Official recognition of the historical importance of the location where the Treasury Building now stands is long overdue. As the place that marks the spot where British Governor Sir George Fitzgerald Hill publicly read out the Proclamation of Emancipation on August 1, 1834, the site is of immeasurable significance to the history of Trinidad and Tobago.
The beautifully designed and crafted Emancipation monument unveiled by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at the Treasury Building on Saturday finally rights a wrong that should have been addressed long ago. Artists Gillian Bishop, Kenwyn Crichlow and the rest of their team are to be commended.
The national ambivalence that has contributed to the absence of clear-cut positions on our history has resulted in T&T dragging its feet on matters that should not be in doubt. Fortunately, committed individuals and organisations with a sense of responsibility to the public, especially to our youth, have been filling the breach. For years until Covid-19 put a halt to large public events, the proclamation of Emancipation has been re-enacted in a theatrical event on Emancipation Day with a large cast directed by Pearl Eintou Springer working with the Emancipation Support Committee.
Each production strives to capture and evoke the mixture of trembling excitement and anxiety that would have filled the area when enslaved men, women and children arrived in their thousands to witness their moment of freedom only to hear that they must endure six more years under a system of apprenticeship before graduating to full freedom. From the distance of 184 years we can imagine the air filled with their thunderous shouts of “pas de six ans!” (No six years!) The British government’s attempt to hold back the forces of history to allow planters and the Royal treasury to adjust to a new normal proved futile in the face of African resistance and impatience for freedom.
In his address last Saturday, Prime Minister Rowley recognised the Emancipation monument as an emblem whose time had come. We want to suggest that there are also other symbols and emblems whose time have also come for review. All around us, the symbols of our degradation abound while those associated with our freedom and upliftment are ignored and left unrecognised.
The lobby led by Cross Rhodes Freedom Project to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus in Port of Spain was picking up steam until Mayor Joel Martinez backed off, saying the matter had become a national issue and had therefore moved beyond the purview of the Port of Spain City Corporation. Clearly it had become a hot potato that Mayor Martinez could not handle. The issue might have been national but the statue itself stands in the city over which he has provenance as mayor.
On the assumption that the project was affected by the climate of an election campaign, we suggest that the matter of public monuments, symbols and emblems be brought on to the national agenda immediately after the election with the Government serving as facilitator of a decentralised and community-based review and discussion.
Some of our institutions like the National Archives and Nalis are doing excellent work with very limited resources and should become more central to this effort.