McIntyre: ‘Decolonisation’ means revisiting objective facts—like Columbus; what did renaming Trinity Cross cost us?

EPL Infrafred Sauna

We cannot change the objective facts of history but we can re-examine those facts to better guide our perspectives. Decolonisation is the process of revisiting the objective facts and applying revised perspectives to improve policies.

Up until the 1980s, it was not uncommon to find in texts words such as ‘discovered’ when referring to the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean. Arriving in a place does not qualify a discovery. Columbus did not discover the Caribbean. He introduced Europeans to places they had not known existed before.

Photo: Christopher Columbus leads a Spanish mission to the “new world”.
(Copyright Latina American Studies)

His arrival in the Caribbean is an objective fact but how that fact is framed was previously not objective and was revised in favour of clearer language. The use of the word ‘discovered’ subverts the pre-Columbus history of indigenous people in the Caribbean and reframes history from the perspective of Columbus.

Thus, even in consideration of the language used, we must question who writes history, for whom is it written and with what intentions?

In Trinidad and Tobago we have been doing this for the last 30 years. A prime example is when in 2008 the title of the highest national award, the Trinity Cross, established in 1969, was changed to the Order of the Republic Trinidad and Tobago—on the grounds that it was discriminatory to non-Christians.

The government at that time was led by Patrick Manning, who established a committee led by historian Bridget Brereton. The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was established in an effort to ameliorate the adverse effects of the discrimination suggested by the religious symbolism of the cross.

This action did not erase the history of the award. The objective facts remain but with reasonable arguments that considered the present contexts, the decision was made to change the title of the award.

Photo: Late Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning (centre) waves during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Port of Spain on 27 November 2009.
The Manning-led government changed the Trinity Cross to the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago on the grounds that it was discriminatory to non-Christians.
(Copyright AFP 2016/Luis Acosta)

Similarly, on the issue of the Columbus statue, we are guided by the present contexts. In consideration of objective facts and revised perspectives, countries around the world have been removing colonial emblems that venerate atrocities and the people associated with them.

It is a fact that Christopher Columbus initiated the enslavement of indigenous people. The journals of Columbus and the early Spanish occupiers of the Caribbean are replete with their own documentation of these atrocities.

The Columbus statue venerates a historical figure whose actions led to the establishment of new systems of slavery and indentureship.

The public veneration of Columbus is what is being challenged by the decolonisation campaign led by the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project. By this, Columbus is being brought into posthumous account for crimes against humanity.

The argument that removing colonial monuments changes history is ironic since the same colonisers that are celebrated by these monuments were invested in historical erasure. Extensive documentation of indigenous civilisations was destroyed with the intention of establishing colonial authority.

Photo: A Christopher Columbus statue is taken down in St Paul, Minnesota.

Columbus’ actions convened systems that privilege Europeans on the basis of race. The removal of colonial emblems is part of the process of mitigating the effects of that history. The present campaign is not seeking erasure of history but the recontextualisation of these monuments.

We do well as progressive thinkers to continuously review historical material; to revisit objective facts within present contexts.

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About Amanda McIntyre

Amanda T McIntyre is a Trinidadian author, artist and advocate. She is employed as an Advocacy and Policy Specialist. Her research and writing focus on cultural studies and literary scholarship.

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  1. This is a great start in addressing the many lies and misrepresentations that have been sold to us by those who came to plunder, exploit, enslave any civilization that they encountered within this so called “New World”. One inherent threat that can arise from having these monuments to colonialism and the questionable characters that acted as the bastions of such system is miseducation. These statues were often created with a specific agenda to sway history in favor of the colonizers, seeking to glorify themselves as heroes and defenders of civilization. The context in which these monuments were constructed needs thorough investigation and re -evaluation if we are to think about the decolonial way forward.

  2. ==================================================
    THE DEFINITION OF THE WORD ‘DISCOVER’ (Oxford English Dictionary):
    discover, (verb). Pronunciation: Brit. /dᵻˈskʌvə/, U.S. /dᵻˈskəvər/
    Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymon: French descoverir.

    I. To DISCLOSE, reveal, etc., TO OTHERS or (later) oneself; to find out.

    Is that not what Columbus did? To disclose to the Old World he came from that a new one existed replete with people native to that world? As a matter of fact, didn’t those very people find out the same, that other worlds existed beyond their sphere of knowledge?

    You are of British legacy, with an established English language, yet it seems you do not comprehend certain English words well. A word of advice from a humble Indigenous person that knows of that history you write about:

    The islands that are your home today still have lots of essential needs to address; ‘discover’ those instead of distracting your readers with tales of boogeyman found in misinterpreted words. Not only are you wasting your time with anger, you are wasting the future of your next generation by deviating the focus on what they really need to know.

    • Let me get this straight: OUR history must say that Columbus revealed to US that WE existed?

      A straight yes or would suffice, thanks.

  3. The political Placing of the Indentureship system on par with the systemic enslavement, rape & genocide of Africans & Native americans, may seem progressive, but is in fact rooted in very virulently racist anti-african politics. This type racism is documented and routinely discussed in the classrooms of U.S. Hgher Learning institutions as being patently anti-african in negating the enslaved experience. Certain irish american, white nationalist groups started promoting the idea that indentureship was similar to the enslaved africans in the americas as a counterpoint to the civil rights movement. Indentureship in Trinidad, was an African, Chinese, Portugese and finally Indian experience.
    Fun fact: The first time the idwa of the indentured labourer experience was publicly ‘retro-fitted’ to ‘ compete’ with enslaved africans’ experience was on a UNC platform, at mid centre mall in 1995 by world reknowned scholar and racial harmony activist Satnarayan Maharaj. Sat, actually was quoted as saying that africans use slavery as an excuse for failure and the Indentureship (Indian), was even worst than (African) slavery. This is where the indentureship-slavery oppression olypics began.

  4. These are conversations that we must engage with. Especially in the context of today’s zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ+ Equality movement. How can we find an EQUAL PLACE in Trinidad and Tobago for our marginalised citizenry and end centuries of endemic systemic dehumanisation until we address the sins of our colonisers? The toppling of statues has happened for 2 millennia. Toppling statues to signify change is recorded since the Roman empire. It is an important symbol for change. We in the new World must embrace these changes as part of the democratic process of Republicanism, and is needed in directing our future by revisiting our past honestly and viewing the past through our own newly independent lens.

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