A House and a Mango Tree (On the Demolition of Jean Rhys’s House)

Screen Shot 2020-07-19 at 3.29.44 PM

An Op-Ed piece by Ian Jackson for Dominica News Online.

What’s so significant about a house and a mango tree? Absolutely nothing one may say and you may be right. Houses and mango trees flourish in these parts but when that house was once the home of one of the most famous writers of the 19th century, one of Britain’s acclaimed or so they claim, Jean Rhys. Ella Gwendolyn Williams, as she was known, was actually born in Dominica and resided in Grand Bay, and yes, in Cork Street, in the house referred to as Vena’s Guest House.

I once called for this building to be converted to a museum and renewed that call with local icons such as Leroy Charles after the death of Jeff Joe; I suggested that we should convert this property where artifacts, films and photographs could be displayed of our rich musical and cultural heritage. Certainly, a culturally rich country like Dominica cannot continue to advance upstairs the old post office as any sort of representation of a National Museum. In fact, it is embarrassing, to say the least, parading this in the face of cruise ship arrivals.

I have always lamented the fact that we never seem to have a Minister of Culture who is or has been a real practitioner and who have a passion for the arts. Like the other culture, that is agriculture, we seem to put anyone there to make up the numbers. However, in recent times I was happy to see a real culturally conscious practitioner take up such a ministry and still believe her voice will be heard albeit late in the matter, I now present.

Guess what? The house has been destroyed and the mango tree of over 130 years, planted since the 1870s around the time of Ma Pampo, was just uprooted to make way for “development” and “progress”.

Many who visit the Credit Union doing day-to-day money transactions or passersby either don’t have a clue or are oblivious and for them, this is just another construction as any other in the city. I don’t blame them as we are never taught at school about our history, heroes or heritage.

What was so hurtful [is that] demolishment of the edifice heightened during the peak of COVID-19 and in the midst of Africa Day observances while we seem to extend masks on our faces onto our eyes. I dare say in no other country this could have happened without an uproar. I guess the Athie Martins have done their share on their stand against the smashing of the Garden’s wall or the Lennox Honychurchs who normally would cry foul on such activities, are burnt out and almost feel alone. I am beginning to believe that if George Floyd had died in Dominica we may only hear some voices of “Citizens for a Better Dominica on Q95” and the rest would turn a blind eye. On a broader perhaps scale, a hyperbole of sorts may be, thank God, the Pyramids of Gaza were not constructed in Dominica, it would be in danger- so gross is our lack of appreciation for national monuments and arts.

But if we as a people could still see the significance in the crushed school bus in the Gardens as evidence for visitors to feast their eyes on the force of nature and the ravages of hurricane David then why can’t we as a people see merit in preserving a home of such historical significance or a mango tree of over 130 years old. It might well be the oldest mango tree in these parts or the world. Now isn’t this worth some “dollars and sense” to the ministry of tourism or is the vision limited to the World Creole Music Festival (WCMF) and Trafalgar Falls?

I do not want to delve into the politics, truth or rumors as to who has bought the property be it a politician or associates, but surely we are obliterating everything Dominican which makes this country unique and fail, time and time again, to build on it.

In terms of modernization, Roseau, unapologetically, is the most backward city in the region but we have something that most don’t have and this is our competitive edge -the jalousies spoken of by Jean Rhys herself in her writings, the verandahs and lattice works. We are the only country with an old market and Barracoon building lined with cobblestone streets where slaves were once sold. Where is SHAPE, the Society for Heritage Architecture Preservation and Enhancement, to add their voices to this ‘unshapely’ act of distorting a city? There is no plan in Roseau and this is evident by a green market being next-door neighbors to KFC? What a contradictory message and lack of harmony in the sentiments echoed by the ministry of health re fast foods, disease and morbidity.

The beauty of Roseau is further accentuated by the Creator; where else is there a river running in the center of a city and acreages of green space in the magnificence of the Botanic Gardens?

We may never compete with the sky risers of many of our Caribbean neighbours or the elaborate shopping malls, theatres, but we have something: our quaintness steeped in history and ironically, we don’t seem to know. We are trying to be like someone else on one hand and when to speak up on matters of national significance, we remain mute. We choose silence because we are partisan about so many things when it comes to nation-building.

Our consciousness has faded years ago, and the talk shows prove that every day; it’s all about the politics of division. What about our history, preservation of our landmarks, sharing those with outsiders and making money from selling the experience? Is this new construction part of the CREAD, Climate Resilience Execution Agency, and the Roseau rehabilitation plan?

I tried asking who is doing it…for what purpose? Everyone seems afraid to give me answers or probably they just don’t know. Well, really, I don’t care. All I know is, once again, we are destroying the soul of our nation; the Minister remains mute, Cultural Division follows suit while where once stood an edifice of historical significance, of much greater benefit to the nation than any personal advancement, has been mercilessly leveled to the ground; planning, as usual, has no plan except for trivialities of ‘you need to build four feet away from this or that boundary’.

I say to whoever and no matter the purpose that ‘You are squatting on a national treasure”. I don’t care how much has been paid; I have said my piece/peace.

Sorry Jean Rhys, sorry Ras Albert Williams and Arnold Toulon, our words will not be enough to stop them; all we have are memories of reading from Jean’s work and other poetic pieces with members of the Dominica Writer’s Guild some decades ago with Harry Sealy, Albert Williams, Ann Mills, Albert Bellot, Ras Mo, Gregory Rabess, Jeno Jacob, Carla Armour, Gerald Latouche and scores of others in that very same house…under the watch and shade of that mango tree- now obliterated to the pages of history.

One thought on “A House and a Mango Tree (On the Demolition of Jean Rhys’s House)

  1. How very sad. What a loss. The house, the tree, memory, history, earth. I am very sorry along with Mr. Jackson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s