Living in a former colony – as we do – there are many painful and unpleasant things in our past. Not only as a country, but as individuals, for we are all products of that past.
It is in the very blood of our ancestry. Colonial history is in our genes and facial features. Our language. Our culture. Our religion. Our names. We will pass this legacy on, however altered by our own lives, to our children. How are we to deal with it? Just forget, say it’s the past and move on?
When I was in my teens I was profoundly moved, down to my very soul, by Malcolm X. He touched and influenced me like no other individual ever has. He’s why I refused to live in Canada and, frankly, cannot ever live there, or the US, the UK, or Europe.
I was raised a Roman Catholic, following my father’s side of the family. I had already left the Church by that time, but I got to know Islam much better and I was moved to embrace my ancestral religion of Hinduism, nominally the religion of my mother’s side, but not really in practice.
At the age of 18, I wanted to change my name. “Kirk” is Scottish, meaning “Church”. We’re not Scottish. What’s more, my name actually comes from the Hollywood star, “Kirk Douglas”, because my young Dad really liked the movie Spartacus.
Moved to change this, I got a pundit to give me a name, according to the Hindu tradition, connected to the positions of all the visible celestial bodies at the precise time of my birth. I was all prepared to replace the name I grew up with. The name that I instinctively turn my head to when I hear someone say it even across a crowded, noisy room. That uncommon name that bonds me to complete strangers who also are named “Kirk”. The name that my parents called me from birth and made a nickname out of.
But I didn’t go through with it. My parents weren’t Malcolm X followers by any stretch of the imagination. They were normal Trinis and – tolerant enough of my newfound zeal – watched me transform myself in so many ways.
I eventually felt I would be dishonouring them. It would be a living and constant rebuke, naming myself and rejecting their name for me, which we developed our bonds with. I decided I would keep the name my parents gave me.
It would remind me of everything about my past, and truly reflect our messy history. I’m named after a Hollywood movie star. I was a Christian. My Hindu mother went to Presbyterian schools her whole life and knew little of her tradition. That’s just how it is. No need to pretend otherwise. When I later read Naipaul’s insights about Trinidad and its so many lived absurdities, I identified so deeply.
I’m not criticising the many people who have changed their names. I deeply understand the internal debate.
As each of us deals with our personal histories, the country has to deal with our collective, national history.
Of course, Columbus opened a chapter of human history that was brutal, murderous, rapacious. But Columbus was a truly world-historical figure. He changed the course of history, for better or for worse. The significance of his landing here doesn’t have to be celebrated as only a joyous event. But it is a crucial part of the Age of Discovery, the emergence of the modern world and the West Indies’ centrality in that process, a reminder about the dark side of “progress” and European Enlightenment.
Trinidad was one of the few places in the world where Columbus actually set foot. We are thereby an indelible, permanent part of this crucial chapter in the story of humanity. It connects us very intimately and concretely to world history.
Also, without Columbus, none of us would even be here. Even the indigenous population is mixed with the ancestry of all the peoples who came afterward.
The experience and insight of Eric Lewis from Moruga – a proud descendant of the country’s First Peoples and the sculptor of the Columbus statue there – is so valuable. The Moruga community continued observing Columbus’ landing years after the rest of the country abandoned it. We forget how we came here, and the fact that most of us are historically recent arrivants, not true “natives”.
“I don’t feel conflicted and neither does the Chief of Moruga (Paul Navarro) and neither do the members of our first peoples,” Lewis told the Guardian newspaper about the controversy in 2017.
“I have Spanish descent in me, I have indigenous Amerindian descent, I have East Indian and African. I am one person and if it is that one person can exist in oneself with happiness, joy and peace why shouldn’t the world exist in happiness, joy and peace among different faiths, among different beliefs and among different customs.”
Lewis said Moruga was approached by the director of the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, Shabaka Kambon, to have their Columbus statue taken down and a meeting was held with interest groups in the area.
“The People of Moruga thought it an insult that someone from Port of Spain should come to them and ask for the removal of their statue,” Lewis said.
Indeed, is this another type of colonialism?
“It is not that we are celebrating Columbus, we are celebrating Moruga and Moruga’s history,” Lewis said.
“I am not saying forget your past, you take your past, you learn from it and the fact that the Columbus monument stands in Moruga is something we can learn from, it is history,” he said.
If the Columbus statue is removed from Port of Spain, Lewis said the Moruga museum would be willing to take it.
“That, to me, sounds like the best solution.
The next can-of-worms question is then, “What do we replace it with?”
This is Trinidad, after all.