How a controversial St. John's statue was actually propaganda for a Portuguese dictatorship

Critics focusing on Gaspar Corte-Real's connection to slavery may not know that his statue was erected to spread influence for António Salazar's regime.

Gaspar Corte-Real was a slave trader ... and that's not the only problem with his statue

Questions have been raised about the statue of Gaspar Corte-Real, placed across from Confederation Building in St. John's. (Ferne Williams)

As statues of slavers and historic figures of dubious morality are toppled around the world, many in Newfoundland and Labrador have been eyeing the statue of Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real. 

One of the most prominent statues in St. John's, it stands near Confederation Building on Prince Philip Drive. 

Erected in 1965, the statue — according to a plaque at the site — not so much celebrates Corte-Real himself as recognizes the connection between the province and Portugal, through their mutual fishing of the Grand Banks.

The statue has been notorious for years. In contemporary accounts, Corte-Real was said to have abducted around 57 Indigenous people on his 1501 arrival in Newfoundland or Labrador to sell as slaves.

That is enough for many to want the statue removed.

However, according to York University professor Gilberto Fernandes, the history of the statue is even more controversial than critics suspect.

A victory for dictatorship

While the story of Gaspar Corte-Real goes back to 1501, the story of his statue is rooted in a more modern era, when Portugal was seeking influence and respect on the international stage.

In the 1960s, Portugal was still engaged with colonial wars in Africa and was under intense pressure from the United Nations because it was one of the last remaining European dictatorships. 

A statue of figure with arms crossed.
The statue, designed by Estado Novo propagandist Martins Correa, was erected in 1965. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

"The Canadian federal government was one of the few NATO allies that at this point were still quite vocal against Portugal's empire, calling for its gradual granting of independence to its colonies," Fernandes said in an interview. 

One push of the propaganda wing of Portugal's right-wing regime, the Estado Novo, was to clear up their image by promoting the Corte-Real brothers — Gaspar and Miguel — as important founding figures in the colonization of North America, thus making Portugal a more legitimate player in Canadian and American identity. 

During an official visit in 1963, the Portuguese ambassador suggested a Corte-Real statue to celebrate the connection between that country and Newfoundland. Premier Joseph Smallwood enthusiastically received the proposal.

The piece was sculpted by Martins Correia, an artist frequently used by the Estado Novo office of propaganda.

"Smallwood … promised to place it in front of the new legislative building in St. John's and surround it with Portuguese soil and proclaim an annual Portugal day in the province," said Fernandes.

Smallwood even invited dictator António Salazar to attend the unveiling.

Fernandes said that at the time, Canada was being critical of Salazar's policies, which were seen as a kind of late-20th century fascism. 

"For Portugal, this was a tremendous victory, to have this official formal proclamation," he said. 

Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar used statues as a way of extending influence internationally. This statue of him, seen in a 2015 file image, faces a wall in a courtyard of the national library in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Mozambique got rid of many statues, street names and other symbols of colonial rule after independence from Portugal in 1975. (The Associated Press)

But Portugal had competition for the spot with another authoritarian regime: Spain's Francisco Franco.

"Spain and Portugal were at this sort of a heritage race to extract the most political gain.… There were a number of European nations who were claiming historic rights to continue to fish within Canada's expanding territorial waters," said Fernandes.

"I think it's a good example of how history has been leveraged and used for political gains."

History that didn't happen

In reality, the Corte-Reals had very little impact on North America, if they even ever got here at all. 

"The supposed discovery of Newfoundland or Labrador by Corte-Real is largely a myth," said Fernandes. "I mean there's very little evidence that there was a case, without even getting into the whole point of they didn't discover anything of course because indigenous peoples have been here for millennia."

What is certain — according to contemporary letters of Venetian ambassador to Portugal Pietro Pasqualigo — is that around 57 men, women, and children were taken from wherever it was the Corte-Reals managed to reach and sold into slavery.

Critics of the statue point out that there are now several other monuments, including a recently restored gravesite, better represent the province's connection with the Portuguese White Fleet and its fishers.

As far as taking it down, Fernandes said context is key.

Premier Joseph Smallwood selected the place for the statue next to the newly built government building. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

"I think people who condemn or criticize the tearing down of statues tend to see it somewhat as an equivalent of burning books, and it really isn't," he said.

"Books are where information is stored, they produce knowledge.… Statues are symbols. They are decisions that we make around what past we wish to remember and celebrate publicly and officially.

"I don't know if Corte-Real meets the threshold of historical villainy that would warrant for him to be brought down, but if anything by and large it's celebrating a history that most likely didn't happen."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andrew Hawthorn


Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.

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