Next Wednesday will be the first day of February, a month in which following the US we celebrate Black History. At least that is what we claim to be doing, a far cry from what happened in the past. I was, earlier today, Wednesday, the day on which I write my column, looking at a file with notes from presentations I had made in the past. One, I found, related to a presentation I made in 2005 to the Bethel High School Heritage Club and Young Leaders on the occasion of National Heroes Month. The topic that they selected for me to speak on was, “Reaffirming African Culture as an Integrative element in the Caribbean Community.” I complimented them on the topic they had selected for it really involved looking at African culture as part of the Caribbean reality. The topic reflected the times and consciousness of the students and teachers involved. I hope that such clubs are still in existence at the school.
My focus today is on where it started, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in this part of the world that they considered new. It dawned on me then that last Monday, 23rd January would have been at one time a holiday since 22nd January was a Sunday, a glorious day on which Columbus was said to have “discovered” this land and ironically, its people. While we were focusing on a particular day, the US had declared October 12 as Columbus Day, the day on which the Italian Cristoforo Colombo arrived in what was called the Americas at Guanahani in the Bahamas. In 2022 President Biden had directed “that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings . . . in honour of our diverse history and all who have contributed to shaping this nation.”
This obviously would not have been greeted by their indigenous peoples. In fact, it no longer finds favour with many states that have been replacing “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day” paying tribute to the culture and history of the indigenous people. To the native people Columbus was no discoverer. He was a colonizer who began the process of taking away their land and destroying their way of life, involving too in genocide.
Our date of celebration was January 22, the day we were taught that Columbus “discovered” St. Vincent. We read Ebenezer Duncan’s Brief History of St. Vincent in school. The book informed us that St. Vincent was so named because that day was the festival of Saint Vincent of Spain, the day in 305 AD on which he was martyred. Columbus was then supposed to have been on his third voyage of “discovery”. The first person to have questioned this was Eddie Griffith, a member of the Education Forum of the People and later a minister of government in the James Mitchell government. He noted that Columbus’s own log book indicated that on that day he was actually in Spain and did not leave that country before May 30, 1498. He could therefore not have “discovered” St. Vincent on January 22. But that was only part of the story. How could he have discovered a people who had been populating the land for hundreds or thousands of years.
When I raised this issue in the Vincentian newspaper of January 30, 1981 Strolling Scribbler proudly announced that he had learnt it in school and who was I to question it. Did St. Vincent emerge out of thin air, he asked. Someone must have discovered it. Some teachers responded by suggesting that the real year might have been 1499. This of course was equally ridiculous because it accepted the concept of discovery and even more absurd, was that Columbus was nowhere near to St. Vincent in 1499.
The Mitchell government of 1972-1974 had abolished the holiday but it was restored later by the Labour government, some of its supporters arguing that someone must have discovered St. Vincent. The Cato government sought later to give that date more significance by first suggesting it as the day on which to inaugurate our independence. A number of things got in the way and Independence came later in the year 1979.
Columbus’s visit paved the way for genocide of the indigenous people. The Kalinagos, joined later by the Garifuna assisted the Tainos of the north in their struggles against the Spaniards. The Spaniards who concentrated on exploiting the “Greater Antilles” to the north and then moving to Central and South America to explore their riches of gold and silver provided an opportunity for other Europeans to move into the Lesser Antilles and fight the Kalinagos for control. African escaped enslaved people joined them in the struggle and cohabitated with them, forming a new people the Garifuna who became the dominant force in St. Vincent taking the struggle against the British and French up to 1796 before many of them had to surrender to the British and were removed from the island. They were sent to Balliceaux which was being used as a holding ground and more than half of them died while awaiting removal from their homeland.
Celebrating January 22 was accepting the big lie. It was not the only lie, for the hunters, the British, told the story that was meant to glorify and justify their seizure of the land and genocide of our indigenous ancestors.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian