Cast in Stone and Blood
DARA E HEALY
“We carry a grave responsibility for a colonial policy based on cheap labour and cheap raw materials...We can point to years of criminal neglect when official ineptitude and sloth have permitted affairs to drift and the islands to sink into unpardonable misery. Now a point has been reached when action is desperately urgent and British concern must be paid in hard cash. The hopeless squalor of today is in a real way the measure of the shortcomings of our colonial policy and of our economic neglect.”
– British MP A Creech-Jones, 1939, in How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean
THE STORY of the Temple in the Sea is one of resilience, commitment and the dogged determination to trust one’s inner voice. I like to think that the story of how Sewdass Sadhu built the temple in Waterloo, literally brick by brick, is also the story of our nation; how we persevered and survived in the face of enormous challenges.
Sadhu was a labourer, arriving here with his parents who came as part of the British colonial system of indentured labour in 1845. And yes, under the colonial system, children as young as six years old were required to work. Sadhu first tried to construct his temple in 1947. He was imprisoned and charged $500, about two years’ wages, because he built it on lands owned by a private British company. The company destroyed the temple.
Undeterred, Sadhu decided that since the ocean belonged to everyone and no one, that is where he would build his temple. For more than 20 years (some say closer to 25), he carried bricks, cement and sand riding on his bicycle, heading towards his ultimate goal. As he rode up and down with his materials, sometimes working in waist-high water, the villagers would laugh at him. I can imagine the ridicule: “Boy wha’ you doing? Yuh mad or wha’?”
Sadhu wanted to honour Lord Krishna for saving his life on one of his voyages back to India. In this quest, Sadhu was not unique. This idea of creating something significant and permanent is ancient, from the earliest drawings of indigenous peoples found on stones in TT, to the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
Monuments always have a meaning. They are designed to impact their space in a way that is impressive and lasting, celebrating particular cultures, victories or people. Thus, if we are to understand calls to decolonise our public spaces, it is important to understand how the colonisers used monuments for their own purposes.
In many ways, the British Empire perfected this practice. It has been estimated that by the 20th century, the empire comprised more than 400 million people, in virtually every area on Earth; “the sun never set on the British Empire.” For the 1897 diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, statues, buildings and other forms of commemoration were put up all over the world. There was Royal Victoria College in Canada and Jubilee Gardens in India. From Hong Kong to Ghana and Guyana statues were built. In TT, our National Museum and Art Gallery was originally called the Royal Victoria Institute.
For a long time, we accepted such monuments as normal aspects of our environment. In the 1950s, as independence movements intensified, physical representations of empire became targets of resistance. In Guyana, part of the Victoria statue was blown up and had to be flown to England for repairs.
The murder of George Floyd gave new focus to justice movements which had their roots in the 1960s and 1970s. Just as it would be unthinkable today to put up a statue to the police officer who murdered Floyd, activists are clear that monuments to people who profited from indigenous cruelty, enslavement and colonialism are unacceptable.
In 2020, the Welsh government commissioned an audit of the monuments, statues, street names and other public representations of people who profited from enslavement. Such an audit is necessary for TT and other Caribbean nations which are still experiencing the effects acknowledged by MP Creech-Jones many decades ago.
There is now a beautiful statue of Sewdass Sadhu at the entrance to the temple. I suspect we still do not understand him. Certainly, we have not worked out how to allow his story and those of the people who built our nation to empower us. Decolonisation of our landscape is essential or we will continue to wonder why our families are floundering and why the impoverished feel they have no choice but to burn their pain.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN