The decades-old, passionate debate about the placement of the statue of British admiral Horatio Nelson resurfaced today after Barbadians woke up this morning to the news that the life-size figure had been defaced.
The statue of the British hero has stood at what was then Trafalgar Square –renamed Heroes Square in 1999 in honour of Barbadian heroes – for over 200 years. For the majority of this period it looked down on the square and Broad Street, before it was turned 180 degrees by a Democratic Labour Party administration after public protest.
However, despite signals by then Prime Minister Owen Arthur in 1999 that the statue would be removed, it continues to occupy pride of place at Heroes Square, much to the consternation of pan-Africanists such as Trevor Marshall, Anthony Mighty Gabby Carter, Sir Hilary Beckles and David Comissiong, and those wishing to shed the island’s image of “Little England”.
City commuters were surprised this morning to discover that the statue, which was erected in 1813 – some 30 years before the towering monument in London – was covered in yellow spray paint and other graffiti.
Whoever defaced it also left a sign at the base of the statue stating: “Lord Nelson will Fall. This racist white supremacist who would rather die than see black persons free, stands proudly in our nation’s capital. Nelson must go! Fear not Barbadians have spoken, politicians have failed us.”
The text was similar to the headline of a column written by Sir Hilary in September, calling for the removal of the sculpture.
In the piece entitled, Why Nelson Must Fall, the UWI vice chancellor referred to the exploits of the naval warlord.
“Nelson . . . by his political decisions, military actions and public speeches, was a vile, racist, white supremacist; he disposed black people, and dedicated his political and military life to the cause of protecting Britain’s criminal possession of the 800 000 enslaved Africans held during his lifetime.
“The 85 000 enslaved Blacks entrapped in Barbados only knew of Nelson as leader of the naval power dedicated to keeping them in slavery. The 15 000 slave owners in Barbados who welcomed Nelson in the Caribbean and celebrated his presence, did so because their greatest fear was black freedom,” he wrote.
In the second part of his commentary last week, Sir Hilary wrote that the vision of the slave owners who funded its erection remained intact, with Nelson unmoved and blacks still quivering.
“Citizens have been psychologically programmed for two centuries and have not vandalized the obscenity in our city, nor scandalized the slave owners’ scam upon our society,” he wrote.
“We have reached the end of our endurance. We are not going to travel any deeper into this 21st century carrying the baggage of this 19th century brutality. Nelson should be taken down by the parliament before it is torn down by the people. It should be sent to the pier, out of site of the parliament, to hear a watery eulogy.”
Sir Hilary also called on the political parties to declare their position on the matter ahead of the election.
“Who will rise up and free the nation of this psychic abuse? Is there not a brave woman or man amongst us? Are we still living in fear of the Nelson project? Are we still quivering in fear of being public advocates of the ‘damnable doctrine?” he wrote.
As part of his efforts to fully cut ties with Britain, Arthur had all but said during the renaming of the square that the Nelson statue would go. It was widely believed that it would have been replaced with one of the country’s first Prime Minister, Errol Barrow, who led Barbados to independence from Britain 51 years ago tomorrow, on November 30, 1966.
“It is not our understanding or contemplation that [the statue’s] source is hereby diminished or that those who treasure his memory should lose faith or heart,” Arthur had said at the renaming ceremony.
“This National Heroes Square is for our citizens and visitors, who should be aware that we own an indigenous culture of human achievement that stands tall with the whole world,” he had said.
This was the very point raised by a National Heroes Square and Gallery Development Committee of prominent Barbadians established by Arthur in 1999 to consider and decide upon the issue of the correct location of the controversial statue, among other issues.
After three town hall meetings and dozens of submissions from Barbadians, the committee issued its report in May 2000 in which it recommended the removal of the statue and its relocation to a proposed maritime museum or maritime heritage centre planned for Fort Willoughby in Bridgetown.
The committee, of which Comissiong was a member, thought then that while Nelson could not be considered a hero of Barbados, both he and his statue were part of the island’s history and had significant value as a tourist attraction, but in the best interest of Barbadians it should be taken down expeditiously.
“The committee felt that once a decision was taken to move the Nelson statue, it would be counter-productive to allow it to remain in National Heroes’ Square for any substantial period since this state of affairs may unnecessarily fuel public controversy. The committee understood that the presence of that statue at Heroes’ Square was controversial and could provoke a negative response from the people of Barbados. We have waited 17 years but the committee’s prediction has come true,” Comissiong told Barbados TODAY.
The social activist did not openly hail the action, but said while he would normally denounce the defacing of Government property, this was different.
However, while acknowledging that the controversy has been simmering for many years, Minister of Culture Steven Lashley called for whoever was responsible to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“I wish firstly to condemn the act itself of defacing any public monument in Barbados including the statue of Lord Nelson. In my view it is immaterial who or what that statue is because today it is Lord Nelson but tomorrow it could be anyone else.
“I acknowledge that for many years there has been a public debate on whether or not the statue should be removed from where it currently is. I am of the view that we have to face this issue and resolve it as a country one way or the other. I believe that anyone who takes it on themselves to deface a public monument should equally be dealt with firmly in accordance to the laws of Barbados,” Lashley said.
Police continue to probe the matter, with Public Relations Officer Acting Inspector Roland Cobbler telling Barbados TODAY the perpetrators could face charges for criminal damage.