The remains of the empire at the feet of Columbus

Sometimes temptation takes the shape of a snail.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 March 2023 Saturday 05:56
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The remains of the empire at the feet of Columbus

Sometimes temptation takes the shape of a snail.

The piece of metal was there, five or six meters on the bottom of the Caribbean, broken, begging me to take it away.

It was a screw from the Infanta María Teresa, Admiral Cervera's cruiser, the last sunken ship of the Spanish empire, and the coincidences that day were imperially twisted: with the photographer Guillermo Cervera, a descendant of the admiral, we did a report on the remains, and we did it last October 1 on the rebel coast of an island called Cat Island.

The temptation was irresistible, as if the snail, with a siren's liquid voice, whispered: "I am the end point of the first globalization, forged by Spain... come, come, take me".

The attraction sucked me in. I descended to my lungs, put my hand to the screw, and began to lift it to the surface... What is the point of taking war-torn iron away from its breaking point?

A few days ago, the temptation presented itself to me again while sailing not through the Caribbean, but through the newspaper archive of La Vanguardia: suddenly, those irons appeared drawn in the edition of December 6, 1901, unloaded at the feet of the statue of Columbus in Barcelona.

What were the remains of the remains of the last squadron of the Spanish Empire doing at the docks of Drassanes?

Why were they brought to Barcelona three years after the naval battle in Santiago de Cuba, which in fact sank the immense part of the metal? Why didn't the victors – Yankees and Cubans – keep the remains?

Imperial Spanish historiography has overlooked this installation, which would have fascinated artists such as Francesc Torres. "There are heaped pieces of decking, remnants of sloops, engine boilers, fans, booms, belts and grinders... - wrote La Vanguardia accompanying the drawing -. Painful memories that will now become new iron, perhaps in other boilers and other artifacts for new ships, and that seem to make good that principle we were taught in high school: nothing is created or annihilated."

Unconsciously – or not – La Vanguardia elevated that metal discharge to the category of artistic installation: it sent a draftsman and published the illustration on a page entirely dedicated to the English Pre-Raphaelites.

"On the dock of Drassanes rests for a few days a huge pile of old iron which is all or almost all that was left of the brilliant fleet - wrote our newspaper -. It would take all the poetic fiber to describe with the sadness that the painting suggests the ruins of the squadron that fell under the projectiles of the insatiable American battleships".

La Vanguardia did not miss the symbol and loop of the place where the defeated iron was unloaded: Columbus. "Months ago, it was remnants of the colonial army that arrived at the feet of the statue of Columbus: dying men. Now it's the remains of that squad that seem to stand up as a painful ephemeris, trying to wake up a people as dreamy as ours."

"The pain persists - reflected the newspaper - and grows again when one contemplates the remains of something that became the object of so many illusions and hopes, that later awakened so much sterile heroism and now so much bitter teaching".

Given that the breakup of Cuba and Spain was a full-blown sentimental collapse, the junk today would have looked fantastic in Zagreb's Museum of Broken Relationships, dedicated to failed love. Examiners from all over the world, abandoned or abandoning, give this museum the objects that summarize their vital cracks, and the ax with which a deceived Berlin woman turned all the furniture of her partner (who had touched the two on vacation with another).

"As I was grinding the furniture, which took on the appearance in which my soul had been left, I felt more at ease - confesses the woman who gave the tool. I elevated the ax to an instrument of therapy”.

Therapy and happening also in Barcelona in 1901, due to the interaction between the pedestrians who passed by and the twisted ghost of the empire: "Among the curious who contemplate the remains of our squadron - said La Vanguardia three days before, when announced the download – sad and timely comments are made... sic transit gloria mundi ”.

But let's go back to the beginning of the story, to the Caribbean temptations, to the Infanta who whispered to me: "Come closer, I am the end point of the first globalization... take me".

The attraction sucked me in. I lunged down, reached for the screw, started to lift it up to the surface and...I regretted it, let it go and dropped it back onto the sea bed, onto the place where it rests since 1898.

Seen over time, every empire is a happening.