The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – “…The Ball That Shot Nelson”
“…As a symbol of white supremacy and slavery it was meant to send a message. But it also represented an excessive and brutal abuse of parliamentary power…” – Sir Hilary Beckles on the 1813 erection of the statue of Lord Nelson in Heroes Square, Bridgetown.
Readers of a certain age may well recall the Barbadian saying from one or two generations ago, usually expressed in the vernacular, “He or she goin’ ha’ to show me the ball that shoot Nelson”. As I recall it, it was uttered in the form of a threat, implying that there would be hell to pay if the absent object of the admonition did not achieve a task that I imagined many thought impossible or at least impractical, by giving a satisfactory excuse for their perceived indiscretion. As I have recently discovered however, the very ball that shot Admiral Nelson still does in fact exist, even though it probably remains as inaccessible as once thought.
According to the Royal Collection trust website – royalcollection.org.uk>-, a single lead shot or musket ball, about 15mm in diameter and weighing about 22 grammes, mounted with some remnants of gold lace from Admiral Nelson’s uniform lies beneath glass in a hinged silver locket with a gilt metal rope work border and suspension loop and forms part of the royal collection. The family of Dr William Beatty, the surgeon who removed it from the fatal wound after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, gifted it to Queen Victoria in 1842.
The recent initiatives in the US to remove historical monuments and place names from buildings that memorialize the Confederacy might have contributed to a local self-examination in that regard and once again caused us to reconsider the incongruous and prominent siting of the statue of Lord Nelson in what has been renamed Heroes Square. This discourse, as those relating to a capital punishment, the corporal punishment of children, the buggery laws, is prone to erupt periodically, to fret a fitful hour in the public domain and then disappear without any concrete action being taken by officialdom. It is as if the national conversation is enough in itself, a therapy for local public ennui.
The most recent attempt to reintroduce debate on this matter came last Sunday with the publication in the Barbados Advocate, (and during the week in another section of the print press), of a closely reasoned and cogently argued letter penned by Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, under the caption, “Why Nelson must fall”. Will this counterblast prove to be the local ball that shot Nelson?
In his letter, Sir Hilary makes the point that while generally nations that claim their ideological roots in the democratic struggles of the working class have opposed publicly revering persons and their accomplices known to have committed crimes against humanity, and while their governments seek to avoid using their considerable moral and legal state power to normalize the acceptance of such crimes within the community of victims, Barbados may be considered deviant or a pariah in this regard, given the central prominence in the public square of the monument the of Lord Nelson who he deems a “vile racist white supremacist who despised black people and dedicated his political and military life to the cause of protecting Britain’s criminal possession of the 800, 000 enslaved Africans during his lifetime”. He asserts further that this “blunt brutality of state power” as he sees it, is considered criminal in some quarters.
For him, the continued presence of the statue is “a persistent violent imposition upon the mind of every right-thinking democratic citizen and he turns on its head the familiar justificatory canard that English tourists will stop coming to Barbados to Barbados in the numbers we expect if the statue is removed.
Sir Hilary argues to the contrary that our English tourists are mostly educated and informed people who would feel more relaxed in Barbados if we appear “more dignified and less bowed”.
Unsurprisingly, as it is here with most matters that relate to the intellect solely and not to scurrilous gossip, to hints of scandal or to partisan political issues, the subsequent populist response has been underwhelming to say the least. To my best knowledge, the issue was not broached on either of the daily talk-shows during the past week, there has been as yet no column or letter to the Editor of either print newspaper on the subject, neither of the two historians whose names he mentioned in the letter has responded, and a perusal of some of the published individual comments to the letter on the other newspaper’s blog evidences a largely popular lack of concern about the issue.
One commentator agrees that the statue should not be there, but also argues that given “the many problems which are chocking (sic) Barbados, now is not the time for talking about its removal. Another queries rhetorically whether Nelson was not part of our history and if yes, why are we trying to erase history? For him or her, we would be more “constructive and productive” if we were to focus on the pressing issues. And of course, there is the not unexpected uninformed comment that Sir Hilary had absolutely no problem with accepting a knighthood “based upon the same English imperial honours system which rewarded Nelson for his accomplishments”. The writer further expresses the hope that on the same day that Nelson is removed, that Sir Hilary Beckles will “renounce and return his knighthood to the appropriate authorities”. This newspaper adverted to this regrettable confusion in a recent editorial, a confusion wrought primarily by the odd insistence on titling one of our highest national honours after a middling English honorific, even if in a different and local Order.
Some of this populist thinking mirrors that in the US, where some argue that the Confederate monuments are “a reminder of what the country had to go through to become whole again” and that it is important to save these monuments for future generations to see and learn about them …” Others ask, “Why are we looking back? Why are they wanting to remove our history? Isn’t this what the Taliban and ISIS have done? This is not a race war. It is about securing our country’s history as it is…”
To be continued…