Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Name games

On July 18, the mayor of Port of Spain announced that King George V Park had been renamed Nelson Mandela Park; there was a ceremony and a plaque was erected. (The older commemorative plaque, with information about George V, the British monarch between 1910 and 1936, will remain in place.)

There has been quite a bit of newspaper comment, mostly critical of the change. One criticism was the apparent lack of consultation, whether with St Clair residents, users of the park, Port of Spain citizens or the general public. Another line of thought was that a local or Caribbean icon should have been chosen—Eric Williams and Toussaint L’Ouverture were both suggested. Others argued that, rather than changing an existing name, a new development or place should have been used to honour Mandela, the Chaguaramas boardwalk, for instance.

But the most significant criticism, for me, was that changing an established place name seems to erase or disregard part of the nation’s history. British colonialism, symbolised by the king, was a crucial part of our past; our colonial heritage has shaped us in many ways for good and ill, and to seem to wipe it out—even to honour someone like Mandela—is to do violence to our history and our ancestors.

Of course, debates like these are far from unique to T&T. Virtually all “new” nations which have emerged from colonialism struggled with these issues, in which place names, statues, public commemorations, are all involved. Do we get rid of the statues of Queen Victoria to be found all over the former British Empire, what about all the streets bearing the names of British royals or heroes? And it’s not only former colonies: think of the Russian city St Petersburg, which became Petrograd, then Leningrad, now it’s back to St Petersburg.

Mandela’s own country has gone through these debates after the end of apartheid. His party, the ANC, naturally wanted to change many names of towns, streets and buildings, and the Afrikaners (white Afrikaans-speakers) especially resented this, fearing their heritage would be swept aside.

The Trinidadian/Canadian historian David Trotman has written about naming issues in T&T—what he calls acts of symbolic decolonisation—and has concluded that the national government was conservative in its approach during and after Independence. Apart from Marine Square becoming Independence Square, and the Princess Margaret Highway morphing into the Hochoy/Butler Highway, there has been little movement to throw out “colonial” place names.

I am in two minds about Mandela Park. On the one hand, as a historian, I’m sympathetic to the argument that an old established name, reflecting a central fact about our past (British colonialism), should not be thrown out. Thus, for instance, I didn’t think that the Woodbrook streets named for British heroes of the Boer War (1899-1902) should be renamed. They are definitely not heroes of T&T, but these street names remind us of when the suburb was developed, and speak to our past as a part of the British Empire.

Nor should we, in my view, rename the places which recall our colonial governors: Woodford Square, Harris Promenade, all the Picton streets, Jerningham Junction. These governors played an important role in our history, even the out and out villains like Picton.

By contrast, King George V has little real connection to T&T. Yes, he visited briefly in 1880 when he was a teenage naval cadet on a round-the-world cruise, and yes, Princes Town is named for him and his brother. But as the monarch, he had no particular link to this country. And I suppose this is why I don’t feel upset about Nelson Mandela Park, though I’m glad the commemorative stone about King George V will remain.

• Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T and the Caribbean for many decades.