Cool reception for a N.Y. queen Art: A statue of an obscure 17th-century English queen becomes a focus of New York City's bitter racial politics.

Sun Journal

March 24, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEACON, N.Y. -- The queen's torso is hidden behind a 20-foot-high tarp. Her head rests on the foundry floor, next to Leonardo da Vinci's "Colossus." All the foundry's men may be able to put her together, but will she ever make it home to the East River?

Few works of art have generated more controversy before their completion than the statue of Queen Catherine, for which bronze is being poured at the Tallix Foundry in this small upstate town. Yet the 17th-century Portuguese princess who became an English ruler is virtually unknown among Americans, including the more than 2 million who live in the New York City borough named after her, Queens.

But obscurity has not kept Catherine from being engulfed in the bitter racial politics of New York City. A small but dedicated group of black activists with ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton wants to scuttle plans for the 50-foot sculpture, which is scheduled to rise above western Queens this year. The activists argue -- with little historical evidence -- that Catherine profited from the slave trade.

Even if she did not, says Betty Dopson, a school director and leader of Friends Against Queen Catherine, the addition of any 17th-century monarch to the New York skyline is inappropriate.

"The installation of this queen, or anything from that era, will send the message to our children and our people that it's OK to glorify the inhumanity that took place on the ships," says Dopson, who is black.

Historians dismiss Dopson's claims about Catherine's past as fantasy. But politicians seem to be bending to the activists' objections. In particular, Democratic borough President Claire Shulman's apparent decision to bar the statue from public land has prompted a flurry of protests from artists and historians, who argue that Dopson's terms would make it impossible for America to honor its early history.

"If they stop Catherine, no statue will ever be erected again from that period in New York City," says John Noonan, who is active in Friends of Queen Catherine. "By their standard, we'll have to change the names of the states. Maryland and Virginia would be OK, but Louisiana -- that would have to go."

Supporters of the statue never imagined that Catherine would provoke such a fight. More than 10 years ago, then-New York Mayor Edward I. Koch traveled to Portugal and told Lisbon's mayor that a Portuguese princess had inspired Queens. The word got back to Manuel Andrade e Sousa, who worked for the Portuguese Trade Commission in Manhattan.

Sousa raised $3 million from individuals and millions more from the Portuguese government for what seemed a "feel-good" project. Plans included the statue and a smaller, 10-foot-tall replica that will be placed on the banks of the Taugus River in Lisbon this May.

Both New York senators, three New York mayors, several United Nations ambassadors and even Donald Trump eagerly announced their support for the statue. Officials in Queens seized on the project. Catherine became part of an aggressive effort to raise Queens' profile. Within the past year, local officials have appointed a Queens poet laureate and sent "Queens, New York City: A World of Choices," the first tour-planner's guide for the borough, to travel agents around the country.

Even some of the project's boosters knew precious little about Catherine. Born in 1638 to the Portuguese duke and duchess of Braganza, she became a pawn in the ambitions of her father, who would become the Portuguese king, to secure his country's independence from Spain. To further that goal, Catherine, a melancholy sort, was married off at age 24 to King Charles II of England.

It was not a good match. Catherine was a devout Catholic of conservative tastes in a country of Anglicans with a taste for raunchy manners and entertainment. She never produced an heir. Her husband's mistresses, a fertile bunch who gave him 14 children, conspired to have her imprisoned or killed.

But in 1683, when Britain took New Amsterdam from the Dutch, Charles named one new county Queens for his wife; Brooklyn became Kings County in his honor.

After Charles' death in 1685, Catherine returned to Portugal. She died in 1705. Financial records unearthed centuries later show that her riches came not from slavery but from excise taxes and rent on government lands. In her will, Catherine left most of that money to charitable causes, including the freeing of slaves.

That fact, however, melted away in the heat of last summer's mayoral race. Sharpton, a Democratic candidate, brandishing a newspaper cartoon of the statue, led a protest in front of Queens Borough Hall. A pamphlet distributed at the rally attacked the borough president: "Stop Claire Shulman's Glorification of Slavery."

Quoting from Afrocentric history texts, Dopson has spent several months circulating petitions and giving interviews. In a phone conversation with The Sun, she claimed that the globe in the statue's hand will represent not the world but "the head of a slave."

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