The Black President Colombia Won’t Acknowledge
Sunday, December 21, 2008
AUTHOR: El Nuevo Herald
Translated by Supriyo Chatterjee
Alvaro Uribe is not the 84th president of Colombia but the 85th as, for circumstances that the historians attribute to racism, a black president that this country had had in the middle of the nineteenth century, Juan José Nieto Gil, was literally erased from history.
Nieto Gil also was the first novelist that Colombia had, with three forgotten works. He is just vaguely remembered as a prominent Liberal general who participated in the civil wars of the nineteenth century… Nieto Gil was rediscovered two decades ago during investigations by Orlando Fals Borda, a renowned historian and father of modern Colombian sociology
Fals Borda had already reconstructed the life of Nieto Gil when he discovered in the dungeons of the colonial palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena, an oil painting of Nieto Gil rotting among the rubble, useless papers and discarded furniture exposed to humidity.
The picture had been painted before Nieto Gil was president of Colombia between 25 January and 18 July 1861, during a vacuum of power between the only Conservative governor Mariano Ospina Rodríguez and the second of the four of Liberal general Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera.
The presidential band was painted on to the oil canvas when Nieto Gil assumed charge and after his death the portrait was sent to Paris “so that it could be touched up in the manner of a French head of state and the one that returned was put up at the history museum of Cartagena till being withdrawn in 1974 after a restoration which was not approved by the city’s academics,” Fals Borda said in the biography of the forgotten president.
In Paris, in reality, said the historian before his death, “what was done was to whiten Nieto”. With the restoration of 1974 the original black man reappeared… the image did not please academia or the Cartagena elite, traditionally white and of Spanish stock and nostalgic Spaniards and was sent to the dungeons.
Moisés Alvarez, current director of the history archives of Cartagena, says “Cartagena was very elitist and Nieto was not from here”. Nieto Gil’s name is never mentioned in the official history texts of Colombia. That he had governed for only six months does not appear to be sufficient to exclude him. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for example, presidents like Víctor Mosquera Cháux or Carlos Lemos Simonds figure in the official gallery despite the fact that none of them governed for more than a month and a half.
Nieto Gil was born on 24 June 1805 “at the foot of a tree”… was an autodidact, a Mason. In 1839, he was elected deputy to the provincial chamber of Cartagena, participated in the civil war, was taken prisoner and exiled for five years in Kingston, Jamaica. He was author of Calamar’s Daughter and The Moors, the texts of which seem to have been lost.