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Master’s Voice: The defeatist class and the history that’s never taught in our schools

In many societies such as ours, there’s a class of people many—though not necessarily all—of whom have university backgrounds. I call them the “Defeatist Class” (DC).

Whenever anything remotely progressive comes up, they surface to challenge ideas, customs and models that hold us to a period or paradigm meant to benefit only a chosen few and retard the advancement of everyone else.

Photo: A statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence, Rhode Island.

So when the voices for the renaming of certain streets or the removal of Columbus’ statue begin to get louder, so do theirs. Don’t try to explain to them that such monuments represent the glorification of organised violence and dispossession, the normalising of aggressive ways of dealing with issues—pretty much what is taken to heart in many schools and depressed communities all across the country today. But I cannot say that I must only blame the parents and teachers.

The DC frequently roll out disingenuous arguments like: “It have serious things going on in de world; removing a statue eh go change the crime or recession today,” or “Monkey see, monkey do; Americans doing it, so we follow fashion.”

It’s useless trying to explain that calls for the rewriting of history and the removal of certain images were made since the 1970s. It’s pointless to tell them that the colonisers understood something the defeatists will never understand: the power of symbols in maintaining certain ideas and patterns of behaviour and that addressing that in the way the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project is doing is part of a process aimed at changing that.

The DC will argue that, were it not for Christopher Columbus and the European Age of Discovery, we’d still be living in savagery and mud huts. Drones like these subscribe to the long discredited racist notion that technology, urban living and self-sustaining communities only existed in Europe.

Photo: Ninety-six year old Paul Navarro, Chief Moruga and surrounding regions and Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest active chief, performs a traditional dance during the First Peoples parade on Pro Queen Street, Arima on 13 October 2017.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

But not even the sails on the ships of Columbus’ expedition were European—they were Arab lateens—and neither were the compass nor astrolabe. Roads and garbage disposal systems existed in Africa and India when Europeans were still emptying their wastes in their neighbours’ yards. African and Phoenician seafarers were using longitude and latitudinal co-ordinates when European encyclopedias were still teaching that longitude was “probably undiscoverable.”

Even the so-called savage First Peoples lived in tune with nature in ways that were/are no less scientific. They knew how to preserve and often enrich barren soils in ways no Westerner understood until recent times.

Now some defeatists quite rightly argue that, right or wrong, our colonial history is our history and that we can neither erase it nor select what parts of it we want. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But history has already been erased and selectively highlighted because the story of the First Peoples, like those of Africa and India, has never been properly written. What little we do know has been deliberately distorted.

So if we are to follow their line of argument, they should not object to the erection of other statues around Columbus’ depicting mutilated and enslaved Native Peoples and Africans because he initiated that atrocity. We must create plaques that explain how the man who was responsible for opening up the education process for African people, Lord Harris, said in 1847:

Photo: George Francis Robert Harris was a British peer, Liberal politician and colonial administrator who served as the Governor of Trinidad from 1846 to 1854 and Madras from 1854 to 1859.

“They are not, neither Coolies, nor Africans, fit to be placed in a position which the labourers of civilised countries may at once occupy; they must be treated like children and wayward ones too; the former from their habits and their religion, the latter from the utterly savage state in which they arrive.”

Similar views were expressed by Governor Keate, Chief Justice Knox and Thomas Macaulay, all of whom have streets named after them. Then, at UWI, we have Milner Hall, named after a man who was a—if not the—main architect of apartheid in South Africa.

And what about Sir Winston Churchill who allowed over four million Indians to starve to death in 1943 and when told about it, replied, “Why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?”

There’s also Lord Kitchener—not our beloved calypsonian—of Khartoum who, after invading Omdurman, desecrated the tomb of a prominent Muslim and had his skull used as an inkpot. And what about Reverend Scrimgeour, principal of Naparima College and one of the pioneer evangelisers in the effort to christianise the East Indians? Wasn’t he against the mixing of Africans and Indians?

Those who think we should not pick and choose history could not possibly object if we taught ALL of it, showing clearly the kinds of people we consider heroes and what precisely made them so great.

Or, alternatively, we could just put them in a museum, rename the streets and halls and set about changing the culture of violence with impunity left us by these criminals and their myriad admirers.

Photo: The statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park, New York is given bloody hands by “vandals.”
(Copyright NY Daily News)

About Corey Gilkes

Corey Gilkes is a self-taught history reader whose big mouth forever gets his little tail in trouble. He lives in La Romaine and is working on four book projects. He has a blog on https://coreygilkes.wordpress.com/blog/ and http://www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/. Vitriol can be emailed to him at coreygks@gmail.com.

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37 comments

  1. Shocking footage has emerged of Milner Hall Chair Dayteon Mitchell defending slavery, colonialism and imperialism in order to have the UWI continue the heedless veneration of the father of Apartheid. Read the transcript then click the link below to see the video for yourself. #RenameMilnerHall #RhodesMustFallCaribbean ……..Dayteon Mitchell: Hi good night everyone, a couple points I want to bring across, with all the negative impacts colonialism has had, colonialism and imperialism, without this where would we be today? that’s a real question I’m asking you all the panelists. Where would we be for today?
    So, you all are saying that the fact that I applauded slavery is a bad thing, but it is not because ideally without it, you would not be here today.
    None of us would be here for today!
    Mohammed Muwakil: What about slavery are you applauding?
    Anonymous other: So you had no faith in yourself as a Blackman before that?
    Tobago: I never said that
    Shabaka Kambon: guys hold on I want everybody to have a chance to make their contributions, please let the brother finish, go ahead brother
    Dayteon Mitchell: all right, what I’m saying right, is we can’t know where we are going without knowing where we came from, so using Viscount Milner as the sole point to change the name because of what he has done should not affect us as who we are, we should look back at what he has done and look away from that in order to move forward solely and holistically as a Caribbean, because without imperialism and colonialism we wouldn’t be here today; and this has brought so much positive things to the Caribbean, because as a Caribbean person when they go to Europe they are seen as an icon.
    Some may see it negative, some may see it positive, everywhere in the world you go there is negative and positive but there is mostly positive when we go away, a person will say well he is from the Caribbean so he is special.
    Persons don’t know about Caribbean identity until they come here and when you come is a whole lot of things you have to experience because Trinidad is not Trinidad alone, Trinidad has a different identity from other Caribbean islands as well. Carnival, Easter, things like this, without imperialism and colonialism what would we have to speak about for today? that’s my real question.

    http://www.kizoa.com/Movie-Video-Slideshow-Maker/d147040357k9622025o1l1/raw-uwi-milner-hall-chair-in-shocking-defense-of-slavey-imperialism-and-colonialism

  2. It jas been there so many years and wasnt a problem or conflict with anyone even to the first pple why now it is problem becuz the first person gotten a holiday they think it can jus take a statue plz

    • Ahhhh yes, like I said “It’s useless trying to explain that calls for the rewriting of history and the removal of certain images were made since the 1970s.”

      Ladies and gentlemen, seeeeee?

  3. “In many societies such as ours, there’s a class of people many—though not necessarily all—of whom have university backgrounds.”

    This single sentence frames the discussion and turns what could have been an interesting, and perhaps necessary exposition of the issue, into a running jeremiad against perceived colonialism/elitism.

  4. Change is the only constant in life. So let’s change things. Museums are built to reflect the history of a country so put those statues where they rightfully belong. It doesn’t change our history but it also does not give a false representation of who these people were and the atrocities the committed in the name of a foreign power. Our struggles, our achievements and our heroes must be the monuments built to remind those that come after us, who we are, what we did and where we are going.

  5. To those who oppose the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project and use the rediculous argument that Columbus was part of our history to justify the continued existence of his statue, well so was Dole Chadee and Mano Benjamin. They are part of our history for also criminal acts.

    So where do you want their statues erected? Just asking.

  6. The interesting points made here are thoroughly defeated by the circularity of the argument.

    • It is framed as if dissenting opinions are inherently “defeatist”, in particular those that come from people having training in academia. If a whole stage in the sequence in the debate is characterized as resisting the progressive, then it will be ignored. There is, therefore, no argument to be made. A one sided debate can come to nothing. It’s very nature invalidates whatever insights it might hope to offer.

    • Naette i see your point. It doesn’t brook argument.

    • Lasana Liburd I understand the power of symbols and so I know what he is trying to say. I get it. But I also understand that none of what we celebrate has come to us in its purest form. As a former colony, we are a people of versions, of narratives. Unfortunately Columbus is part of our narrative. Port of Spain is part of our narrative. English language is part of our narrative. Even the trend of tearing down statues in 2017 is borrowed. It is a bricolage of borrowed terms and even if we replace them they continue to exist in the national mind. What I find more troubling is that we do not celebrate the things we actually make and do well. The purpose would have been better served had the line of argument been strong enough to invalidate the “defeatist” approach. But, here we are(again).

  7. This is a good article for several reasons…I have been contemplating the reasons why people have been so against what seems to be a necessary turn in how our history and identity…the attitude of defeat is a part of the colonial legacy…how we choose to address this attitude will be important in the revision of history and education of our people. I empathize with our brothers and sisters who have been left tarnished by Eurocentric ideologies. They know no better especially in our current education system. So it is up to us who know better to sit with them and reason and meditate and discuss and re educate…the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project is a step in this direction

  8. “So if we are to follow their line of argument, they should not object to the erection of other statues around Columbus’ depicting mutilated and enslaved Native Peoples and Africans because he initiated that atrocity. We must create plaques that explain ”

    Yes. A much better solution to removing statues or renaming streets. Hiding the past, which is what sticking these statues in a museum will amount to, will not address our present condition or change our future. Start telling new stories, and correct the past narrative.

  9. Once again, this author has demonstrated a rich knowledge of history and I continue to be amazed by the information he presents. However, I would like to be clear about the goals of this movement. As I understand it, Rhodes Must Fall describes itself as “a collective movement of students and staff members mobilizing for direct action against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town.” The movement widened the symbolic meaning of the fall of statues they viewed as oppressive to represent the fall of white supremacy and privilege. The movement has since spread across the world. What is the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project fighting against? Symbols of a violent and oppressive past that extend into the control of selected historical accounts? Or are they fighting symbols of racism? I view both possibilities as fairly exclusive, enough to warrant independent intents and therefore outcomes. They would have to be treated with differently. The project has to be clear about what this movement intends to accomplish in the context of what it should mean to all people in the Caribbean. If statues are a symbol then their removal and replacement with other statues are also symbolic. What is the message that is being sent? Which statues are going to be removed, what are they going to be replaced with and who is consulted on this? Additionally, I am strongly opposed to “Defeatist”. “Terrorist”, “Racist”…there is no need for more containers in which to lump the products of a narrative that you do not view as yours and which may also be in and of itself ‘defeatist’. Anyone who has a difference in opinion should not have to fight against a labeling system in addition to the pressures of opening a line of conversation that reduces the possibility that we can reach a point in individual enlightenment and education that will eradicate the existence of those containers.

  10. Thank you for your article. I had not considered Cross Rhodes as addressing and changing a culture of violence with impunity. I would not contest the limited ability of many Caribbean intellectuals to move beyond their positions as servants of elite interests. However, I’m not sure that attributing all criticism to the vapid bleating of a defeatist class will get you across the line.

    I’m not going to go ad hominem here, but Cross Rhodes, even when battered by reactionary forces in the society, should also watch its ‘friends’ closely. And in terms of the criticisms you expect to be raised by the ‘DC’, they are not the only ones to have similar concerns.

    “It have serious things going on in de world; removing a statue eh go change the crime or recession today”. You call it disingenous, but consider this more subtle version of the argument:

    “I feel that the semiotic disruption of toppling tacky representations of Robert E. Lee or renaming dorms named after the Daughters of the Confederacy doesn’t address the major structural imbalances and the issues of racial equity that are really the foundations for these monuments. We can’t mistake a symbolic victory for structural transformation.”

    Peter James Hudson – http://contemptorary.org/peter-james-hudson/
    Hudson’ book: Bankers and Empire- How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo26032761.html)

    Hudson, in my view, is speaking of power like a Kwame Ture might have. His book goes to the heart of what unleashed the events of 1970. And while Cross Rhodes is addressing an affront to our Independence, it is left to be seen what plans for structural transformation lie behind the Cross Rhodes movement.

    In terms of the ‘Monkey see, Monkey do’, the credit for this should not only go to Black Lives Matter and other movements in North America. The inspiration for this movement could just as easily be from India, which has made sure to reclaim the names of its cities, or Haiti’s historic nod to its First Peoples, or to the South African students who actually spearheaded Cross Rhodes. Copying is a part of learning, and becoming.

    So all that to say: not every critic is an enemy. And not every ally is a friend.

    • Earl Best

      Wow! The pen is always ultimately mightier than the sword and sometimes the scalpel does a better job than the axe of cutting down the big tree.

      Wow! Wow1! Wow!!!

  11. Scotty Ranking

    Ah, boy! Finally it has been said in plain words. Symbolism means something, especially when that symbolism is skewed because the selective history behind it is similarly skewed. It reminds me of an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
    I think there should be a more pronounced emphasis on teaching history in the Caribbean, especially as the majority of us learned it from a markedly and overwhelmingly European perspective.Teach the children the truth! Good or bad, history is history. Teach it and let us understand how we all came to be here. and hopefully we will learn from it so we can truly progress in the future!

  12. As long as people understand that removal of statues and renaming of streets does so so so very little to eradicate colonial mentalities in a country where a significant percentage of people know nothing of most of these historical figures.

  13. Take that statue down can’t honor pirates

  14. Earl Best

    I have no idea what you look like. However, if I were to judge from your writings, my guess would be that Keith Christopher Rowley might get some competition as the blackest man in Trinidad’– minus the self-contempt! He talks a lot about it but I suspect it’s all lip service and he’s not nearly as comfortable as you are in the castle of his black skin.

    In fact, my guess is that he really has two middle names, the first one being Desmond. That makes him Keith DC Rowley. Surprised?

  15. Corey Gilkes gets it! A must read! The most profound piece published in this country on this subject matter to date. #CrossRhodesFreedomProject #ColumbusMustFall #RhodesMustFallCaribbean

  16. A Corey Gilkes the process of creolisation of our history is no where near to being complete. We have differing tiers of history being taught in our education system. All we hear is lip service about fixing it. The symbols of colonialism are everywhere. I remember being in St Lucia when I was about 15, I was in the square and I notice immediately that it was exactly like ours. Then an elder said it’s a union jack. An obvious construct that I had really not paid attention to. I really hope a proper dialogue can be generated from all of this.

  17. Very well said, Sir.

  18. “The defeatist Class ” brilliant description. It is absolutely pointless to reason with them

  19. I think people does get tie up with de whole renaming/removal of monuments thing, or renaming streets. It’s not trying to rewrite history, it’s actually the opposite. When you reveal the entirety of historical events and people, then you will realize that many of the individuals who adorn our parks and street signs are not fit for such an honor.

  20. The most profound piece written on this subject anywhere up to this point. #ColumbusMustFall

  21. A Trinidad Guardian article on Lord Harris (published on 18 April 2013):
    “Lord Harris was one of Trinidad’s most progressive governors. After the abolition of slavery and the introduction of indentured labour from India, Lord Harris was caught between the pressures of the planters and importation of labour…”
    http://www.guardian.co.tt/news/2013-04-19/lord-harris-innovator