Not so proud either
November 11, 2006
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Fr Aloysius Church, in a letter published in yesterday's Stabroek News sought to correct Robin Williams linking Queen Victoria with the transatlantic slave trade. Mr Williams, in his letter titled 'Every group romanticises its ancestors' wrote: "The statue of Queen Victoria stands tall and proud before our courts of justice, a historical incongruity vis-Ã -vis the barbarous transatlantic trade in humankind that took place under her regal watch. How romantic is that?" Fr Church, in correcting Mr Williams's inattention to historical facts, noted: "She was born in 1819. In 1807, the shipping of slaves to British dominions was banned by an Act of Parliament, and then applied to all the colonies in 1808. Emancipation came in 1833, some years before Victoria, at age 18, became queen in 1837."
Neither gentleman has paid any attention to the fact that Victoria's statue is perhaps out of place today in the compound of the Supreme Court of Judicature, which is no longer called the Victoria Law Courts. And given its present condition, the statue can no longer be described as "standing tall and proud."
The saga began in 1894 when the marble statue of Britain's longest ruling sovereign, Queen Victoria, was erected in the main city of her only South American colony. The statue was unveiled on September 4, on the lawns of the Victoria Law Courts by Sir Charles Cameron Lees, governor of British Guiana. The statue, complete with orb and sceptre was done by HR Hope-Pinter, a well-known London sculptor.
Just as Victoria weathered many a storm in her 64-year reign, starting as an 18-year-old in 1837, so did her statue. Sixty years after it was unveiled, on May 26, 1954, two deliberate, illegal dynamite explosions blew off the head and the orb-bearing left hand of the statue. Other sections were slightly damaged and the statue was shipped to Britain for repairs. On its return it was replaced at its original location.
After independence was attained on May 26, 1966 and British Guiana became Guyana there began moves to discard all things British. It was during this early post-colonial time that the statue was moved to the Botanical Gardens, but not because the authorities wanted it to be in one of the most beautiful locations around. The work of art was dumped face down in a clump of bushes in an isolated area at the back of the gardens. It remained there throughout the PNC-Forbes Burnham administration overtaken by moss and creeping vines.
In 1990, during the PNC-Desmond Hoyte administration and the Mayoral term of Compton Young, Victoria's statue was resurrected and brought back to the Avenue of the Republic and placed in the compound of City Hall, not far from its original position. When it was placed on the plinth the damage was obvious. At some point, either during the move away or the move back, the nose and orb-bearing left arm had been broken off. In 1993 during the PPP-Cheddi Jagan administration, as preparations began for the visit of Victoria's great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth 11 there were noises from City Hall about plans to restore the statue. The city was to have sought the assistance of the British High Commission in Guyana and the American Smithsonian Institution to repair it. Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Guyana from February 19-22, 1994 and all that has changed from then to now, 12 years on, is that Victoria's statue has come full circle. It has been moved from City Hall and is back in front of the High Court.
Like many other things in this land, the damaged nose and left arm are still to be fixed. The statue stands forlornly on the rarely-weeded front lawn of the court, the white of its marble made dingy from years of moss and mildew. Tall and proud it isn't. Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about Victoria's statue retaining its now dubious place in the city is that it is a sign that we as Guyanese have learned that tearing down and destroying historical sites and artefacts cannot erase the past and possibly we are now strong enough to confront it.