As the debate rages on whether the Port-of-Spain City Corporation should remove Christopher Columbus’ statue from Tamarind Square, Movement for Social Justice leader David Abdulah says T&T’s landscape should only feature images and monuments of those who had positive influences on society.While the MSJ joined the First People and the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project in advocating for the removal of Columbus’ statue, they want it placed in a museum.
During the MSJ’s virtual press conference on Sunday, Abdulah said there should be a committee comprising of the various ethnic groups and cultural bodies to examine all street names and monuments of oppressors. This committee, he said, should focus on replacing the existing tributes with the images and names of those who struggled for T&T’s freedom. He said the Columbus statue and Picton Street should not remain features of the national landscape.“As a people, we ought to ensure that the monuments which we erect are able to convey to ourselves and our population, that which is positive in our struggle for freedom, out of slavery, through indentureship and up to freedom,” Abdulah said.
“Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean people have had a history of the struggle of slavery through indentureship and upward to freedom.
“Therefore, the images that we see, the street names that are there, ought to be reminding us of our experience, out of slavery, through indentureship to freedom.”
He said there should be museums where Columbus’ statue and information of Thomas Picton (a former British governor of Trinidad from 1797-1803) and others are housed. The MSJ is also advocating for a labour museum with a hero’s park in Fyzabad and an oil industry museum with an information centre. Abdulah said an MSJ government would ensure this is done. Some segments of society, however, believe T&T’s colonial past shaped today’s society and the statues and names should remain as reminders. Even Spain’s Ambassador to T&T, Javier Carbajosa, has chimed in saying that “history cannot be rewritten.” “It is what it is, with its lights and shadows, and it is part of our legacy. We should accept it and learn from it. My point is that trying to rewrite history and pretend that things never existed is, in my opinion, a futile and hypocritical and dangerous endeavour,” Carbajosa said in a statement last week. But Abdulah said while there must be no attempt to erase or deny history, it was written, most times, from the colonisers’ perspectives.“For many decades, that was the story of history. The reality is also the history of those who were oppressed, enslaved, exploited, colonised and denied their own humanity,” Abdulah said.
“Our story is our history. We must have an appreciation and while they are facts, we now need as an independent country, to assert our own history.”
He believes the education system also does not enable citizens to understand T&T’s history. He said this history must be taught in primary and secondary schools, regardless of students’ choice of subjects.While the removal of European tributes is debated, there is a smaller discussion on the late Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, who has a few statues and a village in his name in Trinidad. Globally, there are calls for the removal of Gandhi statues. According to reports, when Gandhi was in South Africa in 1903, he wrote that white people there should be the predominant race and that blacks were “troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.” In 2015, the Washington Post reported on a book by two South African university professors, who wrote that during Gandhi’s stay in South Africa, “he routinely displayed disdain for Africans and described black Africans as savage, raw and living a life of indolence and nakedness, and he campaigned relentlessly to prove to the British rulers that the Indian community in South Africa was superior to native black Africans.”In 2018, Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration removed Gandhi’s state from the University of Ghana.
In Leicester, England, there is also a petition to remove a Gandhi statue. In 2019, there was a call for the Manchester City Council to reject the installation of Gandhi’s statue there. But in a 2019 interview with NPR, biographer Ramachandra Guha said while Gandhi was a racist in his younger life he outgrew his prejudices.In London, authorities recently boarded up areas around Gandhi and former South African president Nelson Mandela’s statues ahead of a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Last week, activists started a petition to remove Gandhi’s statue in Canada.Asked whether there could be an amicable Gandhi debate in T&T, where the population were mostly spilt between people African and Indian lineage, Abdulah said he was unaware of any systemic racist acts by Gandhi. He said many people in the world made backward statements. Even in T&T, he said some people engage in systemic racism and oppression and that was the real test for T&T.“I would not go as far as to say that every single person who wrote something that is bad or negative that we should dismiss or remove a street name.” Abdulah said the BLM movement has helped to raise issues all over the world. From this, he believes T&T should address its issues of systematic racism and inequalities.