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Sunday 24 March 2019
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Knocking Columbus off his pedestal

THE STATUE of Christopher Columbus in east Port-of-Spain has certainly seen better times. Once standing at the centre of a picaresque square at the heart of a vibrant urban centre, it was photographed this week with a plastic bag over its head, as though being readied for execution. Mere months ago, red paint was smeared over its body. And, at some previous moment in its unlucky history, the cross in its right arm was unceremoniously truncated.

The photograph of the badly disfigured statute that appeared on the cover of Thursday’s Newsday brought into focus the divide between two antagonistic groups of history lovers. On one hand, there are those who argue history is sacrosanct and all vestiges of the past should be preserved as faithfully as possible. On the other hand, there are those who say the narrative of history is in need of serious redrafting.

All of this has reawakened debate over how we choose, as a society, to commemorate our past within the capital, whether through statutes or through grander projects such as the restoration of Stollmeyer’s Castle.

Depictions of Columbus are controversial around the world, especially in the wake of the fierce debate that ensued in the US in 2017. But long before the deadly riots in Charlottesville over a memorial for Gen Robert E Lee, there had been a substantial revision of the place of Columbus in world history. Far from discovering the New World, Columbus is now seen as someone who came after the Vikings; a coloniser who ushered in the decimation of First Peoples, whether through violence, doctrine or contagion.

But back when Columbus Square was opened by governor William Young in 1881, the usefulness of the gift of a pretty bronze statue in the middle of the city was undoubted. Years later, in 1887, one commentator went so far as to praise the effect the statue had on the urban landscape.

“This end of the town used formerly to be much neglected, but the recent embellishments have greatly improved its appearance, and once a month, on the third Thursday, the Police Band plays at the usual hour, from 5 to 6 pm,” said the commentator. Centuries later, the statue is in a square which is now crying out for help.

In this regard, what must happen now is a debate over the place of our statutes in our capital’s ongoing redevelopment. Then, there can be a decision as to whether certain memorials should be taken down, contextualised or left as is.

While there are grounds for removing Columbus from his pedestal in the history books, there are no grounds for justifying public property vandalism.

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