I found myself heartbroken at the sight of the historic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on fire. My immediate thoughts were about the art treasures inside, and the history lost as the 850-year-old church went up in flames.
And then I began wondering why it is I was mourning the loss of a historic building I had never seen in a city I had never visited. I then realized that while I was also mourning the possible loss of artworks and artifacts in the fire, I had never seen those either. Indeed, I didn’t even know what they were.
It’s the same with many of the things I hold dear. I know of London and its history, for example, even though I have never set foot on its soil. I even went so far one time to include a detailed description of a 19th century London street in a book idea I was putting together before I ditched it, recognizing I was being ridiculous.
But was I, really?
My history is culturally entwined with Europe’s, not because I wanted it so but because of colonization. You see, I grew up as a person of East Indian heritage in a Caribbean island conquered many times by various colonists, including the Dutch, French, Spanish and the English. Each left their mark on local places that then became comfortable. San Jose was the country’s first capital, Barataria is where I had my office; and San Fernando, the country’s second capital, sat comfortably side by side with Waterloo, where my ex-wife’s family lived, Blanchiseusse was a lovely beach area on the north coast and then there is Princes Town, named for the British royalty.
It was normal for me to go down Queen Street or across Chacon Street to King George V park without thinking twice about the names or their origins.
Thus it was no surprise that I would feel empathy towards anything European, rather than any at all towards the country of my grandparents’ birth, India. I knew very little of India, but I knew almost everything there was to know about European history.
It’s not my fault. It was what I was taught in school. And therein lies the rub, for a lot of what was taught were versions of European history that made the Europeans look good, rather than the truth.
For example, Christopher Columbus was a great explorer who “discovered” the country where I was born, never mind he met people there. And he was a hero, in spite of the fact that Columbus and his people committed mass genocide, wiping out the Arawaks, who along with the Caribs, from whom the Caribbean got its name, were the region’s earliest inhabitants.
Walter Raleigh was sold to us kids as a hero, and it is only later in life we found out he was really a pirate, like many other “heroes” of the time, like “Sir” Francis Drake and Henry Morgan.
European missionaries were sent to convert us pagans who were worshiping idols. My Indian family had many of these Hindu pagans and the Christians taught me to “cast them out” as devil worshipers. As a child indoctrinated in the Christian faith, I did not know better and even if I did, the fear of a vengeful Christian God instilled in me would have never allowed me to question why.
My childhood friends, many of whom had ancestors from Africa, were in the same predicament. They were never taught African history other than the history of slavery, and even that was buttered-up to make it seem that the slave owners had done nothing wrong. Slavery was simply a means to an end at the time, and in fact, we were to hold the “massas” in awe for their bravery of coming to the New World to build the land we now lived in, in spite of how they did it.
Africa and India were not held in reverence. We did not know about Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania but knew all there was to know about the Swiss Alps. The pyramids of Egypt were mentioned only as they related to lost civilizations in history and not presented at all as being revered as the planet’s greatest treasures.
We knew more about the Tower of London and Big Ben than we ever knew of the Taj Mahal. We never heard of the Malayatoor Church in Kerala, built in 52 AD but knew everything about Notre-Dame de Paris, built in 1173.
It’s because it suited the purposes of the colonizers — all of them — to keep us in ignorance of our own contributions to history, and in reverence of theirs, until now, all these decades after independence, all these centuries after they laid foot on our lands.
So Notre Dame burned, and the world –including me — mourned. But why?
Clearly, it is because it is a loss of an international treasure. But is there more to the reason?
The fire in Paris attracted far more attention, and the promise of far more money, than the awful tragedy caused by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, which killed over 1,000 people and where there is an immediate need for relief funds to help tens of thousands more.
A fund to restore the Notre-Dame de Paris has already raised more than $400 million Euros, less than 48 hours after it was destroyed. The victims of Cyclone Idai in Africa need at least $2 billion to recover. Not much has been raised more than one month after the disaster.
This reminds me of the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which killed 12 people and had people around the world proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the victims
In the very same week, Boko Haram terrorists killed up to 2,000 men, women and children in Baga, Nigeria, but there was no one proclaiming “I Am Nigerian” in solidarity with them.
Is it a case that some lives are more valuable than others? Have we been programmed to think, from childhood, that some cultures are better than others?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that we have been led to believe that there are some human values that are sacred cows, and among these untouchables are a free press, which the Charlie Hebdo attack represented, and artistic and cultural history, which the Notre-Dame de Paris represents, hence the outpouring of support and grief.
No doubt the world’s reaction would have been the same had the deadly attack on the press took place at a daily newspaper in Trinidad and Tobago, or whether a fire had destroyed the Taj Mahal.
Or at least we’d like to think so.
Let’s hope history does not give us an opportunity to be proven wrong.