Movement to Replace Outdated Monument Gains Momentum
By A. T. Freeman
The global upsurge against racism and the glorification of the architects of colonial genocide and slavery has been reflected across the Caribbean with renewed calls for the region to confront the structural racism it has inherited from the days of slavery and colonialism and to press forward with the struggle for decolonisation.
In countries across the region, demands are being made to tackle head on the colonial legacy in all its forms, including the structural racism in Caribbean societies, colonial style police violence against the citizens and the removal from the public space of all the signs and symbols that glorify racism and colonialism.
In this context, demands to confront racism in Barbados have also come to the fore. These demands have been reflected in contributions to local media outlets, in online commentary, discussion and petitions and in protest marches and rallies, under the slogan that Black Lives Matter and with the specific demands that the government of Barbados must take a stand against racism and must remove the statue of Horatio Nelson which stands in Heroes Square in the centre of the capital, Bridgetown.
Sharp criticisms were voiced of the government’s failure to take a clear stand on these issues and of the police cutting short a protest demonstration outside of the US embassy on 6 June that had been called by the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration (CMPI). Stung by the criticisms, the government which styles itself ‘a people centred’ government with Pan-Africanist sympathies, reacted defensively. Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared that on the issue of Black Lives Matter, she would not be “guided by trends” and that she wouldn’t be “jumping on bandwagons”. These comments only provoked further criticism that the struggle against racism was neither a trend nor a bandwagon but was a fundamental struggle that had led to the advancement of human rights, particularly in an ex slave colony like Barbados.
Shortly after that, the Minister of Culture, John King, weighed into the situation, with a newspaper headline declaring that he was “not on board with dumping Nelson”. His comments ignited a firestorm of criticism including calls for him to resign or be sacked by the Prime Minister. Within a couple of days, his fellow parliamentarian, Trevor Prescod, apologised to protesters in Heroes Square for the Minister’s comments, while the Minister said that the newspaper had misquoted him and that he was in favour of the statue being removed but he just didn’t want it thrown into the sea.
Then the ambassador to CARICOM, David Commissiong, appeared on The People’s Business, a local TV talk show and phone-in programme to defend the government from the ongoing criticism. He insisted that on the issue of combating racism and removing the statue, the government and the people were not opposed to each other but were on the same page. He further explained that he had been a member of a commission in the 1990s which, at the behest of the then government, had looked into the issue of the Nelson statue and made recommendations in 1998 for the statue to be removed. These recommendations were accepted by the government, laid in parliament and agreed there too. The incredulous talk show host then asked the ambassador how it was possible that 22 years after a government appointed commission had called for the removal of the statue and the government and parliament had approved this call, the statue was still standing in Bridgetown. The ambassador was slightly more vague in his response to this question, simply stating that there had been ‘pushback’ against implementing the decision. He didn’t identify the forces who had carried out the pushback, nor did he explain how these forces could be so powerful that they could over-ride the decisions of a supposedly ‘sovereign parliament’. Many commentators have noted, however, that the organisers of the pushback are none other than the local ruling elite which is made up of the remnants of the plantocracy, who now control other sectors of the economy, and the big wholesale and retail merchants. This class which is the main source of racism and colonialism in the country are doggedly opposed to the removal of their hero Nelson and use their corrupt financial relationships with the politicians to put themselves in the position of decision makers on all important matters that affect Barbados. Therefore, it can be seen that the whole Westminster political system, which allows this minority control of the decision making process, is itself part of the colonial legacy which needs to be dismantled.
The Prime Minister, herself, also addressed the issue. Speaking to an online meeting of members of the Barbadian diaspora, she stated that she was in favour of moving the statue but that the “Government is not going to definitively state a position without a consultation.” She then raised the possibility that the statue might be relocated to an as yet unbuilt maritime or naval museum. This proposal has again been criticised as an attempt by the government to further drag out the issue of removing the statue, given that no such museum exists in Barbados and there could be no justification for using government funds to construct one, given that the country is under an IMF austerity programme which has seen numerous public sector workers lose their jobs. In addition, since the collapse of the tourism sector unemployment has risen to over 30% and the government is so strapped for cash that it’s paying public sector workers part of their salary in government bonds. Others have pointed out that the government has enacted the harsh anti-people IMF measures without feeling the need for consultation. The General Secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, David Denny, has called on the government to remove the statue no later than Emancipation Day, 1 August, this year.
The struggle of the people of Barbados against racism and colonialism is an important contribution to the country’s development. It is part of the broader effort to decolonise the Caribbean and of the global effort to defeat racism. It will make further progress if we rely on our own forces and recognise that the decolonisation of the Caribbean will require tackling all the colonial baggage, including the Westminster political system which hampers and blocks our efforts for self-empowerment.
[Photo: Demand for the Nelson statue to come down – Photo courtesy of Kevz Politics]