The approach of the 50th anniversary of national Independence has stimulated discussion about national "heroes'' (presumably used as a gender-neutral term) and "icons''.
Such discussions inevitably involve thinking about our history and the people who have helped to shape it.
Trinidad and Tobago does not have formally declared national heroes, unlike Jamaica. I recall that the NAR government (1986-91) took up the idea but, for whatever reason, didn't follow through with it. And one has to admit that the business of selecting heroes is inevitably more difficult in a multi-ethnic society like ours than in the much more homogenous (in terms of ethnicity, not class) Jamaica.
To mark the anniversary, Nasser Khan has produced a book, Profiles Heroes, Role Models and Pioneers of Trinidad and Tobago, published with support from First Citizens and aimed at young readers. There are 374 entries, divided into 24 sections; the entries range from two or three lines to two pages. Birth and death years are given for most but not all of the profiled individuals, and photos of some of them are also included. (Full disclosure: I am one of those profiled, in the education section).
Deciding on criteria for inclusion in a book of this kind is difficult. Khan states in his introduction that his chosen persons "are those who have made important contributions to our country's development, who have paved the way and continue to pave the way for others to follow''. Persons not born in T&T have been included if they made such contributions, and living as well as dead individuals appear in the book.
These are very broad criteria, and the inclusion of living persons means, inevitably, that not all will be pleased with Khan's selections, or perhaps more likely his omissions. For instance, I was surprised that Anthony Sabga and Sidney Knox were not included in the business section, and I thought that omitting nearly all of T&T's younger writers (that is, those born after around 1940), in the section Writing and Journalism, was a mistake. It's also a pity that only one Hindu religious leader (Pundit Capildeo) appears in the Religion section. But the selection for compilations of this kind will always be controversial to some extent, especially if living persons are included (the dead can't complain).
For my part, I wondered about the inclusion of "role models'' in the title. Might this mean that persons who did make important contributions, but are not judged to be role models, will be excluded? Is that why, for example, Picton is not in the section Colonial Governors? As British Trinidad's first governor, he most certainly helped to shape the island's development, though he ruled through violence and terror, mostly directed at the island's enslaved and "free coloured'' people.
Perhaps Khan should have explained in the introduction that a few persons who did help to make our history were excluded because they could not be seen as "role models'', if that was the case, though not all of the persons included were or are exactly saints. Generally, the principle behind dictionaries of national biography is to include everyone who did something noteworthy, without consideration of moral qualities, so famous criminals, for instance, are included. Of course I recognise that Khan's purpose was different but the "role model'' principle should have been explained, in my view.
Khan has selected his 374 individuals from a very wide range of areas — 24 categories in all — and he is to be commended for this; we also find a decent number of women in the book. Some of his "picks'' are quite innovative: for instance, he has included Samuel Elliot, the famous Papa Neza of Moruga, in his section on medicine (what will the medics think of this?)
It's also striking that by far the longest section is that devoted to culture and the arts, with 73 entries- and this section doesn't include writers, who are in a separate one with 19 entries. As a result, Khan's book is not biased towards politicians and others in public life, as many of these compilations tend to be. His section on politicians has only 11 entries, three of them devoted to living persons, though we must also add the section called modern leaders, which includes all T&T's governors-general, presidents and prime ministers.
Though I did note a few factual errors in some entries, and some omissions of relevant facts, overall this book is a very useful compilation.
It's good that the Ministry of Education will donate a copy to every school in the country and that Nalis will ensure all its branch libraries have it. Khan is to be commended for the research that went into this valuable contribution to documenting the nation's history and achievements.
Incidentally, I've read in the papers that as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, my colleagues Paula Morgan and Brinsley Samaroo have been commissioned to come up with a list of 50 "icons'' of T&T. It will be interesting to see what criteria they have adopted and who they come up with and to compare their list with Khan's 374 "heroes, pioneers and role models''.
• Bridget Brereton is emerita professor of history at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T, and the Caribbean, for many decades