‘Falling in line’

Minister Robeson Benn is rampaging along the reserves with the zeal born of a mission in life. If he accomplishes nothing else during his sojourn in the ministry, it seems, he will at least have swept the government reserves clean, leaving not even the scintilla of a structure lingering in the grass. He is one of the country’s true radicals: no second thoughts, no compromises, and most certainly, no retreat. No argument will sway him, no explanation will convince him and no appeal to history or heritage will elicit his sympathy; he is like a man driven.

Now certainly where purely commercial and domestic structures are concerned such fervour is not misplaced; all one asks is that there is even-handedness in the approach, and that no exceptions are made for individuals with connections. If the small man or woman’s stalls get swept away, but larger businesses close to the centre of power, for example, are left intact, it would demonstrate the fundamental unfairness of the action taken, would defeat the whole purpose of the campaign and completely undermine the credibility of the Minister.

Having said that, there is one category of building which should give him pause for thought, although to date he has proved insensitive to arguments in relation to this exception. In mature societies when archaeological sites or those of heritage significance are encountered during a building programme – whether public or private – work ceases while the archaeologists or historians and other relevant personnel are called in for an evaluation, and a decision is taken about the mode of preservation. In other words, heritage is not dispensed with in the name of convenience.

In our case, there are no hidden heritage sites which unexpectedly are going to pop into view and interrupt the Minister’s pet project; the very, very few historical structures of interest which exist are in plain sight. One of them was the old railway station, where in the process of evicting a tenant the Minister in a stunning act of lack of imagination, sent in the wrecking crew. Fortunately, the structure has not been extirpated from the Minister’s precious reserve, and it could still be rescued if the will were there. If it is left unoccupied for any length of time, however, it will disintegrate.

This was once the terminus of what is thought to have been South America’s first railway which opened in 1848, and if the authorities had any interest in their heritage whatever, could be converted into a transport museum. Of course, trams, trains and carriages have all gone; but there is a photographic record of various things, and the wooden items could be reconstructed from photos. There was the nineteenth-century typhoid ambulance and fire engine, for example, which in a criminal act of neglect were allowed to fall to pieces outside the museum many decades ago. Then there are the hansom cabs of which several pictures exist, and to a lesser extent, hackney carriages as well. The early buses could also perhaps be reconstructed in wood, as well as the horse-drawn trams, all of which might provide some of our local artists and artisans with work. The main point is, however, the old railway station is not a structure which has recently come to encumber the reserve, and surely could be accommodated as an exception.

Be all of that as it may, in the first instance the Minister has to be seized of the significance of the site. If he has no feeling for the heritage – which appears to be the case – then at least he should be prepared to take advice in this department from those who have some knowledge in the area, like the National Trust, for example. In fact, as we reported in our edition yesterday, he is proving impervious to pleas to save another historical structure which finds itself uncomfortably sited on a reserve in Victoria, because, he says, it poses a danger to road users and is in an illegal spot. He told this newspaper that significant improvements were being made to roads across the country, and therefore “things have to fall in line.”

What has to “fall in line” in this instance, is a little wooden building which served as a pay office and co-op bank for the slaves. The age of the structure has been given as 207 years, although if it was erected in 1803, it would not have been for the purposes of a pay office and bank; it would have to have been converted to those uses after 1834, at the time of apprenticeship. Whatever its precise origin, CEO of the National Trust Nirvana Persaud was reported in our edition yesterday as saying that evidence suggested that it was indeed the slaves’ pay office and bank, and it had been at the location for at least 150 years. As a consequence, she said, since both the building and the site were historical, the structure should stay where it is. It might be added that Victoria in any case is a village of great historical significance, since it was the first one to be built on plantation land purchased co-operatively by the Africans following emancipation.

If one discounts the Dutch forts and one or two military structures and churches, it might be noted that there is very little in terms of the material heritage which has survived from the slavery period, and hardly anything which pertains directly to those who worked in bondage on the plantations. The unprepossessing building on the Victoria reserve, therefore, is not just rather special, it is probably unique. It links in a tangible way the current generation with those who have gone before, more particularly since the building has been continuously occupied and maintained in the same spot.

Minister Benn, who was at pains to establish his credentials in relation to Victoria – he has ancestral connections to the village – appears to be of the view that the little structure can be relocated. He says the road cannot be diverted on its account. However, one wonders exactly how much of a real “danger” it poses to road users if left where it is; one rather suspects that over the centuries of its existence, more especially in recent times, it has never been the cause of an accident. In any case, suitably signposted in advance, drivers can be asked to proceed with caution in its vicinity. In other countries all kinds of accommodations are made for historical sites; were that not so, the tourist industries of any number of older societies would not be as robust as they are. Minister Benn needs to have a serious rethink about what should “fall in line” here.

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