By David Comissiong
The Euro-centric apologists who oppose the removal of the statue of Lord Nelson from its place of prominence in the heart of Bridgetown conveniently sidestep the main argument against Lord Nelson being regarded as a hero of the black people of Barbados, the descendants of enslaved Africans.
Put simply, Lord Nelson is damned in the eyes of any sane, self-respecting African-Barbadian because he was an ardent champion and defender of slavery, and a bitter enemy of all who proposed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
Any suggestion that Lord Nelson’s great sin was washed away or can be over-looked because he played a role in saving oppressive slave-based British colonies from occupation by the French is simply ludicrous. In any event, if one is looking for a “hero” to credit with having “saved” the British Caribbean from French occupation, then it would make more sense to look to the Haitian, Toussaint L’Ouverture, rather than to Nelson, for it was Toussaint’s Haitian Revolution that broke the back of the French military and caused Napoleon Bonaparte to abandon France’s plans to extend its western colonial empire.
In similar vein, the argument that the Nelson statue should be respected by present day African-Barbadians because some urban slaves and some “free coloureds and free blacks” made a small financial contribution to its construction, can easily be debunked.
Throughout history there have been numerous examples of oppressed people who have so accommodated themselves to the system of oppression that they identify themselves with the oppressor and his interests. Indeed, the free coloured class of Barbados was an outstanding example of this social and psychological sickness. Several of them were numbered among the fiercest opponents of the abolition of slavery, going so far as to suggest in a petition to the Barbados House of Assembly that “surely death would be preferable to a situation of slavelessness.” However, the crushing answer to the suggestion that the enslaved African-Barbadians were grateful to Lord Nelson for having preserved Anglo-Barbadian slave society, is the massive “Bussa slave rebellion” which erupted in 1816, a mere three years after the erection of the Nelson statue.
Our enslaved ancestors were sending a clear message that they despised all that Lord Nelson and the Barbadian plantocracy stood for, and were determined to destroy it and to replace it with a humane social structure. Finally, we must dismiss the pathetic argument that Nelson should not be denounced for having supported slavery because he was “a product of his times” and didn’t know any better.
Firstly, it should be noted that the major moral and intellectual issue of the day in late 18th century Europe was the issue of slavery. This issue was extensively discussed and ventilated at all levels of English society. Indeed, all of the numerous compelling moral, economic, religious, scientific and ethical arguments against slavery were well articulated and widely known.
In addition, the horrifying details of slavery and the slave trade had been extensively investigated by the British Privy Council and the House of Lords, the legislative body of which Nelson was a member. The Privy Council’s report of 1789 detailed the widespread practice of poisoning and murdering slaves when ships became becalmed during the Atlantic voyage and food provisions began to fail. It recorded slave laws which stipulated that – “when any negro shall have any theft proved against him, and the value not amounting to twelve pence, then such negro shall only suffer a severe whipping and have both ears cut off.” And slave laws which mandated “twenty lashes on the bare back for selling spirituous liquor and death for assault of a white person.”
Slavery was denounced by Dr. Samuel Johnson, Rev. John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Adam Smith, Thomas Clarkson and a host of other prominent 18th century Englishmen. Yet we are to accept that Nelson did not know any better.
Nelson knew exactly what he was doing when he so violently opposed Wilberforce and the other abolitionists. Indeed, if Nelson had had his way, we black Barbadians would still be slaves today! And this is why the Nelson statue should be removed; treated as an historical artefact; and stored in the Barbados Museum.
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