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National Hero – To what end?

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I was particularly pleased with last week’s editorial in the Vincentian newspaper. It raised some important issues and asked the right questions about the significance of National Heroes’ Day. The editorial reminds us that it is already seven years since we started celebrating National Heroes’ Day and went on to ask a very pertinent question: “Has it really touched the national psyche or are we merely paying lip service for the sake of political correctness?”{{more}} A call was then made for us to continue the process of public education with regard to the contributions of outstanding Vincentians in order to facilitate the debate. I will suggest that we add to this an attempt to understand and come to some consensus on the concept of a national hero and the significance of having national heroes.

It would appear, in fact, I am almost sure that I heard that the names of Joshua, Cato and McIntosh were submitted to Cabinet for their consideration. Is there some inner compulsion to name national heroes and is it that we also feel compelled to pack our national hero’s slate with politicians? Let me use the words of the Vincentian’s editorial again-”we have not made the best use of the opportunity to raise public consciousness, not just on the life and achievements of Chatoyer… but also on the significance of the National hero concept and where it fits in our historical process.”

Every year some of us take a pilgrimage to the obelisk at Dorsetshire Hill, pay our tribute to Chatoyer and then having fulfilled what we consider our duty we then go about our normal business. There are clearly a number of things missing. We boast of having a national hero, but what does it really mean? Who is a national hero and of what importance is it to us? We have not really worked this out. We have decided on criteria for awarding national heroes, but that is as far as we got. There isn’t a great deal of public education about Chatoyer and his significance to the history of this country. Chatoyer means little to a number of persons who still picture him in the colonial mould in which he was painted and wonder what significance he has to them. So many of us observe March 14th because we think it is the politically correct thing to do. The significance of Chatoyer as a national figure much less hero has not seeped into our consciousness. So perhaps ad infinitum we will wend our way to Dorsetshire Hill and do what we think we have to do. On the other hand, maybe naming other national heroes is to break the monotony of the annual pilgrimage to the obelisk.

What is sadly missing since it will help us to better appreciate or come to an understanding of the significance and meaning of a national hero is a system of national honours. We are still prepared to award persons with colonial honours, with symbols of a British Empire that doesn’t exist. Shame on us! Why are we unable to design national honours for persons whom we feel have made a contribution to the development of the country but who might not fit the bill to be a national hero? In the process of deciding on persons worthy of national honours, we will begin to clarify in our minds the differences between being worthy of national honours and being listed as a national hero. In fact, persons being awarded with national honours would in many cases have made a greater contribution in particular areas of life and in particular communities. They might have given outstanding service as, say, a midwife, nurse or teacher in particular communities and would have impacted significantly on those communities without necessarily making an impact on the nation as a whole.

I believe that at some stage in our history someone will pop out after having stimulated our imagination and consciousness in such a way that they will demand recognition as a national hero. What is the hurry now? Let the debate continue until we can arrive at a consensus on some of the issues raised by the Vincentian’s editorial, issues with which I agree. I can think of a variety of reasons that will dissuade me from giving at this time any strong support to any of the three political leaders being proposed. I remember vividly participating in a debate with Ebenezer Theodore Joshua on the issue of Independence. I had just returned from University and was invited by a group with which Jethro Greene was associated to participate in a forum on Independence in Georgetown. I was clear on what I had to say. Independence yes, without any reservations. Our proposed national hero was against it. We were not ready, he felt. This is only one issue. There are others. Among the three political leaders my favourite is George McIntosh but I think he should wait. I have looked very carefully into the life of McIntosh since the dismissal of charges laid against him arising from the riots, when he was lifted on the backs of a huge crowd, to the formation of the St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association and his struggles in the Legislative Council for land reform and on behalf of the Shakers who were banned from practising their religion.

When Shakers were charged and scheduled to appear at the Magistrate’s Court in Barrouallie, McIntosh urged them to shake in court, which they did much to the embarrassment of Magistrate Cox. He defied the authorities by allowing the Shakers to hold meetings in his yard at Paul’s Lot. When it was suggested that the practice of Shakerism sent many Shakers to the Mental Asylum, McIntosh in the Legislative Council strongly disagreed and said that he believed that fanatics in any religion would go out of their mind, regardless of whether they were Shakers or not. He was at his strongest in defending the Shakers and fighting for land for the working class. McIntosh is in many ways my hero and someday I will be an advocate on his behalf but right now let us hold strain, educate ourselves about what we are into and come to a consensus on a number of related matters and then go on. Let us also give Chatoyer his full due before we go on.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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