By Zoisa Fraser
The National Trust yesterday called for the preservation of the 207-year-old landmark at Victoria, East Coast Demerara that was ordered removed by the Public Works Ministry but Minister Robeson Benn insists that it poses a danger to road users and is in an illegal spot.
The decision to remove the piece of African history has been met with objections from some residents, who say that they are angry and feel betrayed since it is the only remaining landmark from the days of slavery. Victoria was the first village to be bought by freed slaves.
On Thursday, Hilda Barnwell, who operates a business from the structure, which served as a pay office and co-op bank for the slaves, was served with a removal letter. According to the letter, which bore the Ministry’s letterhead, the structure was found to be infringing on government reserve and should be immediately removed.
Speaking with Stabroek News yesterday, CEO of the National Trust Nirvana Persaud said that the structure has been at that location for at least 150 years and it is a place of historic value. She said that the Trust’s position is that the structure and site remain as it is, in order to preserve its history. Persaud said that it has been noted that relocation of the structure is an option but she pointed out that if that is done then some of the historical value will be lost. She explained that the structure should stay at the very site to ensure that that value is kept.
She noted that the entire village is of historical value, as it was the first one bought by slaves after slavery was abolished.
Noting that the Trust is still looking into the matter, Persaud added that the evidence suggests that the structure was indeed the slaves’ pay office and co-op bank. Persaud said that she will not comment on the structure being used for business purposes but pointed out that this has been occurring in several historical buildings in the city. She said that contact has since been made with the Ministry and some work is being done with residents to resolve the matter.
Meanwhile, in an invited comment, Minister Benn, who says he has ancestral connections to the village, denied a report that he had told residents during a demolition exercise last year that the structure would not be touched. He noted that if a building is on government reserve and poses a risk to persons using the nearby roadway, a notice of removal will be given, as in the case on the structure at Victoria.
Benn stated that the structure’s historical value has been noted and the Ministry has since contacted the National Trust to “make checks.” He said that the location of the structure is a problem as the roadway is no longer a single carriageway and there are many vehicles and people using it. “This is a problem we have to address,” he said, adding that significant improvements are being made to roads countrywide, so “things have to fall in line.” He said that the Ministry cannot divert the road to accommodate the structure and as such it has to be removed. According to Benn, if possible, it will be relocated or they will work with the residents to see what could be done.
Gordon Gillis, whose family has inherited the structure, told this newspaper on Thursday that it was built in 1803 and served as a pay office and co-op bank for the slaves. According to him, the demolition of the structure would not only be a historical loss to him but a financial one, as he rents it out to a relative who sells various items from it. The man, who suffers from diabetes, is unable to walk on his own and the rent is his only means of income.
Gillis explained that he has always kept the structure in good condition. He recalled that over the years he has been paying rates and taxes but when he attempted to do so recently, he was told to wait.
Residents told Stabroek News that if the structure has to be removed the same has to be done with the gas station. The structure is located on its eastern side. Several persons had pointed out that the structure in no way obstructs the flow of traffic.
The owners of several buildings located nearby have also been served notices.