The Reconquista is both a historical period and powerful story forged by the victors of Colombia’s struggle for independence. Chronologically, the period begins December 6, 1815 with the successful end of the royalist siege of Cartagena, and culminates on August 7, 1819 with Simón Bolívar’s crushing defeat of the Imperial Army in Boyacá.
As a narrative, the Reconquista is a bloody parenthesis on the path to liberation and end to Spain’s colonial experiment with a “Patria Boba.” The four years of political intrigue and turmoil that gave rise to the Republic of Colombia is the theme of the National Museum’s latest exhibition El Reino frente al Rey: Reconquista, Pacificación, Restauración Nueva Granada (1815-1819).
The exhibition also marks a return to a national theme, upon the success of hosting for three months objects from the medieval collection of the Paris-based Cluny Museum, and curatorial accomplishment for the country during the recent Colombia–France Year celebrations.
After exploring the tangible relationship of the medieval household with nature, the focus of this exhibition looks inward to the era of Royalist debacle, both militarily and ideologically. Curator and historian Daniel Gutierréz Ardila wants audiences to examine in three thematic sections – divided as the colors of the national flag – how the Republican system in New Granada triumphed, and what role does pardon and punishment play in resolving internal conflicts?
The exhibition explores the issue of national identity through paintings and historical artifacts. In Red, the opening section, the turmoil of New Granada is set to the broader context of revolutionary fervour in North America and the invasion of the Napoleonic armies across Europe. To put an end to the American revolutions, King Ferdinand VII of Spain, referred to as “the Desired” entrusted a man of humble origins, Pablo Morillo, to command an expedition of 10,000 troops to curb the excesses of the royalists in Venezuela, and crush the republicans of New Grenada. After a brief stay in Santa Marta, and a three month siege of Cartagena, Morillo’s army annihilated the rebel confederation of the United Provinces of New Granada in July 1816.
With a few exemplary executions, Morillo made frequent use of the gallows during his stay in Granada. War councils handed-out sentences so expeditiously that some 150 leaders from the United Provinces lost their lives, and their remains exhibited on pillories or in iron cages located in crowded places.
The excesses of Spain’s “pacification” had a profound effect on a sparsely populated kingdom exhausted by six years of revolution. The return of Ferdinand VII’s authority to the territory was marked by an extreme rigor in the form of a prolonged military government, and efforts to purge municipal councils of insurgents and republicans
In the second section of the exhibition – Red and Yellow – the colors of the Spanish flag are represented and reconquest is looked at through the a Pacification Army, comprised mainly of Creoles. Populations, whose loyalty to the Crown was recognized during the revolutionary era, received benign treatment from the Spanish. Aside from facing the gallows, many of the revolutionary patriots opted for exile in the Antilles or the United States, others remained in hiding in their haciendas. Only a small minority persisted in the armed struggle, creating guerrillas in the midst of royalist power, and taking refuge in the great plains of Casanare and Apure in hopes of preparing a lethal offensive against colonial rule in some distant future.
In mid-1819, a military expedition financed by the revolutionary government of Venezuela crossed the Eastern Cordillera from Casanare and defeated a royalist army division on a field in Boyacá on August 7, 1819. The battle, aside from placing the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá in the hands of the patriots, meant the collapse of royal power in nine rich and populated provinces of New Granada. This collapse indicated that the regime’s support had rotted away and that the campaign that crossed the Andes was merely the coup de grace that put a terminally ill patient out of its misery. However, three years of intense suffering, and the joy that followed its abrupt conclusion, provided the victors with unique prestige, and elevated them to the rank of “Liberators”, decreed first in an assembly in the Neogranadian capital and rati ed later by the Congress of Venezuela. In time, this title would provide officials with extraordinary political rights while the soldiers who deserved the honor sank into oblivion in small villages or died on the battle fields of Quito and Peru.
The Liberators are the other side of Reconquista, and its principle beneficiaries. The suffering they experienced crossing Los Llanos elevated them to a select group that refused to compromise with a restored regime. As the redeemers of an indolent and degraded people, the constant praise they received also served to disguise deals many of them had with the Spanish, such as the denunciation of patriots in 1816; the splendid receptions offered to officers of the Pacification Army; the hand-out of public riches; the bestowing of honorific duties during this period in history.
The Restoration defined the contours of the Republic of Colombia, whose birth as a nation was decreed in December 1819 in response to the victory in a Boyacá field. But, as this exhibition shows, the Independence campaign was as much about the battlefield as brokering deals behind closed doors. Sounds familiar?
If commemorations are necessary, they should challenge accepted narratives. The Kingdom before the King, opens as Colombians reconcile a conflict-ridden past with a final peace accord and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. As a contentious and polarizing moment for the nation, pacification remains a daunting task, and as this exhibition by the country’s most influential cultural space shows us, the more we know about the nature of conflict, the more we must value the importance of peace.
MUSEO NACIONAL- Cra 7 No.28-66
Admission: $4,000 Adults, $3,000 Students, $2,000 Children and Seniors. Closed on Mondays.