EDITORIAL: The semiotics of a removal

After decades of advocacy, much dither and drift, and a recently broken promise, a governing administration has finally summoned up the courage to remove the statue of Lord Horatio Nelson from its anomalous occupation of the national Heroes Square.

Our readers may recall that this anomaly was our foremost argument for the displacement of the statue, on the simple basis that he was not a national hero of Barbados, and thus had no legitimate right to be in our pantheon.

That its removal was effected on a day designated by the United Nations as the international day of tolerance would have added to the irony of what appeared to be a celebration of the displacement of one vestige of slavery, complete with speeches and much song and dance.

But, after all this, what did the statue symbolise that proved to be so much anathema to the Barbadian that one generation might have regarded it as the representation of a hero while another (ours) views it as an odious  symbol of the inhuman bondage to which our ancestors were made subject?

Is it that our perspective is so chameleon-like that it changes with the centuries, is it that the Barbadian of today is not the Barbadian of yesteryear, or is it that we are all a heady admixture of slavers, enslaved, liberated and unfree?

In this last scenario, there is clearly room for a Nelson statue, erected by an earlier version of the Barbadian, one perhaps unenlightened by modern quantification.

It raises in our mind however the question as to what the modern reaction would be were there to be discovered an original eighteenth century slave hut. Would it be idolised as a memento of our ancestors’ struggle? Or would it be regarded with shame as evoking memory of a time best forgotten now, as was the case with Lord Nelson’s statue?

These queries bring into high relief, though perhaps in interrogative form, the recently populist assertion that this is who we are. Who, exactly are we? A people that would erect a statue to an English naval hero, or a modern nation that would deny some aspects of our colonial heritage, while maintaining others, in the myriad of place names dedicated to members of the English Royal Family and sundry others such as US presidents?

It is our considered view that the statue of Lord Nelson, though arguably misplaced in its location, perfectly represented the qualities that form the modern Barbadian character. The courage of fighting on although the numerical odds are stacked against one, the strategising that brings its own reward of triumph and the pride in and loyalty to one’s native land.

That these talents were employed in the pursuit of an enterprise then legally nationalist but now decidedly regarded as abhorrent, should not immediately detract from their merit even in these times. Not enough, certainly, to make Nelson a national hero of this era, but a relic of part of our history, a part about which we appear to remain ambivalent, unsure of whether we should be proud or should be ashamed of it.

The removal of the statue might indicate a decisive turn in one direction. Then again, it might not. It may merely be the beginning of a new mode of thinking. We should evoke the discipline to maintain it for years to come.        

Barbados Advocate

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