So who are some of the unheralded and unsung local heroes who did mightily for us here in Antigua and Barbuda? Who are they that distinguished themselves in the struggle for a better Antigua and Barbuda? The list is as long as it is varied, and we will only be able to scratch the surface in recounting their wondrous deeds. But here is just a sampling. Mind you, some of the names that we are about to call cannot be found in any history text, and we certainly thank Paddy ‘the Griot’ Simon for providing some of the information contained herein.
Many of our schoolchildren will go through school, up to the Sixth Form level, as did I, without ever hearing of many of these local greats, and that is an unforgivable sin of omission. Talk about mis-education! How can we explain being indoctrinated with silly details about Francis Drake, the world’s most prolific privateering thief at one time. We’re talking about the fact that he and his co-captain, Thomas Doughty, had fights over his accusation that Doughty practiced witchcraft? Who cares? Or that Horatio Nelson hated his famed bed which was once on display on the ground floor of the Dockyard museum? Or that Nelson hated Antigua, calling our beloved island, “an infernal little hole?” Or that he was a major defender of British imperialism and slavery? Or that John Hawkins was one of the earliest proponents of the Atlantic slave trade, and is widely acknowledged as the first English trader to profit from the Triangle Trade? The sad thing is that we revered and were taught so much about these villains, even naming streets in Antigua for them. Oh, the perfidy of the Colonial educators and administrators!
Mercifully, we listened to King Obstinate in his classic, ANTIGUA’S TRUE HEROES where he exclaims, “A people are known by their culture / A people are known by their past / The past determines the future; from the present we could forecast / And that is why in Antigua we must rectify our history / And remove all dem false heroes retarding our destiny / So that is why we must now proclaim our own, and drive out dem false names dat aliens imposed upon we / Let’s reclaim our own history / English names like St George and St John’s, Falmouth, Willikies and Codrington / They don’t reflect our background, call dem Short Shirt Village or Swallow Town . . . A true heritage of a people is manifested in their language / Yes, it helps dem to name their streets and village / Their ports and all their buildings, their schools and institutes / Draws upon the strength of their siblings and upon their native roots / So that is why we must now delete Drake, Hawkins and Nelson Streets / Shirley Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard, our progress these names retard / Instead of using King George Pasture, why not Andy Roberts de fast bowler / All cricket fans should be found on Vivi Richards Recreation Ground . . .” King Obstinate goes on to list a number of Antigua greats such as Dr. Heath, Leo Gore, and so on and so forth. We are proudly standing on their shoulders.
Of course, to get back to some of the lesser known greats, we cannot help but recall Mama Africa, an enslaved African woman who managed to slip her restraints upon arrival on our shores, and escaped to the Shekerley Mountains where, much like Nanny in the mountains of Jamaica, she and a small band of other escaped rebels, wreaked havoc on the surrounding estates. She encouraged and incited insurrection, so much so that, a bounty was placed on her head. Long live her fight for freedom and justice in Antigua!
May the memory of Papa Willie of Comfort Hall, who, along with a band of enslaved conspirators, plotted to overthrow their estate owners, ever imbue us. So too the memory of Mary Thomas, an Antiguan born enslaved heroine who, along with two other enslaved women – Axeline Elizabeth Salomon and Mathilda McBean – set fire to over fifty plantations in St Croix and burned down half of Fredericksted. Ah, the quest for our human rights cannot be quenched. There is a statue to those three virtuous ladies in the Virgin Islands, and a major highway in St Croix is called the Queen Mary Highway in her honour. To our shame, we still have the Queen Elizabeth Highway. Sigh!
Meanwhile, we cannot forget Mary Prince, who was born in Bermuda, but who eventually landed in Antigua as an enslaved woman at Woods Estate (site of the Epicurean Supermarket and the Woods Mall). She was owned by a dreadful slaver named John Wood, who took her to London with him, when he decided to visit there. Of course, upon her arrival in the supposedly undefiled and ‘rarified air’ of England, she became free, because slavery was illegal there. But when the evil Wood (whom she accused of abusing her in an English court of law) decided to return to Antigua, she proclaimed that she “would rather die than return to Antigua to once again become a slave.” What resolve! May God bless her sainted memory.
Mary Prince made history as the first Black woman to write a book, THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE, and the first Black woman to file a petition to the English parliament and an English court of law. She is a true hero, and instead of calling it Woods Mall (he was a bastard) maybe we ought to rename that mall, Mary Prince Mall. It would be a fitting tribute to one of our own who helped to inspire many of the English abolitionists.
And let us not forget the enslaved Africans in the Greencastle area who hacked Samuel Martin to death for denying them that which they felt was rightfully theirs. Or Griffith Matthew, who lay in front of the bus that was supposed to take the white children from the Antigua Sugar Factory to school in St. John’s. The courageous Matthew declared that the bus was not going to move until black children and white children could travel on it together. Long live Griffith Matthew! After all, he took his bold action for equal rights and fair play at the Sugar Factory, even before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in the United States.
And how about the Reverend Charles Franklyn Francis, the grandfather of our esteemed Rastafarian elder, King Frank-I, who agitated for fairer payments and better treatment for the advantaged farmers in Antigua. He founded the Antigua Small Farmers Association in 1920. He saw the power of Black people coming together in solidarity, presenting a united front against those who would’st fain exploit us. And let us not forget Harold Wilson, he of Barbadian extraction, who founded the Antigua Workingmens’ Association in 1933, along with Norris Walter, Berkeley Davis and Luther George. Again, in support of better wages and better working conditions for our struggling people. (See Ambassador Lionel Hurst’s account of Reverend Francis and Harold Wilson in the biographical tome, LUTHER GEORGE).
Interestingly, whilst on the question of the aforementioned Luther George, the father of legendary former Police Commissioner, Wright George, Kenrick George, Dame Bridget Harris, and Cleveland and Muriel, (all historic firsts, and leaders in their own right), we cannot forget his renown as an enormously successful black businessman and entrepreneur, as well as the fact that he fought the good fight for a betterment here in Antigua and Barbuda. He was the first Black man to be elected to the Legislative Council here in our fair State, and was one of the founders of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union. According to Ambassador Hurst in his writings on Luther George, “From 1920 to 1845, no other Antigua/Barbudan could match his accumulated record of public good and personal achievement.” Hmmmm! Clearly, ours is a rich and proud heritage.
For Black History Month, folks, may we be duly inspired. As King Short Shirt gravely warns in ILLUSION, “If we think the battle is done, my brother, then we are riding an illusion, all illusion / We have no hold on this our native island / Our hands are tied, we don’t control our actions / So leh we farword together in a social endeavour, our goal, social control / We’ll slave no more, we’ll stoop no more / Only then we’ll slave no more.” Indeed!
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