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.
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.
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.
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.