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Diane Phillips: The Surprising Twist In The Christopher Columbus Statue Saga

The Columbus statue at Government House with an arm and a leg missing after being attacked with a sledgehammer on Saturday. Photo: Racardo Thomas/Tribune Staff

The Columbus statue at Government House with an arm and a leg missing after being attacked with a sledgehammer on Saturday. Photo: Racardo Thomas/Tribune Staff

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Diane Phillips

ON Saturday, October 9, two days before Heroes Day, police arrested a man for destroying the statue of Christopher Columbus on Government House grounds. The act went locally viral in minutes.

Judging by the people who witnessed the man shouting, slashing and smashing the historic figure, and chose to record the activity or do nothing about it, there was strong sentiment in favour of its destruction. What they did not realize was how that statue came to stand where it was, who paid for it and why it was erected. Given that knowledge, would they have been so eager to be complicit, I wonder.

Saturday’s furious bashing was part of a larger movement to erase history we do not approve of or resent. Statues all over the United States are being removed or destroyed because their presence reminds us of incidents and symbols of hatred and injustice. But thanks to historian, author and former Commodore of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force Tellis Bethel who had researched the history of Christopher Columbus for the second book in his trilogy about the Lucayan Sea, a book that hit the stands, Kindle and Amazon this week, we know the destruction backfired in a way that should startle all of us into recognizing how little we know about our own history. What will become of the stories that shaped us when people like Dr. Gail Saunders and Paul Aranha pass away or Sir Orville Turnquest is too old to share tales and Sir Arthur Foulkes falls silent (may that be a very long time from now).

Former Commodore Bethel urges us to bring balance to perspective “to prevent the human tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater due to a lack of critical information.” These are his words as he begs Bahamians to take an informed response to any decision made concerning this statue’s past significance and the role it should have in The Bahamas’ future.

The following points are excerpts from his manuscript titled “The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands—The Peace Capital of the Americas.” The book, the second in a trilogy, provides insights into how Bahamians should respond to the traumatic events left in the wake of Columbus.

“The statue was installed at Government House in 1832 by Governor Sir James Carmichael Smyth about two years before the emancipation of enslaved persons throughout the British colonies in 1834. Sir James was appointed Governor of the Bahama Colony in 1829, five years before emancipation. The transatlantic slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807, but the practice of slavery in British colonies continued until 1834.”

He notes that Governor Carmichael was an abolitionist who opposed the institution of slavery and we mark his name with the Carmichael Road and the constituency honouring his legacy, though few know why Carmichael carries the name.

We pick up again from his telling of the story.

“The Columbus statue was purchased by the Governor of the Bahama Colony with monies freely donated to him by black Bahamians. Black Bahamians raised the monies as an expression of their appreciation for Governor Carmichael’s public stance against slavery and his fair treatment of oppressed Bahamians.”

Bethel researched the story, showing the Governor had also attended Sunday worship at a black church on the corner of Gladstone Road and Carmichael Road and that is why it was named after him.

“The Governor wanted to use the monies to invest in something that would be a lasting legacy of the gift he received and the mutual respect he had for the Bahamians who provided the money,” he writes. “In 1828, four years before the statue was purchased, biographer and historian Washington Irving published a book on Columbus’ biography, glamorizing the explorer’s singular achievement in ‘discovering a New World.’ The truth about the horrors associated with the indigenous (Native American) slave trade and genocide initiated by Columbus in the Americas were not as widespread among the general public as it is today. Governor Carmichael thought the statue would be the perfect representation of appreciation that was expressed to him by oppressed Bahamians.”

Here is the part that might have shocked the man who destroyed and the bystanders who did nothing to stop the act.

“Governor Carmichael wanted to install the statue in the public square downtown but was resisted by the white elite, who wanted nothing to do with a gift sponsored by black people. Governor Carmichael then decided to place the statue on his property on Peck’s Slope on the Government House Grounds where it is located today.”

He paid the price and was transferred, according to historical records uncovered by Bethel – in his words:

“The Governor was later transferred from the Bahama Colony in 1833 due to pressure placed on British authorities by the white Bahamian ruling class, a year before emancipation.”

“The Bahamas shunned him but another British colony recognized the honour and principles for which he stood.

“Governor Carmichael died in 1838 in Georgetown, British Guiana (Guyana) where he oversaw the passage of legislation for the Abolition Bill. He died the year enslaved persons had completed their four-year apprenticeship programme in the Bahama Colony (1834 -1838). A monument (bust) of Governor Carmichael was erected in Guyana in his honour.”

Says Bethel: “The story behind The Bahamas’ statue of Columbus is one of injustice by the oppressor and the collaboration between the oppressed and those who were empowered to stand against it, even though both were on opposite sides of the ethnic divide.

“This Columbus statue and its story should be a constant reminder to those who possess the capacity to do so to stand up for human dignity. It should also encourage the oppressed to unite not on the grounds of ethnicity but human dignity. More importantly, this statue and its story should inspire Bahamians and the millions who visit our shores to learn from the mistakes of the past, improve on any positive accomplishments made by those who preceded us, and strive to create success stories of our own for humanity’s betterment.

“Our lack of understanding of the past will breed zealous immaturity that will cause us to toss the baby out with the bathwater. The bathwater is Columbus’ involvement in the slavery of the indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their wealth. The baby is what this statue ironically represents, a stand against slavery and exploitation.”

The recent attack on this monument is a testament to the destruction of our rich heritage that ignorance can create. In a way, this recent incident concerning the statue adds to its story.

To throw out The Bahamas’ Columbus statue is to toss out the blood, sweat, and tears of the enslaved persons who invested in it and to do away with the sacrificial efforts made by a white Governor who stood against slavery. Furthermore, getting rid of this statue negates the significant role this monument can play in bringing reconciliation and restoration to humanity through the story it now reveals to the world.”

Thank you, Tellis Bethel for sharing that information. How ironic that the book hit publication date less than 48 hours after the near-crumbling of the statue that was a gift to the governor who represented and sided with the oppressed and after whom New Providence’s fastest-growing community is named.

The history of The Bahamas is complex and needs to be told in its entirety, the raw beauty of its romance, the ugly underbelly of its disgrace and the moments that made and continue to make a difference.

Incentives do work, so do disincentives

When someone I respect fired a verbal canon at me saying I was off my rocker to recommend incentives for vaccinations, even cash, I gave it a moment’s thought. Maybe I was wrong. Was it unfair to those who had taken the vaccine early when there was no incentive? Was an incentive to pay past due real property tax unfair to those who paid on time?

The debate is not about what is fair and unfair. In both cases, we are in a battle, one to get as many jabs into as many arms as possible so we can regain our freedom, hug our friends, see more of our family, not be afraid to gather or travel. We need jabs to give our frontline workers and our health care system a break before they collapse like a castle in the sand on an incoming tide. We need jabs to get our economy up to full steam because God and Brave and every individual of every political persuasion knows if we don’t get that momentum going, the hole we are digging will make the climb back out that much harder.

Incentives go far deeper than giving a population a reason to do the right thing. Sometimes they just make economic sense over the long haul. This is a lesson we might want to consider as we attempt to reignite our economy.

My friend who thought I was crazy to recommend incentives for jabs should see what cities throughout the U.S. are doing to provide incentives to fill jobs. In Vermont, where tax incentives-incentives attracted top tier companies and there are more than 12,000 jobs to be filled, the state is paying between $5,000 and $7,500 to those who move and call Vermont their new home. Topeka, Kansas, just recently announced it will pay workers $10,000 to move to the city even if they are working remotely for a company elsewhere. Little Harmony, Minnesota, with a population of less than 2,000 but with more than 600 jobs to be filled, is offering $12,000 in cash rebates to those who build a new home. In Maine, where the attempt is to attract well-educated residents, incentives are tied to reduction in student loans and in New Haven, Connecticut, the city is not only offering up to $10,000 to call the hometown of Yale University your hometown, but up to $30,000 in energy upgrades.

Take your pick of the zip code that offers a financial reason to call it home – Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma are all competing for residents, trying to kick their economies into high gear. Incentives work wonders.

And if you don’t believe that incentives work, just consider disincentives. When the US announced that as of November 1, all foreign nationals visiting the US must be fully vaccinated, suddenly all that hesitancy about conspiracy theories and “man won’t be man” vanished in the face of a ban from Walmart, Target, Home Depot or Brandsmart.

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