Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Public History, Landmarks and Decolonization in Trinidad1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Public History, Landmarks and Decolonization in Trinidad1

Article excerpt

The Colonial Period

Usually when historians refer to public history they refer to their efforts at seeing public monuments - statues, public buildings, bridges, etc. as texts that can be read, interpreted and mined for insights into the minds of their creators and their times. Invariably, of course, a ruling or governing elite commissions these public monuments and they are designed to impose a hegemonic vision of the world on the society. This has been so in imperial, metropolitan societies as well as in their colonial appendages. In metropolitan societies the statuary has reminded imperial citizens not only of the majesty of their "social superiors" but also of the grandeur to which they belonged as citizens of far-flung empires. In colonial societies public monuments have been used to testify to the power and superiority of the colonizer.2

The urban landscapes of many former colonial societies are littered with a plethora of public monuments celebrating imperial victories, including the conquest of the colonized territory, and statues or buildings glorifying the exploits of individual colonizing agents - soldiers, sailors, governors, missionaries and so on. These signifiers of colonial domination were erected in the high noon of colonial rule and were usually placed in the major centres of colonial administration. They were placed in front of colonial legislatures or in the centre of public parks and squares, often giving their names to these public spaces. They gazed over the daily peregrinations of the colonial masses, who had constant reminders of their membership in an imperial system and their position of subjection to colonial rule.

The identity and original importance of some of these monuments were lost with the passage of time, and the significance and meaning of these landmarks often elude succeeding generations. At best, they have become merely convenient landmarks for the purpose of giving directions, and more often than not the convenient target for the faeces of irreverent birds. The homeless people of these third world nations find shelter in the public squares and on the steps of the statues dedicated to the heroes of their colonial past, their bodies now creating tableaux of despair, almost as bizarre monuments to the destitution that faces many persons in these post-colonial societies. Other statues had longer intergenerational mnemonic lives only because they were linked to public holidays and annual celebrations.

During the period of colonial rule the colonized peoples did not have the political steel or opportunity to erect those monuments that could give their version of their important historical moments or individuals in similar concrete ways. It is not surprising, then, that there have been controversies in some countries over which statues to retain and which new ones to erect in the post-colonial era. Removing statues and landmarks is fraught with political peril for the unwary and those who do find themselves in political hot water as the recipients of angry remonstrances from defenders of tradition. This is so, whether it is in the metropole, as the mayor of London, England, experienced as a result of his recent suggestions to remove two statues in London's Trafalgar Square, or in the ex-colony, as experienced by those who dared to contemplate interfering with Lord Nelson's statue in Bridgetown, Barbados.3

There is an oft-repeated, though probably apocryphal, story about an African leader who opined that the erection of a statue to the Anopheles mosquito would have been the most appropriate tribute to African resistance to colonization. Unfortunately, in the independence period many new rulers had other ideas about worthy recipients of national awards and recognition. They often opted for the use of public funds to indulge in an orgy of self-aggrandizement as they cluttered their public spaces with statues of themselves and with eponymous prestige projects - public buildings, airports, highways - at considerable public expense. …

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