In 1813, a group of Barbadian planters got together and decided to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar some eight years earlier by erecting a statue at the top of the city of Bridgetown’s main thoroughfare, Broad Street.
As Barbados developed and as we moved from a plantocracy to a society ruled by the majority black population, and particularly as we moved to full internal self-government and independence, we were faced with the question, “should Nelson stay or should he go?” Those in favour of his departure ranged from social commentators and historians like Trevor Marshall, who cited Nelson’s support of slavery, while others said he represented colonial views and had therefore outlived his time in a country that was no longer officially tied to the United Kingdom. They also cited historical evidence which stated that Nelson only passed through Barbados briefly and he much preferred Antigua, which boasts of Nelson’s Dockyard as one of its attractions.
Calypsonians also had their say on the statue. For example, Cultural Ambassador Anthony Gabby Carter sang, “Take Down Nelson and put up a Bajan man”. That song was banned from the local airwaves. Another artist, Traveller – who is originally from St Vincent – in his 1985 song, Visitor, sang of a query from a tourist: “But why the statue of Nelson standing there still? One of your local heroes would be a thrill – Sir Grantley Adams or the late Sir Frank Worrell. And this is not a propaganda, I heard it out of the mouth of a visitor!”
Meanwhile, those in favour of Nelson staying said he was an important part of our history and that removing physical symbols of our colonial past would not erase the reality of it.
Initially, the statue faced Broad Street, but in 1992 when the area in which it was located underwent some upgrades, the administration at the time turned the statue around so it faced the Treasury Building and the cenotaph honouring Barbados’ fallen soldiers from the two World Wars. Then in 1999, following the announcement of ten National Heroes the previous year, the now late Prime Minister Owen Arthur announced that Trafalgar Square would be renamed Heroes Square, Nelson’s statue would be moved and put into a proposed maritime museum, and the square would be used to honour Barbadians who had made a significant contribution to the island’s development over the years.
The area was renamed immediately, but the maritime museum never came to pass and, as we all know, the “old soldier” stayed put for 21 more years. However, the cries for his removal became particularly strident earlier this year as Barbados joined the rest of the world in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. During that time, we saw protests in other countries where statues of those who played either a significant role in the slave trade or were closely associated with it were vandalised, forcibly removed, or taken down by governments bowing to pressure.
Thirty-year-old Alex Downes started an online petition, calling for Nelson’s departure, which attracted thousands of signatures, but for a while there was no official response to these calls. Until now.
Last week, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office with responsibility for Culture, John King, said Nelson will be leaving his home at the top of Broad Street on November 16 this year. He described the decision as “a step towards the healing of the nation and to remind us all that tolerance is a universal human right”.
“The Government of Barbados has announced its intentions to officially become an independent Republic on November 30, 2021, which is our 55th anniversary of Independence,” he said.
Interestingly, when Prime Minister Arthur renamed Heroes Square in 1999 he was flirting with the idea of republicanism as well.
King continued: “As we amend the Constitution to have a Barbadian Head of State and as a symbol of the maturity of our democracy, it is imperative that we re-examine notable elements of our colonial past. Cabinet’s decision to remove the statue is part of this process, as we seek to promote national identity as part of a modern Barbados.”
The Minister stated that it would cost some $20 000 to remove the statue and it will be located temporarily at Block A, The Garrison, immediately adjacent to the Barbados Museum. Eventually, the statue will go on display at the Museum.
Now that Nelson is making his way out of The CIty , what are the plans for the square he called home for over 200 years? There are plans for a cultural presentation to celebrate the statue’s departure and there has been talk of artists and sculptors using the area afterwards.
The latter is a good idea in that it is a common practice around the world for artists to use town squares to show off their work as well as do portraits and other works of art on the spot for passers-by. Heroes Square would be ideal for this purpose, since it is more central than Pelican Village, which has become dormant once again in the absence of cruise ship traffic owing to the ongoing COVID-19 situation.
The current space is too small to hold monuments commemorating the National Heroes and it would be better to accommodate them in the park proposed for the Probyn Street location cleared earlier this year with the demolition of the old NIS building and the Central Fire Station.
So, we agree that the new Heroes Square be used to give our visual artists another space to promote their craft and earn some income in the process, and we urge the relevant authorities to keep the space clean. It can also use some additional seating and, in that way, mirror Independence Square just opposite, which has been transformed from a car park to a tranquil oasis in the middle of a busy city.