I have some questions for Freddie Kissoon in relation to his column on the naming of our streets, wards etc. But before I begin, may I point out that the name of the estate owner after whom Cummingsburg is named was not Thomas Cummings. He was a Scot named Thomas Cuming. One “m” and no “s”.
By simply Googling, “Thomas Cuming estate owner in Demerara”, I found that there is a letter from T. Pemberton in Kaieteur News of 25 February 2017 on this very subject of the name.
Cummingsburg, I suspect, was intended to be Cuming’s Burg, or Burgh – I have seen one reference to Cumings Burgh (without the apostrophe); but I have never been able to find out just when we started spelling the name with a double “m”; nor, apparently was the writer of the letter in Kaieteur News.
However, back to Monday’s column.
After identifying a number of streets and a ward of Georgetown, all named either Cummings or Thomas (he left out the Cummings Canal), Mr. Kissoon asks, “Why should a street be given his title? You give the title to places and roadways after people who have lived positive lives and made positive contributions to the country of birth and the world in general.” He also says, “History is not a normative process; it is a factual aspect of life so we can’t change historical contexts at our whims and fancies”. But, Mr. Kissoon, our norms change over time. What was acceptable in the 19th century may no longer be acceptable today, and vice versa. In 1805, a woman could not go to a University – everyone “knew” that females were not capable of doing that. Nor could they be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, architects. Today, we would be appalled if anyone suggested that women should not or could not enter any profession. And conversely, in 1805 slavery was still a part of that world. Despite a movement to end the slave trade (the British were the first to do so in 1806), slavery itself was still legal and accepted by Europeans (and by some Africans too, by the way). And the Emancipation Act was passed in 1834 only after the British government agreed to fund what was for that time massive compensation to the slave owners for their “property”.
In the eyes of dominant groups of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the groups who developed the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, Berbice, Suriname, Brazil, Cuba etc., slavery was both necessary and acceptable. Mr. Cuming was a highly respected contributor to that society. He owned a plantation named La Bourgade, a plantation stretching from what is now Lamaha St. to Church St. The present day East St. was the back dam of the plantation. He divided La Bourgade into lots, which he sold for both commercial and residential purposes. All those avenues in the cross streets (Main, Carmichael, Waterloo, Camp, Thomas streets were originally water reservoirs, which were later filled in). New Market Street got its name because it was the site of a new market for the town. The Cuming family also owned Kitty and Chateau Margot – the estate where the 1823 revolt started. And in his will, he bequeathed the land which is now the Promenade Gardens and the Parade Ground to the Town Council of Georgetown. Thomas Cuming returned to Scotland where he died in 1813. The Essequebo and Demerary Gazette recorded his death, calling him, “The Patriarch and Benefactor of Demerary” (EDG 15 June, 1813). So at least, some people in Demerara at that time thought that he was a person who had made a “positive contribution” to Demerara. You or I might not agree in 2018. But do you still wonder why places were named after him? I dare say at that time, he never thought that the likes of you or I, descendants of indentured workers and slaves, would one day enjoy his bequest of land to the Georgetown Town Council. But, as I said, what is the norm changes over time.
I should point out, too, that Murray Street, which was changed during the PNC government under Forbes Burnham, was also named after a then respected individual. Murray was the head of the Militia. His suppression of the 1823 Revolt was welcomed by planters, merchants, government officials, and, I expect, some of the free coloured as well. There were not many who protested against the imprisonment of John Smith, who was sent to Demerara by the London Missionary Society to minister to the slaves, because he insisted on teaching slaves to read, and objected to their working on Sunday. The 1823 Revolt was an ideal time for slave owners to condemn him for aiding and abetting the revolt. (Smith Memorial Church on Brickdam is named in memory of him). The owner of Quamina, one of the leaders who was executed after a military trial, was a British merchant, John Gladstone, whose son, William, rose to be one of the major Prime Ministers of nineteenth century Britain. Murray and the local managers of the Gladstone estates were all people who, at that time, were considered to be individuals who were contributing to their country and the world. Times have changed and with time, so have the values and norms. “History” has not changed. But the way we look at and judge that history has changed radically.
So how do we deal with all the place names that commemorate eighteenth and nineteenth century colonizers? Do we change them all, including Georgetown, named for a King who certainly did nothing for the good of either Guyana or the world, George III; and Stabroek named after a President of the Dutch West India Company, which developed these colonies and introduced slavery here? What about the streets named for various governors who upheld the onerous colonial regime? We have a village named Victoria, because the ex-slaves thought the Queen Victoria freed the slaves. In fact, she merely signed the Emancipation Act, which she, as a constitutional monarch, was required to do once the legislation had been passed by both Houses of Parliament. Should we change that too? In fact, do we change ALL the English, Scottish, Dutch and French names that are part of our history as a union of three colonies developed by Europeans or do we use them to do much deeper study of our history? In order to find out more about the people who brought our ancestors here, controlled them and in so doing produced the society we inherited, in order that we might understand how we came to be as we are, with all our faults and ethnic rivalries, and how we can change and improve our country?
Pat Robinson Commissiong
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