Statement on Historic Statues and Monuments
The National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago is encouraged by the fact that so many citizens have been engaging in debates about Trinidad and Tobago’s heritage. We, its Council and staff have been listening carefully to the many comments and positions expressed and have undertaken additional research on the history of some of these monuments and place names to further inform the debates and to be able to consolidate its own position.
The country’s history is unique in its complexity – Diverse socio-political influences from almost every continent as well as its indigenous people, have directly shaped the country’s development over the centuries. Some of these influences have left deep scars on many, whose ancestors experienced the inhumanity that characterized the country’s colonial era. So much so that even today, although time and selective historical facts have attempted to sanitise the injustices, memorialized in buildings, place names and monuments, the prevailing sense of exploitation simmers just beneath the surface.
Locally there have been calls to remove certain monuments and place names long before the recent resurgence of concerted activism in the United States. However, the National Trust notes that these tragic incidents have been the catalyst for renewed discussions here in Trinidad and Tobago as indeed the world over.
The country’s history is one part of ourselves that we cannot change and so, commemorating an event or individual should not be construed as celebrating it or conferring on it a place of honour. Within its mandate, the National Trust is entrusted with the responsibility to preserve and protect the nation’s tangible heritage, good and bad, which is inextricably bound up in our history. However, it is our position that the way we preserve our heritage should demonstrate respect and sensitivity to all stakeholders with a legitimate interest and that there should be continuous opportunity for consultation and negotiation. Public participation is engrained in the process of listing heritage sites, which is one of the mandates of the National Trust.
Throughout history there have been phenomenal atrocities against mankind, providing every country, with what we call contested heritage – where there are competing narratives and multiple claims. When this is recognized, it is the role of organizations like the National Trust, historians and other stakeholders to acknowledge the need for action and participate in the shared creation of resolutions that will not deprive future generations of the opportunity to benefit from learning about their past. The National Trust advocates for a responsible approach for removing and / or contextualizing these symbols so that our passions do not inadvertently make us co-conspirators to sanitizing history.
If the statue of Christopher Columbus for instance, is to be removed, it should be preserved at an appropriate location that is still accessible to the public, along with an accurate account of the impact of Columbus’s presence in the New World. Total erasure of monuments and symbols of historical figures that impacted this country, as contentious as they may be, compromises the ability of present and future generations to develop an unvarnished understanding of the society in which they live and their place in it. It should also be noted that in other parts of the world, the removal of symbols is part of a broader movement to dismantle institutional inequality in legislation, policies, social programs, and law enforcement. Removal of symbols in themselves do not address social inequality or correct prevailing historical injustices.
The National Trust is therefore advising against the carte blanche removal of all contested symbols without taking advantage of the educational opportunity that they present. Whatever alternative is determined by consensus, destruction of a monument should not be a goal in and of itself. The Trust supports the installation of detailed signage with key historical facts at contested heritage sites. The Cape Coast Castles in Africa, the Holocaust Memorials across the world or the US Underground Railway are but a few examples of heritage sites associated with atrocities but are now replete with information about their history. They have been re-purposed to serve the need for public education and remembrance in the fight against intolerance.
The present situation provides an opportunity for everyone to take the time to learn more about the history of Trinidad and Tobago and share this information with the next generation. There are several resources at the National Trust, the National Archives, the National Library, and the libraries at The UWI and UTT Campuses which can facilitate greater learning. We also encourage the public to visit our website at nationaltrust.tt and read an article written by the National Trust staff on contested heritage for a deeper discussion on the issue.
The National Trust is prepared to join with other key stakeholders in a nationwide dialogue on our contested heritage. The diversity of our tangible heritage is a national asset which should be harnessed for our development – to build national identity and to diversify our economy through heritage/cultural tourism. Public education and public participation in the listing of heritage sites will continue to be at the heart of the work of the National Trust.
As always, the National Trust Council, members and staff will continue our efforts to improve how we serve the public and provide access to a wealth of information about the country’s history so that the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can benefit from a better appreciation of our shared heritage.