From Boggy Peak to Mt Obama

Like the rest of the world, Antigua has succumbed to Obamamania. Joanne C Hillhouse reports on the debate over the island’s proposed tribute

  • View from the east summit of what may become Mt Obama. Photograph courtesy Chris Pratt of the Environmental Awareness Group’s Plant Conservation Project

Like much of the world, last year Antigua contracted Obama fever – banners, T-shirts, a lyrical tribute by calypso legend King Short Shirt, election night parties, even a Barack food special, according to the blackboard of one roadside eatery.

But Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer took it further, revealing plans to rename Boggy Peak, the country’s highest point at 403 metres, to mark the decisive shattering of the ultimate colour barrier in American politics.

The proposed “Mt Obama” stirred a range of reactions – from derision to consternation to enthusiastic endorsement. Those against termed it “a slap in the face of deserving sons and daughters of the soil; they argued that Obama “has not done anything for us” and that his policies could well prove detrimental to the region. Besides, Spencer had not sought their permission.

Supporters described it as “a wonderful idea” and asked, “[Of] what significance is Boggy Peak compared to President Obama’s achievements?” Conrad Luke of the pan-Africanist Leonard “Tim” Hector Memorial Committee said Obama’s election was “the most significant development for the black world since the 1804 revolution”. Writer Monica Matthew, home from New York for the launch of her memoir Journeycakes, spoke of the unthinkable heights to which Obama had ascended and the symbolism of the gesture, chastising the naysayers: “We need to stop chopping ourselves into pieces; we are all black.”

Speaker of Antigua’s House of Representatives D Gisele Isaac wrote in the Daily Observer, “The collective black spine has been straightened, and as Dr [Martin Luther] King pointed out, you can only ride a man if his back is bent. That is the answer to those who call the radio station to find out what Obama has done for Antigua.” Actor Louis Gossett Jr, at a Washington event hosted by Antigua’s diplomatic team, was quoted as describing Mt Obama as “a beacon of Afrocentricity and hope for people around the world.”

Prime Minister Spencer, on the Internet programme When Steel Talks, described Obama’s victory as “a powerful moment” and argued that the gesture would remind young people of their own potential. He acknowledged the opposition, but felt that most had come around.

The jury’s still out on that, with one anti-Mt Obama T-shirt campaign mockingly making the case for “Mt McCain”.

The Prime Minister and tourism policymakers, though, are unfazed. With the official renaming announced for August 4 this year, Ambassador Rupert Baba Blaize said in an Observer AM interview, “We intend to make Mt Obama a quintessential tourist attraction.” He promised that whatever was done would factor in environmental sustainability.

This touches on one of the chief areas of concern. The Environmental Awareness Group is hopeful that the site will remain much as it is. “This is especially important,” they argued, in a proposal to the-powers-that-be, “because of the invaluable, unspoilt, fragile, and unique biodiversity to be found in the area.” They cautioned against overdevelopment and made a case instead for the experience of the unforgettable climb, stopping to take in the view and – in the rainy season – the waterfalls. A visitor’s centre, they suggested, could be located in Christian Valley below; also a guide on the hill’s trails and 300 plant species and other wildlife could be produced.

At 1,319 feet, Boggy Peak is the highest point of the so-called Shekerly Mountains.  The late historian Desmond Nicholson, in Heritage Treasures of Antigua and Barbuda, a posthumous work, chronicled the capture of some 27 runaways camped out there in 1687, and the burning to death of their leaders in 1688. After this raid, David Barry Gaspar wrote in Bondmen and Rebels, such marronage all but died out, though reportedly enslaved Africans continued to find refuge in the hills.

Brian Dyde, in his History of Antigua: the Unsuspected Isle, referred to the geological significance of the area, saying the southwesterly Shekerly mountains are the eroded remains of the volcano which formed the foundation of the island.

Several parties have called for research into the cultural and natural value of Boggy Peak; with the renewed interest, perhaps this lobby may gain ground.

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