Dr Kumar Mahabir: “[…] Despite the horrendous history of Columbus, his statue represents a tangible historical link to the Europe, Africa and Asia since 1498. It is one of the few statues of Columbus in the Caribbean and is a destination site for local and foreign tourists…”
Corey Gilkes: “[…] When this region was colonised, the Western powers, particularly Britain, actively sought to inject a belief of its omnipotence… It is in this context we need to understand the rationale behind the erecting of certain statues and the naming of streets after colonial figures. The colonising West understand, if nothing else, the psychological power of symbols…”
The following is a case for preserving the Christopher Columbus statue in its current place by Dr Kumar Mahabir and a counter-argument for its removal by Corey Gilkes:
Letter to the editor from Dr Kumar Mahabir:
The National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago has been strangely silent on the rowdy and relentless campaign to remove the historical statue of Christopher Columbus in the capital city of Port of Spain. I was the vice-chairman of the Trust from 2013 to 2015.
The Trust seems to place its current Afro-centric agenda above and beyond the public and national interest.
On Labour Day, for example, the Trust chose to highlight only trade unionist Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler in its Facebook page. There was a mere one-word reference to, and no photo of Adrian Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine, 1905 -1972) who founded both the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers’ Union (ATSEFWU), and was the OWTU’s first President General.
The Trust is genetically connected to the Citizens for Conservation of Trinidad & Tobago (CFC) with some members having footholds in both organisations at the executive level.
CFC has a long a long history of fighting to protect the natural and man-made heritage in the twin-island republic. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trust and the CFC were jointly hosting exhibitions, tours and lectures to better educate people to appreciate and protect heritage sites and statues, monuments, churches, plantation houses and cemeteries.
Columbus’s life-sized bronze statue is located in Columbus Square in Port of Spain on the corner of Independence Square and Duncan Street, just east of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
The site is on the Heritage Asset Register of the National Trust which designates the square and the statue as ‘worthy of notation and preservation’. Despite the horrendous history of Columbus, his statue represents a tangible historical link to the Europe, Africa and Asia since 1498. It is one of the few statues of Columbus in the Caribbean and is a destination site for local and foreign tourists.
As part of the Black-Lives-Matter protest, activists defaced the bronze statue a few nights ago. They wrapped it with red ‘Danger’ caution tape. They covered the bust with a black garbage bag and hung a sign with the word ‘Murderer’ on it.
The Columbus statue is a national monument defined by the National Trust Act (1991, last amended in 2015) as: ‘any building, structure or other work of man or nature, whether above or below the surface of the land or the floor of the sea, of national architectural, aesthetic or historic interest’.
Section 27 of the Act states that any person who (a) ‘alters, damages, injures or defaces any listed property’; or (b) ‘demolishes or destroys or causes to be demolished or destroyed’ such property is liable on summary conviction to a fine. And the Court may, in addition: ‘order him to pay to the Trust by way of compensation such sum as the Court thinks fit for the purpose of repairing or restoring the property’.
The leading figure behind the fascist, extremist and warring campaign to remove the Columbus statue in Port of Spain is Shabaka Kambon. His father, Kafra Kambon, was one of the leaders of the Black Power Movement. On February 26, 1970, they stormed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Port of Spain and draped black cloth on the sacred statues.
In a letter entitled ‘Is the Black Power protests repeating itself?’, Imaam Iqubal Hydal wrote:
“The statue of Columbus was defaced in a similar manner as the statues in the church were blackened during the march of the Black Power movement … If such a protest should get out of hand, next would be the church itself and animosity to names such as Chacon, Christopher, Martinez et al.” (Newsday 20/6/20, Express 18/6/20, Guardian 16/6/20).
Kambon is being aided and abetted by retired history Professor Dr Brinsley Samaroo who claims that he was one of the leaders of the 1970 Black Power revolt. It would not be surprising if Samaroo supports Kambon in his next move, which is to remove all Mahatma Gandhi statues in public places in Trinidad, particularly the one in Kew Place, Gandhi Square, Port of Spain.
In 2018, African lecturers at the University of Ghana relocated a statue of Gandhi because they claim that he was ‘racist’.
Samaroo is expected to also support Kambon in campaigning to change the name of the soon-to-be-opened Mahatma Gandhi Institute cultural complex in Mt Hope, located near the Arthur Lok Jack campus. This imminent protest by Samaroo and Kambon may again stall the progress of this project, started 21 years ago when then Prime Ministers Basdeo Panday and Atal Bihari Vajpayee turned the sod at Mt Hope.
The solution to this Columbus crisis is a compromise. The monument should be left alone but the inscription in the plaque can change. Samaroo, Kambon and the Warao Queen can be free to write ‘Monster and Murderer’ permanently in bronze at the bottom of the explorer’s statue.
Response from Corey Gilkes:
Let me state from the outset that I have always been in agreement with those of the Indic-Trinbagonian family who have pushed for the recognition of their ancestral culture. There is a long history of Indian culture and history being disparaged and their contributions to this society and human development in general must be given its rightful place in our collective consciousness.
That line stops at narrow ethnic nationalism; it most definitely stops at apologists for neocolonialism. This is why I am responding to Dr Kumar Mahabir’s letter: Black Power Agenda to Remove Columbus’ Statue. And I may as well include Ryan Hadeed’s column that appeared in the Guardian on the 23rd June, 2020.
Western hegemony in all its many dimensions remains one of the most malignant cancers that bedevils societies such as ours in that perpetual struggle for self determination. Indeed, the main part of that struggle seems to be identifying such a hegemony even exists. It is an immense challenge to make many aware of even this one fact, far, far less, of how it constantly reproduces itself.
When this region was colonised, the Western powers, particularly Britain, actively sought to inject a belief of its omnipotence. From the standpoint of a colonising power, this is a necessary strategy especially when the dominant ethnic group is in the numerical minority—armed force can only achieve so much.
It is in this context we need to understand the rationale behind the erecting of certain statues and the naming of streets after colonial figures. The colonising West understand, if nothing else, the psychological power of symbols.
Visible symbols reinforce the invisible messages sent via history, science, economics and law books that only Western countries had a history of economic, religious, political or scientific thought and as such this is all one needs to follow.
This region was colonised to extract resources Europe and Euro-America desperately needs for their economies to exist the ways they do. Acceptance of an unequal trade relationship created by the West by those who were once colonial subjects is crucial if said relationship is to continue, thus benefitting the West—the silver mines of Bolivia, which remains a lower-income country, comes to mind.
So any pushback against this by the First Peoples, Africans or Indians who were the colonised groups is logical and indeed, vital.
To do so using the same racist, intellectually dishonest narratives used by the former colonisers against the colonised, however, is a recipe for major conflict. This has now surfaced almost every other day following the protests in the United States over the murder of George Floyd.
The protests over that specific incident has brought back to the surface many other simmering issues, some of which have been advanced long before the tragedy; and ignored. Yet daily, we see certain writers treating the many protests as if this is something new.
Witness, for instance, Ryan Hadeed’s astonishing assertion that the protests over Columbus’ statue and the various street names are: ‘the result of what’s going on in America’s southern states…’
Even more distastefully, we see apologists for the old order, who belong to the ethnic groups that were and remain invisibilised by said order, trivialising the atrocities that were considered atrocities even in their own time (contrary to what Hadeed thinks). This is what comes to mind when one reads through a decolonial lens Dr Mahabir’s statement:
“Despite the horrendous history of Columbus, his statue represents a tangible historical link to the Europe, Africa and Asia since 1498. It is one of the few statues of Columbus in the Caribbean and is a destination site for local and foreign tourists.”
Not content with simply guilt-tripping the National Trust, Dr Mahabir does so presenting the terms ‘Afrocentric’ and ‘Black Power’ in a way designed to stoke long-standing misconceptions and convey the idea that people who hold these ideologies are in no way committed to developing an inclusive, cohesive society.
Africentricity, Pan-Africanism, Negritude all share a desire to inject into colonised societies aspects of traditional African cultural ideas, which were known for centuries as being inclusive and accommodationist.
Indeed, that is precisely what continues to be ruthlessly exploited as the West and perhaps now China, imposes itself on the African continent through armed force and ‘benevolent’ aid. It is only presented as threatening when it is used to bring about a renewed sense of identity and self-determination.
Dr Mahabir sees it fit to quote the letter of the law, re vandalising, but only in service of defending the Eurocentric narrative. The spirit of the law, which was originally created for social containment of subjected people considered ‘naturally’ inclined to criminal behaviour, was conveniently avoided.
Of course, this didn’t figure into the arguments of Ryan Hadeed either, as he clearly believes that ‘our monuments don’t have an overt racist agenda’—a statement contradicted a couple sentences later by his acknowledging that members of the Warao nation (we’ll leave that very related discussion, which almost no one in Parliament is ready for, for some other time) see Columbus’ statues as symbols of their own ‘oppression and genocide’.
Dr Mahabir cites one Imaam Iqubal Hydal who wrote a letter, also in the spirit of conjuring up fears of Black Eurocentrist hegemony, titled Is the Black Power Protest Repeating Itself?
The goodly Imam, in his letter, tells us: “The statue of Columbus was defaced in a similar manner as the statues in the church were blackened during the march of the Black Power movement … If such a protest should get out of hand, next would be the church itself and animosity to names such as Chacon, Christopher, Martinez et al.”
Another problematic columnist, known for his xenophobic, racist writings, nonetheless, in his doctoral dissertation of the Hidden History Of Trinidad, rightly spoke about the ‘mystification of whiteness’ conjured by the elites during the colonial period.
Christianity, with its capacity for psychological violence through such egregious notions of sin, was the principal means by which colonised people remained pacified. There was to be no question of religion being an emancipatory tool.
In fact, when it was finally decided to allow some of the more evangelical faiths to come into the country in the late 19th century, they were explicitly told that:
“(Y)our only business is to promote the moral and religious improvement of the persons to whom you may have access, without in the least degree, in public or in private, interfering with their civil condition.
“[…] You are to diligently and implicitly enforce the same exhortations which the Apostles of our Lord administered to the servants of ancient nations when […] they embraced Christianity: servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling…”
(Report of the Wesleyan-Methodist Missionary Society, April, 1837)
This was accompanied by a systematic erasure of the African contribution and very presence in the origin and evolution of Christianity throughout its entire history.
Many devout Catholics still do not know of the three African popes (Victor I, Gelasius, Miltiades), that another, Maurice, is revered in Germany, or the influence of ancient Egypt, not least of which being the Black Madonnas and Child statues found all over Europe which were converted from the Egyptian deity Auset/Isis.
To this day in my old school, St Benedict’s College in La Romaine, there is a white image of St Benedict—as in St Benedict the Moor—most prominent as you enter the compound, while the more accurate dark-skinned statue remains all but hidden away. The activists of 1970 did not deface the statues, they were symbolically correcting the creators who committed the defacement long before.
At some stage we will return to the whitening of theology and the urgent need for its own decolonising.
I am always interested in not so much the Africentric activism behind the denouncing of Mohandas Gandhi who, contrary to what Ryan Hadeed wrote, did not change his racist notions of African people in later years, but the devotion to his legacy by the descendants of the indentured themselves—like Dr Mahabir and Ryan Hadeed.
It was well known that Gandhi was as class-conscious as he was racist and explicitly wrote very disparaging remarks about those who crossed the Kali Pani.
Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed made note of this in their book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer Of Empire. And in Women and the Colonial Gaze, Karen Ray wrote (in the chapter Indian Diaspora Women):
“(The Indian Middle class) chief concern was to differentiate themselves from the ‘coolies’ and claim for themselves middle-class status as imperial citizens. However, when Gandhi became convinced that he needed the sheer numerical strength of the indentured emigrants to make his technique of mass nonviolent resistance work, he studied their concerns, and campaigned to address some of the most egregious problems in the coolie ‘lines’.
“Although he used women in the mass movement he created and credited the women’s march with mobilising mass support, he too regarded the image of the women more important than the fate of the women themselves. The ‘honour’ of Indian women therefore became a convenient symbol of colonial oppression.” (pg 139)
The one thing I do share with Dr Mahabir is the compromise he put forward. I have been saying for a very long time that if it is, as Michael Anthony and Gerald Besson like to argue, that yuh cyar select wha history yuh want, then by all means, leave all the monuments exactly where they are, don’t touch them.
Commission local sculptors to create images of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, complete with mutilated bodies, chopped off hands, women with clothes ripped off or pinned down by Spanish sailors; have them engrave plaques with the racist quotes of Churchill at every entrance point to the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, one too of Rev Scrimgeour who was principal of Naparima College at the entrance of the institution; Lord Harris who considered both ‘the coolie and the African’ perpetual children ‘and wayward ones too, the former from their habits and their religion, the latter from the utterly savage state in which they arrive’.
The same for Picton, Lopinot, Kitchener of Khartoum, Lady Young and so on. Let’s see exactly what made them so ‘great’.
Or you could just decolonise the damn ‘education’ system, definitely at primary and secondary level. Almost all of the skills and technology Columbus and the West are given credit for were either taken from Africa, Asia and Asia-Mior, or built on same.
Knowledge of that along with, say, the agricultural science of the First Peoples who developed ways to make fertile barren soil and preserve soil—skills needed now in the era of climate crisis through capitalist destruction of forested areas.
Such expertise introduced into the school system will see all sorts of transformations; and so much more of the problems we have with violent crime, bad governance, inadequate work ethic, etc, will start clearing themselves up much sooner than you think.