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The Bay Street fire

Over the coming days and weeks the cost of the most recent fire that raged through Bay Street in the early morning hours of Friday, December 2 will be counted by officials and keenly reported by the media.

But there is one building, a heritage venue of great significance, that the fire significantly damaged that is near impossible on which to place a price tag.

Vendue House, which housed Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation, was severely damaged by the fire, and some of the artifacts that it housed were destroyed.  Thankfully, the Amos Ferguson collection of paintings and the Lucayan duho were not in the museum at the time of the fire.  And the museum’s rare antique books were saved.

Last week Friday’s fire represents the second fire to threaten the museum in just over 10 years.

On September 4, 2001, Pompey Museum was damaged in what is now known as the famous straw market fire.  But its contents were saved.  Brave volunteers were able to protect the artifacts, books and many Amos Ferguson paintings.

This time we were not as fortunate.  We have lost some irreplaceable treasures of our history which remind us of the legacies and tragedies of colonialism and slavery, and our triumph of becoming a free people and nation.

Vendue House dates back to circa 1760s.  During this period it was used as a market, where a variety of commodities were sold, including slaves.

In the early 20th century it housed the telegraph and telephone department, and later the Bahamas Electricity Corporation.  In 1992, it was turned over for use as a public museum, named for Pompey, a slave who raised a revolt against unfair conditions on the Rolle Plantation at Exuma.

The museum opened with a classic exhibition on Slavery in The Bahamas.  It featured a permanent exhibit that portrayed the slavery and the post-emancipation eras of The Bahamas.

It was dedicated to the study of slavery and over the years it hosted several renowned exhibits, including: ‘A Slave Ship Speaks: The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie’ and the UNESCO/Schomburg exhibition, ‘Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery’.

The good news is that preservation architects believe the building can be restored.  Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham pledged that the government will move expeditiously to restore the museum.

We think the full restoration of the museum is a project worthy of full funding by the people of The Bahamas, either directly through public appropriations or some kind of public fund-raising campaign — or both.

Corporate Bahamas should also think about joining in the effort to restore Vendue House and Pompey Museum.

We also need to know how this fire happened.  It is the second major fire on Bay Street this year.  If it is in fact an act of arson, which police said they are investigating, the arsonist should be punished to the full extent of the law.

The tragedy is not only about what has been lost.  It is also tragic that some people would appear to put at risk our historic treasures for twisted reasons and selfish motives.

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