Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Shabaka Kambon: Time for action on colonial statues

AP image of the bronze statue of slave trader Edward Colston being toppled in Bristol.

AP image of the bronze statue of slave trader Edward Colston being toppled in Bristol.

Shabaka Kambon is warning local authorities that unless they are willing to engage in dialogue about the removal of colonial monuments around Trinidad and Tobago, these monuments will be destroyed.

“This is a critical moment for us to have the dialogue but if the authorities don’t act the people will act,” he said. "Today is the day the day we have to wake up and pay attention."

Kambon and UWI lecturer Dr Claudius Fergus are the founders of the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, an organisation created in 2017 to educate citizens on the history of our country, create awareness of the people we celebrate in our public spaces, and rebrand these spaces with our local heroes.

In 2018, they successfully lobbied for the renaming of Milner Hall at the University of the West Indies to be renamed Freedom Hall and have been campaigning for the removal of Christopher Columbus statues across the country.

With Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis in the United States, attention has turned to the removal of statues and monuments glorifying a racist past.

In Bristol, England, protestors toppled the bronze statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston. In the wake of the action, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan announced on Tuesday the formation of a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to review the landmarks in the city, including statues and street names, and make a series of recommendations regarding which legacies should be celebrated.

In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II, who ruled over the country’s brutal colonial occupation of Congo during the 19th century was removed from Antwerp Square. 

Kambon said right here in the Caribbean, there are 7000 signatories for the removal of Columbus statues in The Bahamas and in Martinique, statues of two abolitionists were torn down on Emancipation Day last month.

Kambon said while there are those who argue that removing the statues are erasing history, the monuments themselves are hiding the true stories.

“They are false perceptions of our history.  When we think of colonisation we think of architecture and the rule of law. We don’t recognise what defines colonialism in the Caribbean was genocide, slavery, indentureship and apartheid. What happened after emancipation was that we entered into a society of separate and equal. When you look around Port-of-Spain what you see is a monument to colonialism which is incoherent to the values we profess in the 21st century,” he said.

“These monuments are fairy tales that silence real history. For example, Woodford Square in the heart of Port-of-Spain. What kind of country would say they believe every creed and race must find an equal place and assign the first catholic priest that tried to desegregate the country to the dustbins of history and name a square after his arch enemy,” he said in reference to Roman Catholic priest Father Francis de Ridder who defied Governor Woodford’s segregationist policies by establishing the first desegregated catholic church where the Rosary Church now stands.

“Woodford has a life size marble statue in the Anglican cathedral and a street, a restaurant and a café. What are we really saying?”

Stating that tearing down the statues is a downpayment on our future, Kambon said in their last meeting with Port-of-Spain Mayor Joel Martinez in 2018, a descendant of Hypolite Borde, a wealthy slave master who erected the Columbus statue in Port-of-Spain in 1881, pleaded for its removal.

“That is testimony to the fact that we have a broad coalition saying please let’s have a dialogue but the authorities are not listening. The younger generation is ready to tear down the monument if they don’t heed what is going on internationally. If they don’t take an important statue and put it in a museum, it will be torn down. “

Riding the momentum of what is happening internationally, Kambon’s organisation launched its first digital petition last night for the removal of Columbus statues. The petition has 740 signatures so far.

He said a written petition launched previously has over 2000 signatures.

He said his hope is that the authorities will wake up and declare an enquiry into the monuments in T&T and see if they really commemorate and celebrate the values we celebrate.

He said the next step of his organisation is to change the curriculum so children can learn our true history.

“The way we teach our history has resulted in statements like those of Gerald Aboud. That is what we are taught. The things you are taught in school is what shapes your imagination. We use the monuments to highlight the issues, if we get the statues of Columbus to go then it would be easier to deal with the curriculum.”

When contacted for an update on his office's stance on the issue, Mayor Martinez said he believes the decision to remove the statues should be a collective one.

"I have no problem with discussing it or the fact hat if there is a movement that would like to have it done but we need to have a consensus from the population to an extent. Yes, there is a movement around the world so what the Mayor of Port-of-Spain would do is listen to everyone and if there is a discussion to move it, it has to be the will of the people, it has to be collective. That to me is the best approach to get things done," he said. 

Asked if he is considering any action to ge that collective opinion, Martinez, who was on a tour of Sealots, said he is focused on the reopening of the city and the objective is to ensure people are safe and the city works and they are maintaining a health aptitude to make sure citizens are safe. 

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