There are some things which really do pass all understanding. Following a public meeting convened by City Hall last Tuesday, it was announced that the Botanical Gardens were to be renamed the Forbes Burnham Botanical Gardens. Never mind that Burnham has a whole town named after him, or that he is associated more with the Gardens’ destruction than their preservation, having driven a street through the middle, and leased a portion of the wild part to his wife for a farm. Thereafter half of a garden which was supposed to boast every species of palm on the planet was treated as simply an unkempt (ultra large) vacant lot to be parcelled out at government whim. Even the Chinese were the beneficiaries of this process of spoiliation, and if that were not enough, they managed to erect one of the capital’s more blatant architectural monstrosities on it.
If residents caught their collective breath at the M&CC’s bizarre news, they were able to exhale again when the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment assured the public that the Mayor and his cohorts had no jurisdiction over the Botanical Gardens, which formed part of the National Protected Areas System, and that the name had not changed.
The sense of relief which flooded the municipality’s inhabitants, however, was premature. It seems that some of those who customarily sit around the horseshoe table, if not exactly living in an upside-down universe, should be suspected of missing a few marbles, for the Botanical Gardens was not the only target they had in their sights. As we reported on Thursday, the plan is to rename fifty streets on the fifty days prior to May 26th next year, in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of independence.
And the street names with which Georgetown residents have lived since the 19th century and which were mentioned for this renaming exercise included Carmichael Street, East Street, North Road and Hadfield Street. There was, it seems, a plethora of suggestions in relation to worthy personages − some living and some dead − whose names should be recorded on city maps, but one suspects that there was less energy invested in identifying the streets whose names they should replace, something for which, perhaps, we should be grateful.
One has to wonder, however, why anyone should want to rename Hadfield Street, called after Joseph Hadfield, who made his contribution to developing Georgetown at the beginning of the 19th century, and who designed the elegant Public Buildings, more commonly referred to nowadays as the Parliament Building. And even Carmichael Street can find a specific defence, in so far as it was named after Lieutenant-Governor Hugh Carmichael, who was appointed in 1812, and one of whose claims to fame was his efforts to clean out the “Augean Stables” of corruption, to use the words of one contemporary. He also purchased land in Cummingsburg for a Parade Ground, half of which later became the Promenade Gardens, and it is for this reason his name is recorded in proximity to this area.
But specific defences aside, there are certain general arguments to consider in relation to renaming. The first is that it is a course of action which should be taken very sparingly, and the justification for it must be compelling in any given instance. In the case of Georgetown many of the streets and wards tell a story of its past, and children can learn quite a bit about local history from them. So why on earth would anyone want to obliterate evidence of the past willy nilly in order to accommodate the names of people who are either still alive, or if they are not, still come within the boundaries of living memory? And if we are so cavalier about preserving history, what is to stop our successors obliterating our names fifty years hence, and substituting ones which are part of their memories?
What is this obsession to erase history? Did we not outgrow that following the first flush of Independence? We may have an unsavoury past, but it is ours, and blotting out its markers will not change it. Take Orange Walk, for instance. It seems to have been a path off the Middle Walk of Joseph Bourda’s plantation, which we are told was planted with citrus, and Orange Walk was quite simply where the orange trees grew. Or there is Company Path (where the Non-Aligned monument is located), which was the name of the land space required by the Dutch West India Company between plantations, and which it owned.
Then there is the well-known story of La Penitence and Le Repentir, two of the plantations owned by Pierre Louis de Saffon, who also lent his name to Saffon Street. (As an aside, one hardly imagines that Le Repentir would be up for renaming any time soon.) De Saffon, it is said, killed his brother in France in a duel over a woman, and after fleeing to Demerara in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was consumed with guilt. The names of his estates, therefore, reflected his remorse, and survive in the nomenclature of modern Georgetown.
As a Dutch consultant pointed out many years ago, Guyana’s capital is the only plantation city in the world; that is to say, it was created out of the plantations of the right bank of the lower Demerara River as well as part of the sea coast, and those names have persisted as well as the plantation layout which supplies its geometric contours. Eliminate the historical component – including the names – and Georgetown can kiss goodbye forever to the World Heritage status which it was seeking some years ago.
The second general point is that there is really no need to rename anything; Georgetown has quite a few streets named First, Second, Third, etc, and there are no end of new housing schemes outside the traditional boundaries with streets which have no names at all. There is ample scope in these areas, therefore, for all the enthusiasts who would like to imbed the names of more modern figures, to do so.
Thirdly, renaming is expensive in its consequences and causes confusion. The renaming of fifty streets – even more, parts of streets – is a thought which must have the Post Office in a tailspin, and businesses, never mind home-owners in the affected areas quite nervous. It would, in short, cause chaos, not to mention cost a huge sum. Would that really be the right way to celebrate the Golden Jubilee?
A word about naming in general: the primary principle is that with few exceptions, candidates should have moved on to the great beyond before their names are considered as appellations for a street or building, etc. There will be the odd exception, such as Nelson Mandela, but these will be very few and far between. Even in the case of those who are dead, as much as possible should be known about them before their names are selected, and for that reason, again with a few exceptions, the names of the recently deceased should probably not be considered.
Interestingly, no names of the enslaved or indentured servants in the colonial era were generated in the Tuesday meeting. In any future naming (not renaming) exercise historians like Dr Mellissa Ifill should be consulted for guidance.
In addition, of course, there would need to be proper consultation with the residents of a given area and the citizens in general about the naming of a street, etc. One would want a name which is generally accepted, and which would survive and not be changed again a few years down the line.
And the kind of ‘consultation’ the Mayor held last Tuesday was not a consultation at all; most people knew nothing about it. Naming cannot be done in a great rush, and certainly not in the fifty days before May 26. Hurried choices will not only generate dissension, but also will be a source of mistakes.
Finally, we have been promised local government elections in March next year, so the current denizens of City Hall have about four months, at the outside, to keep their seats warm around the famous horseshoe. What gives them the idea that in the last four months of an incumbency which has lasted for two decades, they have the right to change the face of Georgetown? Some little meeting does not speak for the citizens of this city, and at this stage, the Mayor and Councillors definitely don’t.
It is time for citizens to speak up against this outrage. No one wants to wake up one morning and find that new names have been posted on fifty formerly familiar streets (and fifty names are a lot) which they may not like, and of which they know little or nothing.