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National Heroes Day

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On monday next, March 14 we celebrate another National Heroes Day. I am sometimes forced to ask myself what it is all about and what the point of having a national hero is. My view of a national hero is of one who is a national role model and whose life must be part of our consciousness. He must be one whose life story could act as an inspiration to the nation. {{more}}

But what obtains? We only seem to remember Chatoyer on March 14. It is like a ritual and becomes something we believe we have to do without being enamoured to do so. We still have to work out a reason for wanting a national hero, or national heroes for that matter.

I say this because last year we were told that a committee was to be established to look at other national heroes. I remember writing and suggesting that we concentrate on one national hero and that others would come to the fore at the appropriate time. Bassy Alexander who was to have been a member of that committee, also shared my view.

As it is now, the obelisk at Dorsetshire Hill becomes a central point of National Heroes Day Activities with the wreath-laying ceremony that had been started by the National Youth Council some years ago. I wonder how we would celebrate the occasion if Ebenezer Joshua and Milton Cato were named national heroes, as some persons will have it. When we celebrate Chatoyer, we also celebrate the life of his people because the struggle did not start with him. There was a context in which he functioned and a people who were very much part of that context.

But how much do we know about the life of Chatoyer or of his people? I had attempted to make a contribution toward understanding the life and times of Chatoyer. But that was part of a beginning. We are still in the process of rediscovering our history and the life of our indigenous peoples, which is a vital part of that history. The Carib people had for a long time been the subject of racism and had been pushed to the margin of society, ashamed of their past and even attempting to distance themselves from their culture and their history as they knew it. A lot of strides have been made in correcting some of the myths and in developing an understanding of these people. We still need more books in the schools to bolster this, to lift the consciousness of the people of Carib ancestry, and of Vincentians, in particular.

In the process a number of things have to be cleared up. We have to correct some of the myths, while at the same time avoid creating others of our own. It is for this reason that I had expressed some concern with the position taken by Disney in its movie Pirates of the Caribbean. One can argue that it is a movie; that it is fiction. But movies are as much a part of our education and of the brainwashing exercise.

In fact, today, movies are an even more powerful tool with the wide availability of televisions and DVDs. The Americans have used the movies to spread a particular view of their life and history. Culture and the Arts have been a part of this process for a long time. So education is not only about what you do in schools and what you read. Today all different methods of educating people are being used. Drama is one of the more effective ones.

Things began to change in the lives of our indigenous peoples in 1992 with celebrations to mark the Quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus in these parts. The efforts, by persons of European descent to make it into a big occasion stimulated the indigenous peoples who began to reflect and to do more research into their history. They began to realize that instead of Christopher Columbus having found the countries and their peoples, it was the people who had found Christopher Columbus lost in their harbours. Activities were planned by NGOs and by groups representing the indigenous people. The Caribbean Organisation of Indigenous People (COIP) built and strengthened links with those of Central America. The Belize- St.Vincent and the Grenadines link was strengthened and through Belize, links were developed with other areas in Central America.

The other milestone was 1995 when NGOs celebrated the bicentenary of the death of Chatoyer. All of these activities helped to strengthen the consciousness of the Carib people and to make them more proud of whom they were. Another major mark came in 2002 with the official declaration of Chatoyer as first National Hero and the day on which he died as National Heroes Day, something for which the NGOs in this country fought for a long time.

But after having said all of that, one has to recognize some danger signs that point to and help to create divisions. Really, one should expect some of this, for as one begins to recover one’s history all things are going to be thrown on the table and some people are going to resist for different reasons. But we have to be open about this, to inform ourselves and avoid the perpetuation of or creation of new myths.

One element of confusion is the issue of Black and Yellow Caribs, the Garifuna and Kalinago people. In the citation that was used at the official declaration of Chatoyer as first National Hero, he was referred to as Chief of the Kalinago people. The distinction that is normally drawn is between the Kalinago, the original name for the Yellow Caribs and the Garifuna or Garinagau referring to the black Caribs. Traditionally, the name used in St.Vincent was Carib, that is, black and yellow Caribs. As links strengthened with Belize, the name Garifuna became a part of our vocabulary and of our reality.



But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Caribs, for a large part of their history, functioned as one people. There was a particular incident recorded in the 18th century where the French wanted one of its Intendants in the region to seek the assistance of the Yellow Caribs in their struggle against the Black Caribs, basing it on the assumption that there existed a great deal of antagonism between them. The reply of the Intendant was to the effect that the Yellow Caribs would rather have as many blacks living among them than a few Europeans.

As the French Intendant put it, “it is a very steadfast sentiment that they prefer to see 2,000 Negroes settled in their island than to see disembarking here only fifty armed Frenchmen.” There were other examples of the Black and Yellow Caribs operating jointly. Then there is the view put forth by Ivan Van Sertima that the Black Caribs or Garifuna were here before Columbus. It is possible that blacks were in this part of the world before Columbus but little to suggest that they predated the Caribs in St.Vincent. This is an issue that I intend to take up in a later article.

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