When will we build on Chatoyer’s legacy?
This weekend is the highpoint of our country’s National Heroes Month, a month so designated primarily to focus on the heroic resistance of the Garifuna people to European colonisation and revolving around the death of our lone National Hero, so far, Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer.
We did not arrive at such a recognition lightly, for years of being taught ‘His-story’ had given us a completely false interpretation of our experience, one in which our country’s existence was considered to have begun only when the Italian sailor from Genoa, Christopher Columbus (to use the English version of his name) allegedly first set foot here in 1498.
Though historical facts proved that the supposed “discovery” of our country by Columbus was a physical impossibility on the imagined date, the myth was perpetuated for a long time.
It is a myth though which did not exist without challenge and the more enlightened local scholars and the rebellious youth of the latter half of the 20th century finally put paid to this shameful upending of history. More and more there became recognition that the Garifuna and Kalinago people were far from an “uncivilised” bunch, in need of European colonisation, and that the so-called “Carib wars” were indeed a manifestation of the national liberation struggle of the Vincentian people.
Even after our reclamation of Independence in October 1979, we still had to live with the shame of a supposed “Discovery Day” on January 22, the entombing of Chatoyer’s supposed killer right in the centre of St George’s Cathedral in Kingstown and the ignoring of both the legacy and the plight of the indigenous people of our homeland.
But the resistance could not be put to an end. The young people of this country, in their search for knowledge, came to the realisation of the true role of Chatoyer, firmly rejected the “Discovery Day” concept, and agitated for the paramount Chief to be accorded his full recognition as part of the reclamation of our story. The National Youth Council initiated the honouring of Chatoyer on March 14, and location of his death at Dorsetshire Hill overlooking capital city Kingstown.
The wave that started in those early days gradually became a mighty tide, if not yet a tsunami. In spite of the shameful stalling of those who, while ignoring March 14, tried to rebrand “Discovery Day” as some vague “National Day” of no historical significance, victory over the colonial lie was concretised with the abolition of the January 22 holiday, the declaration of March 14 as a national holiday, appropriately designated as National Heroes Day and the declaration of Chatoyer as our first National Hero.
But where do we go from here? How do we build on all that has been achieved? Can we be content with a situation where the sole public statue depicts a European soldier in tribute to all those who fought and died in the first World War, at a time when millions of people like us were denied even the basic right to vote?
What of the need for public re-education as to the life and times of the Kalinago and Garifuna? Must Chatoyer’s enduring image be that of a half-naked man with spear, a “warrior chief”? What of not just his reluctantly admitted military skill, but of his demonstration of statesmanship and diplomacy vis a vis the predatory European powers?
As we commemorate National Heroes Day, we cannot be content with what has been achieved thus far, we cannot rest on the fading laurels. Chatoyer’s legacy must define who we are and be a guide in determining our future as a proud, independent and sovereign people.