The statue on Prince Philip Drive between the Confederation Building and the College of the North Atlantic is often mistaken for John Cabot, or “some Viking,” but the brass figure of Gaspar Corte-Real has his own history.
And some Indigenous leaders say it’s offensive to have a European explorer and early colonialist erected so prominently in town — especially since Corte-Real is believed to have taken 57 Indigenous people as slaves.
“My people were here long before Corte-Real got here. It is a bit of an offence to say we were discovered, like a Voisey’s Bay mineral,” said Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut. “It’s insulting. It’s not accurate. And those parts of the historical narrative give us an opportunity to have a conversation about reconciliation.”
The United States has recently been seized by the white supremacy associated with statues commemorating Confederate military leaders. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently renamed the Prime Minister’s Office building, removing the name of Hector Langevin, who was associated with establishing the country’s residential school system.
Closer to home, activists in Halifax want to see the removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, a British military officer who founded Halifax and put a bounty on the heads of Nova Scotia Indigenous people.
Defenders of statues often argue that to remove them would be to erase history.
The plaque at the base of the Corte-Real statue only offers a single line explaining his historical significance: “Portuguese navigator — he reached Terra Nova in the 15th Century (sic) — at the beginning of the era of the great discoveries.”
The plaque goes on to say the statue was a gift from Portuguese fishermen for the hospitality they received in Newfoundland and Labrador when they came to fish the Grand Banks each year. The statue was erected in 1965.
“He is a minor figure about whom very, very little is known with confidence,” said Memorial University historian Jeff Webb.
“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.”
The actual historical record around Corte-Real is sketchy. He made one expedition west across the Atlantic Ocean in 1500, and found land, although it’s not entirely certain whether it was Greenland or Labrador or Newfoundland. A year later, he returned with three ships and came ashore somewhere — perhaps Labrador or Newfoundland.
At some point on his 1501 expedition, Corte-Real took 57 Indigenous people as slaves. He then sent the two other ships in his expedition back to Europe, and he went on to continue exploring. He was never seen again.
Robert Sweeny, also a historian at Memorial University, said taking slaves was a common part of European exploration. In some cases, people were enslaved to work the land in the Americas. In other cases, they were brought back as sort of curiosities for the royal courts of Europe.
“Not only did (Christopher Columbus) take slaves, but he enslaved large numbers of people in what’s now the Dominican Republic — in what he called Hispaniola,” Sweeny said.
“Jacques Cartier, in the 1530s, he’s still bringing people back from the St. Lawrence valley. Or, well, I said that incorrectly. He’s kidnapping people and absconding with them.”
Based on the spotty historical record, it’s unclear whether the Indigenous people enslaved by Corte-Real were Labrador Innu, Inuit or Newfoundland Beothuks.
Miawpukek Chief Mi’sel Joe said he wasn’t really aware of Corte-Real’s history before The Telegram contacted him.
“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.
“I certainly first want to find out more information, and after I’ve got that, it’s possible that I might talk to the premier about that, or write a letter to the premier.”
Joe said an accurate history is important for Indigenous people, to come to terms with the impacts of colonialism.
“I’ve been saying all along, let’s deal with the friggin’ truth first, and then we’ll deal with the reconciling,” he said.
Russell said he worries that people might focus more on statues and names, rather than the real pressing issues facing Indigenous communities — clean drinking water, resource development, education and health care.
“We can certainly get caught up in these kinds of conversations and oftentimes government will use the conversations as a way to not deal with the real issues,” Russell said.
“In some ways, I think people like Corte-Real have taken too far of a prominent place and too much of our energy already. And if we’re going to have a conversation about what we do with these figures, these statues sometime, then it should be part of a larger conversation.”
But Russell also said he wouldn’t mind seeing the statue of Corte-Real taken down. Even in 1965, when it was put up, Indigenous people were being mistreated in Canada, he said. Russell said the fact that a European who enslaved Indigenous people was honoured with a statue is evidence that people in the 1960s didn’t care about Indigenous issues.
“Would we do that today? No, we probably wouldn’t. And I think that speaks volumes,” he said.
“It shouldn’t have been done in 1965.”
Historians Sweeny and Webb disagreed on whether the statue should stay up. Sweeny said public history is important, but the provincial government should take responsibility for adding additional interpretive material at the base of the statue to give people an understanding of who Corte-Real actually was.
Webb was careful to say the Corte-Real statue doesn’t reflect the same overt bigotry and white supremacy as the Confederate statues in the United States. But he said naming buildings and erecting monuments are fundamentally political acts.
“Some people will say we can’t pull down a statue because it is part of our history,” he said. “And my opinion is, history is what we know about the past, and the statue is immaterial to that. It really is not a big concern of mine.”