Contestations of the Past: A Historical Analysis of the Christopher Columbus Monuments in Trinidad

By Aileen Alexis

The history of Trinidad from 1498 is representative of a colonial and imperial system of Spanish and British rule. The impact of European colonization in Trinidad has meant that how we construct and remember history often follows Western historiography. The public arena is filled with signs, symbols, street names, buildings, artifacts, and monuments that represent various contested colonial figures in the country. Many of the public spaces in Trinidad have a colonial legacy that is often evident in the monuments we see.

Contestations play a vital role in revealing the values and esteem that are elevated to the forefront of memory with key events, symbols, and characters that shaped Trinidad’s history and society. There are two Columbus statues in the country.  The first one is located at Columbus Square, situated at the corner of Duncan Street and Independence Square. This statue was donated by an affluent cocoa proprietor, Hypolite Borde, in the 1880s. The other statue is in Grand Chemin, Lanse Mittan Road, Moruga, and was constructed by the self-stylized Prince of Moruga, Eric Lewis in 2012. Both monuments stand at the centre of heated contestations in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean about their purpose in a post-colonial landscape.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian mariner who left Spain with royal authorization in search of a Western route to the riches of the East. According to historian Eric Williams, “A series of dramatic events in fifteenth-century Europe culminated in Christopher Columbus’s overseas voyages acting as an agent of the Spanish monarchy.”[1] Columbus embarked on four voyages from 1492 to 1504 where he encountered lands in the West Indies and Central America and claimed them for Spain. European colonization in the region had begun and it left an indelible mark on the West Indies and the subsequent populations that were transplanted as a result of European economic enterprise. The arrival of Spanish colonialism in Trinidad spelled trouble for the indigenous population and their culture. Professor Emeritus Bridget Brereton contends that “Once the fatal contact was made, on that July morning in 1498, the Arawaks of Trinidad would suffer the tragic fate shared in varying degrees by all the Amerindian peoples of the Americas.”[2]  Genocide of the indigenous groups in the region became a characteristic feature of the Spanish colonial enterprise.  

Undoubtedly, monuments are symbolic of the power structure in a society that shows how those with financial and political strength can erect monuments which contribute to having their agendas elevated to the forefront of the country’s historical narrative. Within these contestations surrounding the Columbus monuments, there exist numerous dialogues regarding the place of such controversial monuments in society and their public spaces. On August 1st, 2018, The Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, in collaboration with the Warao nation, launched a petition to have the statue of Columbus in Port of Spain removed and taken to a museum.[3] This petition was met with varying sentiments across the population and contributed to a new vigour of contestations among the population in the country. In response to the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, The Mayor of  Port of Spain, Joel Martinez admits that, “while he is cognizant of the statue’s controversial nature and objections by some revisionist groups, he believes it holds cultural and historical significance to Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the city.”[4]  Monuments play an essential role in educating society about the history of a country.

The polemical nature of colonial monuments signals that in the twenty-first century, there needs to be a revisionist approach to the monuments that we promote in the public arena of post-colonial spaces especially. Monuments are not necessarily just inanimate objects that adorn the public sphere. They hold the power to silence, evoke harrowing memories of collective trauma and heroize colonial perpetrators. Trouillot contends, “Commemorations sanitize further, the messy history lived by the actors. They help to create, modify, or sanction the public meanings attached to historical events deemed worthy of mass celebrations.”[5] Monuments are a key feature of public history. It leads one to ask, “whose history”? Monuments can be employed as a tool to help untangle the various historical narratives that exist within Trinidad.  These narratives all create a standpoint from which their unique historical experiences and perspectives can be highlighted and explored, each producing a plethora of racial and ethnic narratives that often are expressed through different art forms, with monuments being one such expression.


[1] Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (New York: Eworld,1942), 5.

[2] Bridget Brereton, A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962, 1.

[3]Julien Neaves, “Petition Launched to Remove Columbus Statue,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, August 1, 2018, https://newsday.co.tt/2018/08/01/petition-launched-to-remove-columbus-statue/.

[4] Shane Superville, “Leave Christopher Columbus alone,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, June 21, 2018,

https://newsday.co.tt/2018/06/21/leave-christopher-columbus-alone/.

[5] Trouillot, Silencing the Past Power and the Production of History,139.

Image credit: Taken by author in Moruga, Trinidad, 2020.

Bibliography

Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1981.

Neaves, Julien. “Petition Launched to Remove Columbus Statue,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, August 1, 2018, https://newsday.co.tt/2018/08/01/petition-launched-to-remove- columbus-statue/.

Salandy, Tyehimba. “Rasta Memory versus the Historical Amnesia of Western Capitalism: Towards Decoloniality and Epistemic Justice in the Global Village” in Local Articulations of Entangled Social Inequalities. Anthem Studies in Decoloniality and Migration ed. Rhoda Reddock and Encarnacion Gutierrez, 1-29. London: Anthem Publishers, upcoming.

Superville, Shane. “Leave Christopher Alone.” Newsday, June 28th, 2018. https://newsday.co.tt/2018/06/21/leave-christopher-columbus-alone/.

Trouillot, Michel.  Silencing the Past:  Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 1995.

Williams, Eric.  History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Eworld, 1942

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