextended for dividing their time between the foundry and quarry. It bears noting that Casas and his men were charged with carrying out the entire supply process.
When enough material had been gathered in Intramuros, the major master of the Royal Works joined the construction. Expense reports from this period also include wages paid to boilermakers, lapidary stonemasons, carpenters, bricklayers and other workers. In December 1808 some ashlars brought from Guadalupe, the traditional quarry from the 17th century. The year 1809 begins with the first payments of lead and copper, and two whetstones brought from China, signalling that the bronze cast must have been completed before 1811.
An 1825 painting depicting the unveiling of a portrait of Fernando VII in Plaza Mayor shows the statue of Carlos IV being protected by a circular temple surrounded by a series of low pedestals and an artificial garden. The garden and the immediate space surrounding the monument departs from the austere design of the original. Drawings dedicated to the decoration of the square demonstrate the pride of the Philippine authorities for having completed the monument but absent from the celebrations are the laborers who lent their skill in the making of the monument. This becomes tragically poignant when we take into account that immigrants supplied the crucial labor in the foundry and that a civic project carried out by mestizos and assimilated Spanish leaders was, in fact, an exceptional collaborative effort in the racially segregated colony.
To recall the story of the felling of the monument to George III, we see a reversal of purposes here. The Connecticut foundry that melted the George III monument into musket balls that were fired on the colonizing army is a reverse iimage of the artillery foundry in Manila that was temporarily repurposed to make a sculptural monument. These two accounts provide us with a profound insight: that the ultimate power of determining the shape given to bronze resides in the will of skilled laborers. They can either melt the bronze to immortalize kings or melt them to make the ammunition that will heave them back to the ground. The power of public images is only measured by the amount of belief that the people invest upon it.
The attack on monuments during the uprisings in the Black Lives Matter movement echoes a tradition of people turning their rage against representations. Instead of seeing the monument as a representation of the purported subject, we should treat it as a concealing device, that we must always scrutinize even to the point of destruction. The monument is an organizing principle and the ideas that it represents constantly fluctuate; their meanings are couched in symbolic webs and social conditions that exist outside the monuments themselves.
From the accounts of the monuments to George III and Carlos IV, we can summarize the rapport between monument and representation through two main themes: first, that the ideas it signals are not permanent and always subject to change. Second, that the monument is a representation, but not necessarily of the subject.
Collating photographic material, paintings and other visual depictions of Confederate monuments, curators have woven an argument with visual evidence to suggest that the monument has always been united both with the oppressive and liberating power that the people invest upon it.
In the case of the Carlos IV monument, the reason for the commission was supplanted by another: the arrival of the smallpox vaccine, an occasion that resonated well with the people. While not insulating it from iconoclastic action, it sustained the existence of the monument across revolutions and war until finally being ejected by anti-colonial and nationalist movements in the 1960s.
The labor-intensive process of making a monument required the participation of workers from marginalized sectors of society who may not share the ideals represented by the statues. In the case of the Carlos IV monument, a company of immigrant and mestizo Chinese laborers along with colonists coming from various fields of engineering and business came together to realize the monument, which they pursued less as an homage to a distant colonial order than as a civic exercise demonstrating what the colony can achieve on its own initiative and ingenuity.
In toppling the George III monument the people banded together and acted autonomously from recognized leadership, even in defiance of George Washington, not just to “erase history” but to make history by physicalizing the declaration of independence.
New forms of monuments have emerged, “meta-monuments” that demonstrate and problematize the act of monumentalization. As mentioned above, the installation of the George III statue in the Museum of the American Revolution seeks to do just that. Nevertheless, the repurposing of monuments as educational material deserves closer scrutiny. The museumization of monuments reduces their meaning to a social role. But this is still done, much like the original monument, to legitimate social interests, whether to bolster power or to record a memory of a representation of the person. The monument can thus be seen as an “image of society” and as the art historian Hans Belting would put it, “not an authentic facsimile of the person represented”.
A museumized monument is often viewed as an example of “sculptural art,” which in turn activates nostalgia and/or fetishistic beliefs in museum-goers and collectors. We should also see the monument as but a piece in the string of public representations that include photography, film and digital media in our current times that create a “fiction of a coherent self” or of “a coherent society”.
With origins in funerary markers, modern monuments become much like the portrait, a “medium of memory.” This memory is often a falsified one, a socially constructed deathmask.
We should find it grotesque for society to tolerate the display of Confederate and colonial monuments but label their destruction as “erasure of history”. It is in fact their restoration and continued existence that erases history. Even their inclusion as museum objects should always be viewed with skepticism, susceptible to contamination by the narrative of whoever is in power. Had the Carlos IV monument been destroyed, it would have been harder to resurrect it back onto its former place. But since it was preserved in the basement of the library, purportedly as an educational artifact, it was able to retreat and reinvent its subject in a new, artificial role. Eventually, the dictatorial government of Ferdinand Marcos found it suitable to reinstate the monument.
The monument contains the sublimated expression of colonized subjects as much as they are oppressive symbols of power. The obsolescence has been fated from when they were casted in the foundry. The felled monuments thus embody the reclamation of the power that ultimately resides in the disenfranchised people who make these public images, historically signalling their transformation into citizens.
The breaking and melting of the George III in the United States and the removal of the Carlos IV monument in the 1960s serve as precedents in the attack on monuments in the era of Black Lives Matter. What our comparison shows is that the monument is never a neutral image but also a reproducer of ideas that is built upon a series of ever-shifting projections of beliefs that cannot be perceived in a state of permanence.