Attention has been recently refocused on the historical figure of Christopher Columbus. Recently, a young man decided to destroy the statue that had been in place for over 100 years at Government House. Some have hailed him as a hero – others have branded him a criminal. What he did is a criminal offense under the current law, but his actions generated a wave of reactions from both perspectives. What should we learn from this and what should the Columbus debate really ignite?
Before I answer the Columbus issue, I want us to look beyond Columbus for a minute. Let’s go back in history for a moment and look at where we are. If we go back a few centuries, there was something called colonialism and imperialism that drove world governments. Nations competed to take over the territory of others, or capture lands that were not a part of the known “civilized” world. This practice was not unique to any single group but was a global practice across most powerful nations.
This was not a new concept because we saw colonial and imperial powers take over other countries and set up colonies since time began. Some historical examples include:
• Persian/Babylonian Empire (from Iran into Central Asia and Egypt).
• Han dynasty. China into Vietnam and Korea spanning 400 years.
• Umayyad Caliphate. Established following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the vast Umayyad dynasty comprised over four million square miles, making its empire one of the largest in history.
• Mongol Empire. The empire’s best-known leader was Genghis Khan, who founded the empire in 1206 CE.
• Ottoman Empire. Between the 16th and 17th centuries CE, the Islamic Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent covered portions of three continents: Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa.
• Spanish Empire. In the late 1700s, the Spanish Empire comprised 5.3 million square miles and wielded tremendous economic and military power.
• Russian Empire. At its greatest extent, in 1895, the Russian Empire reached 8.9 million square miles. Because of its size and influence, the empire had played an integral role in halting Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.
• The Japanese Empire.
• British Empire. At its greatest extent, early in the 20th Century, the British Empire comprised nearly a quarter of the planet and an equal percentage of its population. Many of the territories it colonized have since gained independence, though several remain part of what is known today as the Commonwealth of Nations.
The British Empire was not unique. This period in human history was brutal – countries would conquer other countries and take them over. Imperialism and colonialism have marked human existence, globally. We have thankfully progressed to the point where this practice is not condoned, at least not in the physical sense. It still happens – but more so now on the intellectual, sociocultural, and economic levels rather than the physical takeover of territories.
The Bahamas and most other Caribbean countries became victims of European colonialism. Imperialism and colonialism have happened to many groups but in the western world, we are most aware of the most recent colonialists who sought out distant lands to add to their empire. European countries competed. The French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British among others were involved in this competition for expansion. Human history is complex. And while we bemoan and condemn these actions, we cannot demonize one group without demonizing the entire world and all the people in it because empires and colonialism are a part of human history. Neither can we erase history, what happened … happened.
The Spanish, at one time, owned The Bahamas; then through war, the British gained ownership. Columbus was a part of this process, a tool in the process. What Columbus did seemed to be great for the conquerors, but history has revealed the atrocities of Columbus; and this figure who was initially revered as a discoverer has been revealed as a nefarious figure because of what he did to the natives he met here and the slaves who were transported here. Columbus is a part of the brutal history of the world. But while we look at Columbus, we have to dig a little deeper and ask what happened after Columbus. And if we are going to address Columbus, what do we do about the system that Columbus was a part of that exists today?
Our history has taught us that we were brought here, we are not the natives of The Bahamas. Our colonial owners brought us here to work and in turn they reaped the benefits of our labor and repatriated the proceeds to the United Kingdom. Columbus should absolutely be condemned, and his statue removed and placed into a museum ground to recognize our history – both good and bad. Museums remind us of our past and help us not to repeat it. I had the opportunity to visit the Apartheid Museum in South Africa and although very painful, it records that dark period in South African history for all to be aware of and never repeated. We should not only remove the statue of Columbus, but we should also remove the system that he was a part of that is still perpetuated today, although subtly.
I love the United Kingdom – London is one of my favorite cities. I love the British people that I know, but how is it that a people who were conquered and enslaved, deprived and pillaged remain subservient to the conquerors? In many ways, this subservience is ceremonial, but it does exist. I am not saying to hate the United Kingdom – what I am saying is that it’s time to look at a relationship reset.
Should we still recognize our prior oppressor as head of state? If we are a part of a Commonwealth, are we in it on the right terms? We are an independent sovereign nation and as such we should interact with other nations as equals. We should have good relations with the United Kingdom, but the terms need to be renegotiated. Why should we continue to pay our money from our national budget to subsidize the previous oppressors’ governing representative (aka governor general and Government House)? If we negotiated for them to have a presence in The Bahamas, should it not be at their expense and not ours? The prime minister has no official residence, yet we are paying for the residence of the governor general who is a ceremonial representative of the queen. We have a Royal Bahamas Defence and Police Force, but we are an independent sovereign nation.
Should we be swearing allegiance to the queen and her heirs? As I said previously, we should not hate or disparage the British or United Kingdom – we should renegotiate our relationship as a sovereign equal. This means changing the current system that was handed to us and adjusting it, or creating our own system that is favorable to our situation. I say this is far more significant to our current reality than what Columbus did.
Columbus was a criminal and murderer.
Columbus’ statue should be removed and placed in proper context in a museum, Columbus’ deeds should be recognized for what they are and not sanitized, but we also need a relationship reset that removes the historical stigma of the colonial era. The debate may have begun with Columbus, but it should not end with Columbus. As a country, can we move beyond Columbus? We can and we must.
Columbus was an Italian and was assisted in his “explorations” by the Spanish. We were not colonized by the Italians or Spanish. We were colonized by the United Kingdom – and our postcolonial relationship is with Britain. We need to therefore sit at the table with the British government and fix our relationship. The historical injustices must be recognized and appropriately addressed. There should be consideration for some form of reparations to right the historical wrongs. We should then propose a new relationship with the United Kingdom where we set out our terms as a sovereign and therefore equal nation. The current terms were essentially handed to us or negotiated improperly. It is time for a relationship reset.
• Pastor Dave Burrows is senior pastor at Bahamas Faith Ministries International. Feel free to email comments, whether you agree or disagree, to firstname.lastname@example.org. I appreciate your input and dialogue. We become better when we discuss, examine and exchange.