Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies Sir Hilary Beckles has come out strongly in defence of whoever defaced the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson late last month, suggesting that one day they may very well be revered by society for seeking to right an “immoral” wrong.
On the eve of this island’s 51st anniversary of political independence celebrated on November 29, city commuters were surprised 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 another article submitted today on the topic, Sir Hilary compared the illegal action of defacing Nelson to the breaking of an “unjust law” by freedom fighter Rosa Parks in Alabama, USA in 1955, out of which he said “the spring of freedom flooded the nation”.
“She [Parks] refused to vacate the seat she occupied at the front of the bus to a white woman who demanded it. The law provided for all blacks to sit at the back. That illegal act sparked the civil rights revolution. Today, the same lady, who broke the law, Rosa Parks, is revered as the mother of the civil rights movement and a globally celebrated icon in the advancement of humanity and democracy,” Sir Hilary noted.
He also compared the recent painting of Nelson’s statue in colours of yellow and blue with the burning of William Wilberforce in effigy in Bridgetown, and the criminal destruction of the Methodist church that was associated with this island’s lone heroine Sarah Ann Gill, saying it “pales in comparison”.
“Both actions were taken by the men who funded and erected the Nelson statue. Both actions were done for the same reason; Wilberforce tried to stop the slave trade and Sarah Ann declared slavery a sin and a crime,” Sir Hilary noted, while pointing out that “no one at the time was charged because the actions were reported as done by ‘some the most respected men on the island’.
“These respected men controlled both police and parliament,” Sir Hilary said, while questioning, “where was the justice? Where is the moral authority?”
In the immediate aftermath of last month’s incident, police said they were probing the matter, adding that the perpetrator or perpetrators could face charges for criminal damage.
Minister of Culture Steven Lashley had also strongly condemned the act, while calling for whoever was responsible to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“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,” Lashley had said at the time while acknowledging 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 [but] 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.
However, in his article entitled Nelson and 21st Century Nation Building in Barbados, Sir Hilary, who chairs the CARICOM Reparations Commission, pointed to an October 13, 2017 resolution agreed to by the Commission for formal requests to be made to all CARICOM member countries “calling for all statues and memorials, dedicated to the public reverence of persons who committed crimes against humanity, and all those who aided and abetted them, to be removed from places of public celebration.
“The resolution states that all those who ushered and directed the genocide against the native people of the Caribbean, such as Christopher Columbus, should be removed from public squares and placed in suitable places such as museums.
“Also, that those persons who defended and practised the crime of enslaving others, denying them their humanity, such as Horatio Nelson, should be similarly removed from places of public celebration and located in museums or other more appropriate places, allowing for education access,” Sir Hilary said.
The vice chancellor also suggested that successive Governments were to blame for “the frustration citizens face with the immorality of any law that purports to ascribe some legal status to the Nelson monument”.
He also accused them of failing to carry through on founding father Errol Barrow’s vision, after one of the first actions he took as premier in 1962 was to end the racist, official, colonial activity of laying wreaths before the monument of Horatio Nelson.
“This was an enormous gesture which many folks protested. But the Premier stood his ground; no more loitering on colonial premises,” Sir Hilary said.
“Just over a decade later, Prime Minister Tom Adams had the courage and wisdom to erect a monument to commemorate Emancipation because in 1938,” Sir Hilary added, while stating that “the truth is that Nelson, rather than being celebrated and revered by the descendants of survivors of genocide in Barbados, should be tried in absentia for crimes against humanity.
“The evidence of his participation in the crimes of genocide and slavery, both as a military enforcer and as a politician sitting in the House of Lords, is overwhelming,” Sir Hilary said, pointing out that some 600,000 enslaved Africans were imported into Barbados over 200 years but that at Emancipation in 1834 there were a mere 83,000 survivors.
“Even when adjustments are made for emigration to other colonies, the less than 25 per cent survival rate speaks to the case of genocide against black Barbadians. This places into context the criminal culture enforced and defended by men like Horatio Nelson,” the historian argued, adding that “the refusal of the government since 1955, and particularly since 1966, to do what it knows to be the right thing in the context of growing and nurturing our young democracy, and psychologically rehabilitating the descendants of brutalized enslaved black people, continues to create a culture of civil outrage and disobedience that makes criminals of good and true citizens.
“It serves also to confuse and conflate the growing culture of lawlessness and criminality with the conscientious, caring impulse of good citizens who support the democratic politics of justice and fairness. Bad, unjust and immoral laws have a tendency to make both petty criminals and heroes of many,” Sir Hilary said.