When, in 1802, Horatio Nelson, senior member of the House of Lords, confronted his parliamentary colleagues advocating the idea of black liberty, he could not have imagined a term he coined would go ‘viral’. Describing black liberty as a “damnable doctrine” he vowed to fight against it with his very last breath.
His authorship of the term ‘damnable doctrine’ made him an even greater hero in parliament among the slavery interests. As the term entered wider political usage his reputation among the slave-investing public soared, almost superseding the acclaim for his seafaring feats.
Nelson married his two loves; ensuring that Britannia ruled the waves, and protecting the 48 million pounds of value Britain held in its 800,000 enslaved Africans (76 billion pounds sterling in today’s money). In Barbados there were 83,000 enslaved blacks; their worth, six million pounds (over 15 billion pounds sterling in today’s money). Appreciative slave owners did not separate his sea successes from his landed support against black liberty – ‘the damnable doctrine’. Nelson was their son!
The ‘damnable doctrine’ term was first outlined in a letter he wrote to his friend Simon Taylor, leading Jamaican enslaver. In the House of Lords, his primary ally was the leader of the slavery lobby, the Earl of Harewood, Barbados’ largest, most powerful slave owner. The Earl owned the Belle, Thicketts, Fortescue and Mount plantations, and managed many others for his friends and associates. He also owned prized slave plantations like Williamsfield and Mammy Bay in Jamaica. It was he, after the defeat of General Bussa, who funded a lavish celebratory banquet in London for relieved Barbados slavers.
The notorious Earl used his considerable political power in the British parliament to promote Nelson as a Barbados hero. He lent his awesome financial power and political influence in the Barbados House of Assembly to galvanize the fund raising effort to establish the statue of Nelson in 1813. They insisted that it should be located on the grounds of the Barbados Parliament as a symbol of the slavery base of imperial power in the colony.
The abolitionists saw the Bridgetown statue as a vulgar political imposition upon the enslaved people of the colony. Thomas Buxton, the born again Christian leader of the ‘damnable doctrine’ went one step further. They described Barbados’ slave owners, who erected the statue, as the most sinful and wicked men in the Empire, and demanded they refrain from calling themselves ‘Little Englanders’.
But the author of the ‘damnable doctrine’ still phenomenally resides in the vicinity of the national parliament – at the core of Heroes Square. There he stands confidently, arrogantly, mockingly, and seemingly impervious to the democratizing symbolism of the space. History is not without its ironies.
Perchance by a miracle he sprung to life today, would he accept habitation in a square dedicated to the descendants of the 83,000 enslaved persons he held captive with gunboats and legislative power? Would he scream ‘blue murder’ after the blue and gold paint he received for Independence?
While The Rt. Excellent Errol Barrow remains remote, and the Rt Excellent Grantley Adams and The Rt Excellent Clement Payne are out of sight, the message daily sent to the minds of generations of children is clear; national heroes dwell not in Heroes Square; an imperial hero, Lord Horatio, invested in iron, standing tall upon a pedestal of power, cast in stone, fills the space.
Emancipation and Independence have come and gone and all are still called to gaze in awe upon Nelson, defender of slavery and imperial warmonger. His roar from the rear of history seeks to drown the sound of freedom for the future. His racism subverts the multiracialism idealized and inscribed in the nation’s constitution. His demeaning stare seeks to infantilize yet another generation of citizens in Heroes Square.
Meanwhile, the hard won culture of democracy dares not drop its guard. There are still voices in the vicinity, like those who rose to trumpet the rise of Trump. Their whisper of their desire can still be heard: ‘we want our country back; make Barbados great again’.
But stirring in the stillness of Clement Payne’s Bridgetown is the pulsating poetic prose of the fearless few; “And God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more paint, the people next time.”