Reflecting on National Heroes Day and National Heritage Month
On Sunday we celebrated another National Heroes Day and are now fully into National Heritage Month. What is this all about? We know that March 14 was the day on which Chatoyer died.
Incidentally, we must be reminded that was the day also on which Ebenezer Joshua, who is touted to be one of our national heroes, died. On March 14 there is a ceremony at the Obelisk established in recognition of the life of Chatoyer, following this, Vincentians journey to the area north of the dry river to savour dishes that are a legacy of the culinary art of the indigenous people. The Garifuna Heritage Foundation has been holding annual conferences on the indigenous people in the week leading up to March 14, but unfortunately, they are not well patronised by Vincentians.
What happens for the rest of the month that we call Heritage month? For most of us the month ends on March 14, so by extension it is only about Chatoyer. But what have we done to celebrate/commemorate our heritage, outside of that? I have long been calling for a system of national honours and awards. There are many Vincentians who have made outstanding contributions to the life of the nation but do not qualify to be national heroes. Why are we so reluctant to go in that direction? Using the example of Trinidad and Tobago; there are a number of awards, with the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago being the country’s highest award. A few years ago, the country had been asked to submit names of possible national heroes. A short list was made but nothing followed, and I am not sure that any reason was given for the failure to carry this through. Were they not satisfied with the names put forward? The names were George McIntosh, for whom I am an advocate, Dr JP Eustace, whom I notice Luke Browne is promoting. The other two, politicians Milton Cato and Ebenezer Joshua. I have my views on the others, but here is not the place to deal with that.
Let us get back to the present situation. We speak about the Garifuna, but little is said of the Kalinago who led the struggle in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have accepted the position of ethnohistorian/anthropologist Nancy Gonzales who argues that by the 18th century the Garifuna and Kalinago were one people. After a long period of struggle the Kalinago numbers were drastically reduced. The leadership of the struggle fell into the hands of the Garifuna, but the Kalinago continued to be very integral to it. We know this especially from French sources who referred to the groups meeting to plan strategies. The British downplayed this because they argued that the legitimate owners of the land were the Kalinago, but that the Garifuna stole it from them. So, they arrogantly concluded that their claim to the country was superior to that of the Garifuna. What is significant about the Garifuna struggle was that at the time they became the dominant group numerically they had to fight against an enemy who had gained a foothold in the country. The Garifuna had been combining with the Kalinagos when they led the struggle against the Europeans. Governor Stapleton of the Leeward Islands noted that in 1672 of 1,500 ‘Caribs’ who attacked Antigua, 600 were ‘Black Caribs’. So that unity in struggle had been in existence since the 17th century when the Garifuna had been increasing in numbers. I mention all of this to reinforce the point that the struggle started long before the Garifuna came into the picture as the dominant force.
We have been celebrating Black History Month with the Americans; nothing fundamentally wrong with this since we are part of the same struggle and people of Caribbean descent have made their contribution. For me Black History for us should be all year, but if we have to dedicate a month let us use March and give meaning to National Heritage.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian