The unveiling of a bronze statue of Sir John Compton in Constitution Park last Friday evening was, by the current prime minister’s convenient measure, representative of the nation celebrating its past, not to say our 35th year of Independence.
Never mind his unkept tearful promise to establish a heroes’ park in 1998, shortly after a recently elected Labour Party parliamentarian had drowned while courageously attempting to save a young mother and child in distress at Grand Anse Beach, it was the Constitution Park ceremony that had given him “reason to recollect that all great civilizations edify their greatness through monuments of one kind or another.”
Some were of legends well known in their time by “the common man.” Some represented unidentified individuals, while others recalled “moments or dramatic events of history.” Then there were the limestone or metal representations of “ideals and aspirations of nations.”
The Constitution Park audience comprised MPs from both sides of the House, some—despite the evening’s “unity” mantra—openly engaged in a bitter brother-against-brother dogfight with no end in sight. Also individuals who imagined themselves several cuts above the category earlier described as “the common man.”
The MPs and the presumed upper crust were there by special invitation to occupy chairs reserved in their name. The rest, for whom no seats were provided, had responded to the government’s cattle call over the radio.
All were encouraged to contemplate “the Taj Mahal of India, the Sphinx of Egypt, the Mona Lisa held in the Louvre Museum, Mount Rushmore’s presidential features, and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.”
It was at this point that I caught myself wondering yet again about the prime minister’s speechwriters. But then it had also occurred to me that before he became a lawyer and a career politician evidently determined to die with his boots on, the speechmaker had been for several years a schoolteacher and a lecturer—which might explain why his tone, whether making his budget presentations before parliament or excoriating “de lyin’ King” from the steps of the Castries market, or delivering his New Year Address to the Nation, was always the same: pedantic.
Surely his fellow MPs and other special guests, including Dame Pearlette Louisy, Lady Janice and former St Vincent & the Grenadines prime minister and author Sir James Mitchell, did not need to be told the locations of the centuries-old Taj Mahal—one of the seven wonders of the world—and the far more ancient, arguably more famous Sphinx.
As for the New York Harbor edifice: though it may be some time before certain local MPs and police officers are permitted the privilege of photographing France’s monument to freedom and democracy where she stands, surely even “the wretched refuse” of William Peter Boulevard, not to say our ubiquitous “tired, poor, homeless, huddled masses” would go searching for Lady Liberty at Beausejour!
In any event, which civilization, great or small, does the Mona Lisa edify? How does the particular work of art that occupied Da Vinci from 1503 to 1516 relate to Saint Lucia’s first prime minister, the late John George Melvin Compton, who lived and died a consummate politician, as much revered as reviled—reviled for the most part by a political organization whose constitution had been reconstituted on the altar of its current leader’s ambition?
I nearly fell off my chair when our much traveled prime minister asserted before his mainly adult audience: “Statues abound in every city square around the world. They tell a tale of achievement, of courage and of honor. They proclaim the progress of nations and identify the character of the people they represent.”
Was that a subtle hint of the reason why Saint Lucia’s main square is without statues? Is that why the nation had to wait until the outside world recognized their genius before room was found for the busts of Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott in our main square?
I just loved the following from the mouth of the current prime minister: “In this instance, this statue we will unveil is part of the story that is our history, that long road from discovery to self-determination; of our achievements from colony to independent statehood; of our progress from underdevelopment to a developing and diversified country; our character from a politically tribal to a maturing democracy.”
Not even Jadia (unless she wrote it!) could’ve anticipated the punch line: “This unveiling is helping define a new Saint Lucia which is at peace with its past!” When was our nation not at peace with its past? What does that mean, anyway? That until the arrival of a bronze John Compton in Constitution Park Saint Lucians were loaded down with guilt? Who was the prime minister speaking for?
As if further to confuse things, he went on: “Here in the heart of Castries, this place of honor we unveil today should not be conjured or confused in our minds as the summation of the man, the leader, the statesman, that was John Compton. No! All of Saint Lucia knows better. He will and will always be more than a park and a monument.”
What could he have meant by that? What place of honor did he refer to? Who in Saint Lucia had ever confused John Compton “the man, the leader, the statesman” with a park?
But the speechmaker continued to lose his way: “Saint Lucians are also cognizant that this monument does not indemnify or repay the untiring, unyielding will that this soul from Canouan carved into the landscape of Saint Lucia and in the psyche of its people. This monument will remind all Saint Lucians of the life and stories which can be told of John Compton.
“Some of these stories are facts of history. Some of these stories might well be myth or legend, some more skewed and tinted red, yellow or blue, dependent on the bard. Either way, his history cannot be diminished or denied.”
To that last statement he might’ve have added . . . anymore than can the history be denied of those who had fought him every step of the way toward establishing his undeniable history.
The indisputable truth is that long before anyone suggested a statue should be erected in his honor, John Compton was legendary.
All over Saint Lucia, there were monuments to his name. The sitting prime minister should finally have taken the opportunity last Friday—if only for the education of the recently born—that John Compton, love him or hate him, was responsible for almost every good thing that makes Saint Lucia what it is today. It was during his terms of office that our nation underwent its most constructive changes, north, south, east, west.
I have not the space here to list them all. Suffice it to say, there is nothing in today’s Saint Lucia that did not come into existence by the hand of John Compton—which of course says as much about the deceased legendary prime minister as it does about those that came after him and followed not in his footsteps.
As for the notion that until the current prime minister’s address in Constitution Park some may have been confused about his image—what a sick joke!
On at least one point Kenny Anthony and I are in full agreement: John Compton’s “history cannot be diminished or denied.” After all, it is indelibly written on thousands of pages of the House record, Hansard; in the hundreds of audio and videotapes in the files of Radio Saint Lucia and the GIS; in personal collections; in newspapers both foreign and local.
The day’s prime minister might’ve taken the ideal opportunity, on behalf of Saint Lucians dead, alive and unborn, not only to provide detailed accounts of John Compton’s achievements for his adopted country but also to apologize for his attempted crucifixion which the prime minister had witnessed live that unforgettable night of 17 July 1979—the night irenic William Peter Boulevard was abruptly transmogrified into an open sewer, the effects of which remain to this day in our psyche, like an inherited virus, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.
And that’s no myth!
As for those who would say I’ve attempted to recast John Compton in saintly robes, nothing could be further from the truth. He would’ve been the first to acknowledge his shortcomings, as a man and as a leader. One may have written about his peccadilloes in office . . . incessantly, if you will. But we were again close friends at the time of his passing. More proof that when all is said and done, perhaps what made John Compton truly great, what stamped him extraordinary, was that he knew the difference between political opponents and enemies!