Dr. Fraser- Point of View
March 26, 2010
Of National Heroes and National Heroes’ Day

Let me first express my agreement with the position of the NEWS that in its editorial of last week questioned the celebration of National Heroes’ Day on March 15th, because the official holiday fell on a Sunday. This really surprised me for the declaration of March 14 as National Heroes’ Day was tied in with our conclusion that our first National Hero died on March 14. March 14, therefore, has some significance for us, getting its significance from our first, and at this time, only National Hero.{{more}} We used a similar argument when we stopped celebrating August Monday and opted to have the holiday on the precise date that gave birth to the holiday. March 15 is of no significance to our National Hero and consequently to National Heroes’ Day. Let us be consistent with this. We can, if we care to, declare the Monday following a public holiday on the occasion on which it falls on a Sunday, but let the official celebrations such as we have be held on the date that has relevance.

According to last week’s SEARCHLIGHT, we are now on to Hero No. 2. The piece that accompanied the caption that highlighted this bit of news was a strange one. I am not sure if the strangeness came from the way in which the piece was written or from the statement made by the Minister of Culture. The SEARCHLIGHT states: “According to Minister of Culture, Rene’ Baptiste, the Prime Minister had been formally requested to convene a Committee to begin the process of qualifying the former trade unionist, political leader and a champion fighter for the poor and working class.” I am not sure what is meant by “beginning the process of qualifying” E.T Joshua. If my memory serves me correctly, a couple years ago a committee was struck to identify one of a number of persons who had been talked about as possible candidates for National Hero status. If this is so, did the committee agree on and submit the name of E.T Joshua? If it did what will this other committee do that the former committee did not or could not do? Have we seen a report of that earlier committee? If there is no report or if there was no committee, or no committee report, who decided on E.T Joshua? Was this a case of putting the cart before the donkey, because when Joshua was identified it would have been based on criteria already laid down with the declaration of our first National Hero, but who did the selection?

I am not only concerned with the process. I am concerned about something more. Ebenezer Theodore Joshua made his contribution. There can be no doubt about this. I followed his career and as a schoolboy listened to him quite often. Joshua might well fulfil the criteria for being a National Hero. But let me put my view here in perspective. When the decision was made not to name a living person as National Hero, it was obviously based on two things. First, a fear that a living National Hero can do something that can embarrass the process, the State and the status of National Hero. But just as important was the need to allow some time to pass by and do our reflection in a situation as free as is possible from the prejudices that would have existed if the individual was still alive. Today there are many persons around who were affected positively or negatively by the work of Joshua, some who were political adversaries, others who have accepted the images drawn by and the stories told about him by the Labour Party with which he had been embattled for most of his political life. Other countries have not necessarily followed this course. It must be admitted that there will always be prejudices regardless of when the assessment takes place, but the passage of time will better allow for a more ‘objective’ assessment of the individual. Could you imagine what would have happened or what would have been the reaction if someone in the 1940s or 1950s dared to have spoken about Chatoyer as a possible hero? Our hero then might have been Major Leith or one of those infamous slave traders. My plea is to allow more time to pass when we would better be able to assess the contribution of the ‘great man’. Was the poor turn-out at the ceremony held for him at Sion Hill an indication of current feelings?

Now, what has led to this compulsion to find National Heroes? As we reflect on and continue to recreate our history National Heroes would emerge. Why is there this haste? Furthermore what have we done with Chatoyer? Again, a piece from the NEWS is helpful: “Further the comments are raised every year as to whether we have done enough to celebrate the day and communicate information about our National Hero and the significance of the occasion. We seem to have limited the observation to a ceremony on the morning of March 14 or in this case March 15.” I will go further and say that the way we are going about this thing is creating the impression that we are not comfortable with Chatoyer, that there are still some misgivings, based perhaps on those who claim to be alarmed by our National Hero in loincloth. Or is it because of his Carib/Garifuna ancestry? What will happen when we have a second National Hero? Will Chatoyer then be tossed to the background, celebrated perhaps only beyond the Dry River? Interestingly, Joshua started his career beyond the Dry River.

There is still a lot to be done with Chatoyer. We must not only celebrate his contribution in defence of his people and our nation, but must try to find out what his life teaches us today. The fact that we have declared a figure of the 18th century our first National Hero must mean something. But what is that something? Have we ever explored this? What have we done with Chatoyer over the years since we made him a National Hero? Can we not get one of our outstanding playwrights at home or abroad to produce a play on the life and times of Chatoyer that we can use to celebrate his life and to teach our people about him? Art is important in this regard and would have a longer, more meaningful and lasting effect than the kind of speeches that our politicians feel they have to make every year. What we need to do urgently is to create awards that will give recognition to individuals who will never achieve National Hero status but who have made their contribution in different areas of national life. This is where our emphasis should be.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.