Monday, May 11, 2009

On Historical Myths II

Last month, I attended the grand opening of the Clifton Heritage National Park, and I was appalled at how brazenly a politically motivated clique uses this historic site to distort and falsify our history. In typical Bahamian fashion, the ceremony was very church-heavy, even though I fail to see what religion has to do with a heritage site, and, in typical Bahamian fashion, the ceremony was being monopolised by politicians.

On the podium sat: Patty Roker (as MC), C. B. Moss, Jacinta Higgs, Kendal Wright, Perry Christie, Charles T. Maynard, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Earl Deveaux, and Arthur D. Hanna. Except for the MC all politicians (remember, C. B. Moss did run in Bain Town). What surprised me, is that the park's Board of Directors has two professional historians on it, Keith Tinker and Gail Saunders, who were relegated to the audience. There were at least two other historians in the audience, both lecturers at COB. No speech time was granted to any of them.

Instead, we were being lectured on Bahamian history by politicians; even Earl Deveaux, Minister of the Environment, whose stake in Clifton should be the environmental aspects of the park, chose to talk about history instead. Sadly, none of these folks did their homework, and butchered Bahamian history, getting lots of crucial facts wrong. The least worst of the lot was probably Perry Christie, whose historical speech was alright, though not flawless, but who then used the majority of his time to promote his own agenda. For instance, he "encouraged" (to put it politely) the historians in the audience to write history books about great Bahamians... such as... Perry Christie. Oh, the modesty! Vanderpool-Wallace's speech was also free of mistakes, but that is hardly surprising as the Minister of Tourism avoided facts altogether.

At some point halfway through the almost two-hour ceremony, the Governor-General was asleep on the stage. I wish I could have joined him in the Land of Nod, but I was getting too annoyed at the instrumentalisation of our history to suit political agendas. I was also getting annoyed at the butchering of history due to ignorance or negligence. The programme booklet of the event is full of mistakes - spelling, grammar, and historical fact - and some of these mistakes clearly accommodate a certain agenda, whereas others just prove once more that no government agency in this country uses due diligence when producing such a document.

About the Lucayans, the booklet writes, "Thousands of years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamian archipelago, Native American peoples thrived on these islands." Every child remembers that Columbus first came here in 1492, and while historians and archaeologists do not all agree as to when exactly the Lucayans first came to the Bahamas, estimates put it at 900-600 years prior to Columbus, not "thousands of years."

Furthermore, the Lucayans are called a "highly developed culture," and while this may be polite and politically correct, the Lucayans were, even compared to many other Native American peoples, technologically rather primitive. The booklet also perpetuates the myth that the Lucayans were a "peaceful," almost passive people. This has been debunked by archaeologists, amongst them Michael Pateman, who works for the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation of the Bahamas (AMMC), a government agency. They should therefore, know better.

About the Europeans, the booklet seems to suggest - even though it does not do this explicitly, but only by omission - that they first came to the Bahamas after the American War of Independence in 1783. However, the Loyalists were of course not the first Europeans to arrive in the Bahamas. I will give the Clifton people that much credit though, and admit that the Clifton site certainly only became important during the Loyalist era.

About the Africans, the booklet goes over the top, and informs us that enslaved Africans settled in the Bahamas "from the early 1500's." Considering that historians such as Gail Saunders reject the idea that the Spanish ever settled here (though some historians suggest that they did at one point create a settlement on Cat Island, maybe even Long Island), and that the first lasting colonial effort began with the Eleutheran Adventurers in 1648, this suggestion is ludicrous.

All these blunders are probably genuine screw-ups, mistakes made by people who don't know any better. The big falsification of history at Clifton, the creation of yet another historical myth, concerns two rock structures in the area. First, there is a set of steps carved into the rock, leading to the ocean. Despite being aware of evidence to the contrary, the park authorities perpetuate the story that these steps were carved by slaves into the rock, that the area at the bottom of the stairs was used as a harbour, even during times of piracy a century prior to the settlement of Clifton by the Loyalists, and that slaves were landed there who had come straight from Africa to be sold at the market in Nassau. (Whatever happened to Nassau's fine harbour, the primary reason why Nassau became the capital in the first place?)

Furthermore, as an act of passive resistance, so were are made to believe, the slaves shaped the gap, the opening in the rock, to match the shape of the continent of Africa. Given the slaves access to education, it is highly unlikely that they would have been familiar with the shape of any continent. Furthermore, most slaves identified with their particular part of Africa, not with the continent as a whole. The idea of Pan-Africanism is a much newer concept made possible only by the destruction of these individual, particular identities through generations of enslavement and colonial rule.

The steps in question were in fact carved in the early part of the twentieth century, about 80 years after Emancipation. They were carved for a movie production of Jule Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." When they were carved, they did not even lead to the ocean, rather they led down into a cave (known as "Jane Gail's Cave" after the female star of the film), and some time during the last century, the cave then collapsed so that these days the steps do indeed lead to the ocean.

If you don't believe me, I recommend a trip to the National Archives on Mackey Street. You can read all about it in the 1924 Tribune Handbook, the predecessor of the modern-day Bahamas Handbook.

The second stupid myth that is being perpetuated at Clifton concerns a pool carved into the rock right by the waterfront. We are made to believe that this served as a "bath" where William Whylly force-washed slaves who had just arrived from Africa and were filthy due to the horrible conditions on the slave ships that ran the Middle Passage. In fact, the pool served as a pen where turtles were kept alive (and thus fresh) after being caught. Furthermore, Whylly, who purchased the Clifton plantation some time between 1812 and 1815 (exact date unknown) could not have received new slaves from Africa, for the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished some years earlier, in 1807.

The people who run Clifton know this. However, a good story and a nationalist sentiment are obviously more important to them than the truth. Clifton, we are told, was taken away from greedy developers in the 1990s, and saved for the people. Sadly, the powers that be must have felt that the people cannot be allowed to have the true Clifton, so they have (re-/mis-)interpreted it for us instead. I don't want this Clifton.

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