The defacement of the statue of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, has raised some interesting issues. That criminal act in the heart of Bridgetown – and it is a crime under Barbados’ laws – found curious support from some circles and rightfully drew condemnation from others.
The statue was erected in 1813 when Barbados was a British colony as a tribute to Nelson eight years after his death. Irrespective of being the descendants of African slaves or British colonisers, we cannot rewrite history whether it damns or absolves Lord Nelson of being a racist or slave owner. Any decision to remove the statue must be made by Government and perhaps should have been made on the occasion of November 30, 1966. But to break the law in furtherance of an emotional goal simply cannot be the ideal response in civilized Barbados.
We have had some theses from some seemingly erudite personages justifying the defacement of Government property. Some with letters before and behind their names have sought to compare apartheid in South Africa and the activism against that heinous system with the defacement of the statue. Academia in Barbados has never been so exposed as prone to moments of naked folly.
While we abhor any racist practices that might have been associated with Lord Nelson, do we now traverse the island and remove every vestige that links us to our former colonizer, whether that connection is nominal, economical or political? Do we rename our hospital? Do we rename those streets whose titles indicate a tie to British royalty? Do we rename those schools whose titles suggest a colonial association? And what about those academics, politicians, businessmen and professionals who bask in the glory of titles associated with – like Lord Nelson – Great Britain? While some spout rhetoric from their mouths, they hold fast to their bosoms the Order of the British Empire, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Knight or Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire or their Knight of Saint Andrew. Why should Lord Nelson’s statue bear the brunt of the cleansing? The annual hurly-burly surrounding the statue would suggest that it remains the only symbol of our oppressed past.
But that is one side of the equation. There is another more dangerous side of the argument that sends the wrong signals to those who might believe that academic qualifications equate to divinity and that the voice of a university is the voice of God, if you may. It sends the wrong signal to the impressionable, the gullible and the simply ignorant, when persons in high office give tacit, veiled or open support to criminal behaviour by coating such conduct with historical rhetoric. This is not South Africa. There is no Apartheid here. There is no dictatorship here. There is no institutionally sponsored racism here. But there is the rule of law here.
We are sure that with some historical reference and reasonable assessment, many of those who run afoul of the law could present plausible excuses for the crimes they commit each day. But wait! They already do! But because their issues do not – on the surface – relate to questions of race, class, reparations or perhaps hegemony, they are unlikely to find support for their criminal deeds in the land of the literati. But what is the difference between defacing Lord Nelson’s statue and the office of the British High Commission? Regardless of where one sits at the table, to deface either is wrong.
One can debate decisions made at the CARICOM level to remove symbols related to our colonial past from prominent placements in our towns and villages across the Caribbean. We believe those in favour can and have produced understandable reasons for their stance on the removal of all ‘Lord Nelsons’ from across the region. Those who subscribe to the view that our history is our history and cannot be rewritten or made more palatable by tearing down monuments make equally valid arguments. But surely, we cannot right past injustices by giving succour to present wrongs.