This is, without a doubt, one of the ugliest monuments I’ve ever visited. The Faro a Colon, or Columbus Lighthouse, is a masterpiece of brutalism, a $70 million towering edifice of cement, visible from all over the city. It is perched atop a hill in eastern Santo Domingo, just across the Ozama River from the Colonial Zone, looking something like a cross between a Mayan pyramid and a warehouse block.
The outside is carved with quotations from philosophers, religious leaders, and the Bible, and inscribed with the names of all of the American countries, most of which made donations for this monstrosity to be built in 1992, honoring the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “sail[ing] the ocean blue.” The building is shaped as a cross if viewed from the air, and at the central meeting point is an elaborate tomb of stone, iron, and gold, where some of the remains of Christopher Columbus may lie. (This is a fun story, and more on that in a bit.) The famed Italian explorer landed here on his first voyage on behalf of the Spanish crown, and Santo Domingo has been tied to him ever since.
To say that Columbus’ legacy is controversial is an understatement. In parts of the Spanish-speaking world, he is lauded as nearly a saint. The Great Admiral. The Discoverer of the New World. Heck, even in the US, a place he never landed outside of Puerto Rico, his name is all over the place, and Columbus Day is a federal holiday. And yet, at best – at absolute best – all he did was successfully get lost, believing himself to be in India when in fact he was not. More than that, in addition to bringing colonists back from Spain (and the rest of Europe) who would wipe out the indigenous population, he personally would oversee campaigns of violence, repression, forced conversion, and slavery of those populations, while using them and their resources to enrich himself. Suffice to say, I am not a fan of the guy.
And yet, there is valid historical fascination with Christopher Columbus, and it is all the more valid here, in a city he once called home. During and following his voyages, Columbus would become governor of the Indies, the first person to hold that post, which would be renamed to viceroy later. It was his wish that he be buried here, in the place he would view as being his own.
One of the most impressive buildings of Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone is the Alcazar de Colon. This imposing mansion, located just inside the walls off of the river, was constructed by Chris’ son Diego Columbus, when he assumed the post of viceroy in 1511. The Columbus family would live here for generations. Now a museum, it tells part of the story of Diego Columbus, but more about the times, with furnishings that, while likely not original to the house, date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Diego’s legacy is no better than that of his father. His time is perhaps best known for bickering with the Spanish crown over his thought that the Indies were his own personal lands by virtue of inheritance and should pass to his own children, and for a Taino slave rebellion (the first in the New World) in 1522 on his personal sugar plantation, after which he had them all put to death.
But here in the Colonial Zone, Columbus (both of them, but specifically Christopher) seems to be remembered fondly. A statue of the explorer sits in a park named for him, the central square of the old city just outside of the cathedral. Portraits exist in pretty much every museum. And the lighthouse, the darned lighthouse, towers over, with a light that – when on, which is probably rare – is said to be able to be seen from Puerto Rico, though I have my doubts.
Christopher Columbus died in Spain in 1506, and his remains continued to journey. In 1513, he was exhumed from a monastery and re-interred in the Seville Cathedral. However, respecting his wishes to be buried here in Santo Domingo, his remains and those of Diego were relocated to the cathedral here in 1536. In 1793, when French Haiti took over the entire island of Hispaniola, his remains were moved to Havana, where they stayed until 1898, when at least some of them (DNA proven) were moved back to Seville, where they are today. However, the lighthouse here also contains a tomb of the explorer, and while the Dominican government has never allowed for DNA testing on the remains inside, there is good reason to believe they are also legitimate, marking this as the second Christopher Columbus tomb.
(Some may view this as him being honored both in Europe and the Americas. Personally, I like to think of it as a posthumous – and well deserved – decapitation, with his upper and lower halves going separate directions.)
While the guy arguably is the cause of an incredible amount of human suffering – both indirectly and directly – there is no question that Christopher Columbus is also an important historical figure, one honored here in Santo Domingo for his landings on the island, and for his family’s time as governors and viceroys. His is a complicated legacy, one worth learning about and experiencing on a trip here.
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4 thoughts on “Santo Domingo and the Legacy of Christopher Columbus”
Spanish Colonialsm spread throughout many places. Honoring the repressive regime is hypocrisy
I have seen the Columbus Lighthouse turned on. It is Very impressive. The lights shoot up to the sky and forms a crucifix which is seen in Puerto Rico.
That’s amazing! I found that claim hard to believe when I heard it, but it’s nice to have confirmation from another source. Thank you for reading!