'HEROISM' IN OUR CARIBBEAN HISTORY
By Rickey Singh
April 18, 2004
A WARNING, or more precisely a firm suggestion, has come from a Caribbean historian on why this region should avoid distorting history when elevating to hero/heroine status those of our citizens who have made outstanding contributions in various fields of endeavour.
Dr. Richard Drayton, scion of prominent Trinidadian/Guyanese parentage, who grew up in Barbados of which he is a citizen, was at the time delivering the recent 21st Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies.
He spoke on the topic, 'The Problem of the Hero (ine) in Caribbean History' having been introduced as a "reputable scholar on both sides of the Atlantic through his research activities".
He is currently Senior Lecturer in Imperial and extra-European History and Fellow and Director of Studies in History, Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University.
Drayton told his overflowing audience at the Law Lecture Theatre: "This lecture is not about heroism in itself. Its main subject is how the idea of the hero shapes how we think historically, and can distort how we tell the story of the past..."
The hero or heroine, he said, "is not simply someone who achieves something extraordinary. He or she is also the object of a story, a protagonist in a community's narrative of the past"
Consequently, whenever and wherever Caribbean nationals are elevated to hero (ine) status, it is to be wondered, in the reasoning of Drayton, whether in fact "some tomb to the unknown hero or heroine, on a scale larger than other monuments, should not be allowed to complete the officially chosen lists.
But even for those named and visible, he submitted, the idea of the hero or heroine may inhibit serious investigation of these "exceptional individuals".
For, as he observed, "one of the paradoxes of Caribbean patriotic history, and within it hero worship, is the underdevelopment of biography, if that is understood as the compassionate but merciless elucidation of individual human personalities."
The 39-year-old historian, anchoring his conviction based on extensive research across continents, later concluded that "the truth, in all its density, is a better foundation for a nation than flattering myths".
Before his examination of the social context for "heroism" and the exclusion of the "human experience of weakness" from the hero narrative, Drayton told his audience:
"There is no greater honour that the University of the West Indies can give to a historian than to invite him or her to lecture in the name of Elsa Goveia. As a scholar, teacher, and citizen of the Caribbean", he said, "she set an enduring example of personal and intellectual rigour, generosity, integrity and courage".
Winner of the 2001 Morris Forkosch Prize for "the best book" in the fields of British, Imperial and Commonwealth History, Drayton recalled that back in 1953, Elsa Goveia had well demonstrated that "intellectual rigour, integrity and courage" when, for academics of her time, she made the unusual public intervention in defence of national sovereignty:
The occasion was the use of British troops to remove from power in October of that year the first government ever elected in then British Guiana by democratic election based on universal suffrage.
He lamented the fact that powerful West Indian leaders, such as Jamaica's Norman Manley and Barbados' Grantley Adams - to be anointed many years later as national heroes - had supported the "lies" of a "communist plot to burn down the capital, Georgetown, advanced by the imperial power to justify its military intervention and suspension of the first democratically elected government in that Caribbean country
Drayton quoted from an article written in the 'Jamaica Gleaner' of October 19, 1953 by the then 28-year-old Goveia, while in a "vulnerable position as a junior lecturer", concluding that the British intervention was both "illegal and a danger to West Indian freedom".
She had argued in her critical analysis, that "the communists" (of the PPP government) could have been tried in courts of law, if they have been engaging in criminal activities. "The legal remedy is there," she wrote, but asked, "where will you find a legal remedy for absolute power..."
By the operation of this principle, she contended, "the sovereignty of any future independent Caribbean state would always be in question."
Of course, Goveia could not have then envisaged the phenomenon we had to face in March 2003, and now uneasily live with in 2004 - the violation of sovereignty of an independent state by the new Bush-initiated doctrine of pre-emptive war for regime change - that can also ignore in the process the UN Security Council.
In his focus on "The discipline of history", Drayton posed the challenging question, applicable to all societies with their own tradition of honouring heroes/heroines:
"How truthful are we to the complexity of human response, and of history, where we seek to freeze the story of individual leaders, and indeed our historical narratives, into a fixed heroic pose, in the way in which 'Socialist Realist' sculptors of the 1930s represented Stalin's workers and soldiers in grand, and ultimately comic, poses of unbending defiance...
"What is excluded, and as a result what truths have we repressed about the historical past, and perhaps about ourselves", he asked, advising against interpreting history and choosing national heroes/heroines, by "jumping from the academic to the popular" to speak to contemporary needs.
While commending the richness of the historical work produced within the Anglophone Caribbean over the last four decades, as "one of the most significant cultural achievements of the era of independence", Drayton was to inspire applause when he observed:
"Beyond the tendency towards 100 per cent Bajan or Trinidadian or Jamaican history, there is the more serious question of the monolingual range of reading and reference. Anglophone, Francophone and Hispanicphone Caribbean historians live in quite separate intellectual worlds, despite the celebrated simultaneous translation at the conferences of the Association of Caribbean Historians..."
Concluding on a note of caution introduced earlier in his presentation, Drayton stressed that it was not enough "to place a new statue on the colonial plinth". Rather, we suggested, we need instead to understand "the complex interdependencies - social, regional and global - which shape and limit individual achievement".
He feels we must recognise ourselves and those we wish to understand as phrased by Else Goveia, "joint participants in a human situation..."