Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Seeking national policy on public tributes

On this, the one-off public holiday commemorating the contribution of the First Peoples to Trinidad and Tobago, the population is asked to reflect upon the place of Christopher Columbus in national history, among national monuments and in the national imagination. There is no better time for that reflection.

Two Columbus statues exist in Trinidad: one in Columbus Square in the capital city erected in 1881 and the other in Moruga constructed by Eric Lewis in 2010. The Cross Rhodes Freedom Movement is leading activism to have both removed and Columbus Square in Port of Spain renamed in honour of one of the indigenous heroes who fought against Spanish subjugation.

The activist organisation presents a compelling case: Columbus' arrival in the region triggered a barbarous chapter in human history and it cruelly insults descendants of the First Nations to retain the statues and the name of the public square which honour the man who “stole and renamed their lands, trafficked, raped and enslaved their ancestors, destroyed their way of life and denied their humanity”.

Equally valid are the points made by Mr Lewis, descended of the First Peoples as well as the Spanish, Indians and Africans. Mr Lewis argues that he claims all aspects of his heritage, including his ethnic inheritance from Spain, the country on whose behalf the Italian explorer set forth to the New World. He adds that the Moruga statue represents the historical fact of Columbus' arrival and interfering with it will not change history nor roll back colonialism.

Further, he counters that colonial inheritance in Trinidad and Tobago is so pervasive as to render meaningless resistance to one aspect. Tellingly, Mr Lewis observes that the activism against Columbus monuments leads to related questions about whether Trinidad will also be renamed and whether Port of Spain should indeed be so called, both names also being colonial bequests.

From other descendants of the First Peoples there is a suggestion that an even larger statue be added alongside Columbus's that honours their Amerindian ancestors.

The debate goes to the heart of New World identifications and the continuing attempts by modern-day citizens to wrestle with their pasts. There is no easy resolution and how the population and their political decision-makers discuss and resolve the issue will illustrate the level of national consciousness about a shared, complex history.

The recent renaming of Queen Street in Port of Spain to honour Janelle Penny Commissiong was faulted for the absence of public involvement in the Port of Spain City Corporation's decision-making process. That error cannot be repeated in this issue that cannot be ignored for it will resurface again and again, forcing the country to think deeply about who we are today, how our shared history shaped this place we all occupy and what we wish to celebrate in the form of national monuments in public spaces.

This newspaper renews its call for a national discussion towards a national policy on public tributes.