This particular renaming exercise was comparatively small scale as these things go. Forbes Burnham had a whole town renamed after him, and the present administration went to Parliament to effectively overturn the Amerindian name of the airport which had been chosen by the public years before. So now we have two former presidents associated with a bauxite town and an international airport respectively, and by those standards the proposal for renaming merely a street after the late President Hoyte could perhaps be described as modest.
But why rename streets or locations at all, more especially if the original names are not in themselves offensive? Even in cases involving offensive historical personages, there is a view which says those names should not be changed, because they are an integral part of our history and provide an opportunity for children (and adults) to learn about the role the individuals concerned played in our past. There are limits, one imagines, to such a position. One could hardly see the Europeans – especially the Germans – allowing the name of Hitler to stand undisturbed, for example, although there has been less clarity in a few parts of Russia about the name of another mass murderer – Stalin.
In our own case, exactly how offensive a personality has to be before their name is obliterated from the cartographical record is perhaps a moot point. After all, this country has had a rather bleak history, and our villages as well as city roads and wards are littered with the names of planters and their relatives, not to mention some British governors to boot – although not, as far as can be established, any Dutch ones. The outstanding example of the exclusion of an offensive personality’s name from the city’s toponymy, in particular, came in the form of the transformation of Murray Street into Quamina Street, although it must be conceded that not everyone at the time thought the change justified. In its favour was the fact that the new name derived from the same period as the old, thereby maintaining the traditional historical connection.
The street had acquired its original appellation from the unsavoury Lieutenant-Governor Murray, who was here during the 1823 revolt. The change came about in unexpected fashion. On July 31, 1984, the late Joel Benjamin, who had once lived in ‘Murray Street’ was giving President Burnham some historical background for the latter’s speech on abolition the following day when he mentioned Murray, and the fact that ideally such a historical figure should not be remembered in a street name. Benjamin went on to say, however, that it couldn’t be altered, because if you renamed one street it would start an epidemic of renaming. Burnham responded to the effect that of course a name could be changed.
The following morning on Emancipation Day, Burnham announced in front of Parliament Building that the name of Murray Street would be changed. He did not select the new designation himself. That task was given to the historical committee of the commemoration commission, which after some discussion decided on Quamina Street. It might be added that completely without reference to anyone, the following year on August 1, 1985, Mr Burnham announced that the name of Carmichael Street would be changed. Unfortunately for him, Carmichael Street does not, as he erroneously thought, take its name from Governor Carmichael Smyth who was here during the Damon incident, but from Lieutenant-Governor Hugh Carmichael who tried to clean up the “Augean Stables” of corruption and felled a few Dutch lawyers in the process. In any case, even if Burnham had been right about the origins of the name, making allowances for the period and Damon notwithstanding, Carmichael Smyth is hardly regarded as being a particularly objectionable governor. As it was, however, Burnham died not long after this announcement was made, and so was not exposed to the inevitable opposition to the change which would have come – including from Benjamin himself − although it must be admitted he might well have ignored it anyway. With the intervention of his passing, however, Carmichael Street remained Carmichael Street.
In a general sense we should not be bounding around changing place names on whim without ample and careful prior discussion. However popular a given move might seem to an official like the Mayor, street names, particularly in the case of Georgetown, are part of the identity and the history of the city, and residents should be consulted before the nomenclature of their world is transformed. We left the Burnham era behind us a long time ago, so we should not have renaming decisions sprung upon us by City Hall in a seemingly capricious fashion.
Now this is not in any way a criticism of the remarkable Mr Chanderpaul, whose exploits on the cricket field are undeniably in need of some form of commemoration. He is the subject of this decision, not its originator. But in a country which abounds with unnamed streets – First, Second and Third Streets, and so on – and new housing areas and structures like the conference centre, why are we renaming places? Did nobody consider naming some part of the East Bank highway, which simply carries a general ‘name’ reflecting its location, the Shiv Chanderpaul Highway? It is a much more substantial roadway than New Garden Street, and of course it passes the Providence Stadium at one point. And there is a precedent in the form of the Rupert Craig Highway.
Georgetown’s history, as said above, is contained in its names. It is, as has been noted on several occasions, the only plantation city in the world, and its past of estates, drainage and street development is encapsulated in its nomenclature – even North Road. If one is going to capitalize on that history one should be seeking to preserve the heritage of names, which in themselves tell us a huge amount about where we have come from.
As a general principle, it is always better to name locations after people who have passed on, although there may be exceptions to this rule, such as Nelson Mandela. Sports personalities perhaps, can be included in the exceptions, because what they are being honoured for is their achievements in their particular sport discipline which are established at an early stage, not for any other virtues they may possess. Former President Desmond Hoyte has certainly passed on, and despite what his political detractors might have to say, there is definitely an argument for remembering him in a place name. And without question the late former President Janet Jagan too. But, please, Mr Mayor, no more renaming.