Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Lately I’ve been contemplating national mottos, those of North and South America and the Caribbean. I had an idea that the forging of a collective identity was a major component of nation-building in these parts.
To my mind, all of these countries in the New World were populated by some combination of indigenous natives and immigrants from Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and just about anywhere else. They were smashed together by European colonialism and its genocide, slavery, racial oppression and immigration. All. As such, I expected all, or most, would have had a motto addressing the central identity problem we all faced, which involved building societies out the disparate groups whose encounter was so unpleasant, bordering on traumatic.
Certainly the yearning is there in the two I knew: T&T’s Together we aspire, together we achieve, which my cynically irreverent people sometimes rephrase as “Together we perspire, together we conceive”; and Jamaica’s “Out of many, One people.”
Turns out I was quite wrong. Some national mottos do emphasize unity – 11 of them if you count Antigua and Barbuda’s borderline Each endeavouring, all achieving. But the remaining 31 motivate citizens towards quite different goals or even, in a few cases, no goal at all.
For instance, Belize’s Sub umbra floreo (Latin for Under the shade I flourish), suggests just an unpleasant climate. Also solar but very different is Saint Lucia’s The land, the people, the light or perhaps Montserrat’s more earthy A people of excellence, moulded by nature, nurtured by God.
Guatemala’s Libre Crezca Fecundo (Spanish for Grow Free and Fertile) celebrates a densely forested land or exhorts citizens to step up their procreative activities.
The British Virgin Islands’ Vigilate (Latin for Be watchful) encourages paranoia; whereas Chile’s Por la razón o la fuerza (Spanish for Through Reason Or By Force) is downright intimidating, only slightly more creepy than Colombia’s Libertad y orden (Spanish for Freedom and order) and Dominica’s sepulchral Après Bondié, C'est la Ter, which is Creole for After God, the Earth.
Panama, torn off Colombia by the US, who wanted to control the new state’s epynomous Canal, was given an appropriately cynical Pro mundi beneficio (Latin for For the benefit of the world), whereas Puerto Rico wins the prize for sheer obscurity. That US colony's motto is Joannes est nomen ejus (Latin for John is his name), taken from the Latin bible Luke 1:63. It refers to the fact that although the island is named after its port (Puerto Rico = Rich Port), the port, San Juan, was once the island’s name, after Saint John the Baptist.
On the other hand, Bermuda’s Quo fata ferunt (Latin for Whither the fates carry us) might as well have been Que sera sera or even Whatever.
Of course those are the outliers. There are also references to justice and to order but the most common appeals are to liberty and, by far, to God. More than any other theme the Almighty is referenced by eight countries, including the purportedly secular USA.
"My Great American Dream" by Ralph Steadman
The USA’s unofficial motto was originally E Pluribus Unum (Latin: Out of many, one), which was included on the Great Seal by Act of Congress in 1782. It did not mean same thing as Jamaica’s similarly-worded Out of Many, One People, however. Even today many in the US do not consider all citizens to be One People, far less back in the 18th century. Rather, “Many” in the old US motto referred to the original 13 colonies that banded together as one republic in rejecting the British. Then in July 1956, in response to Soviet atheism, the US Congress declared the national motto to be In God We Trust.
On first consideration I thought that the US would have been better served by a Jamaica-type motto, even if it were just an ideal to be aspired to. After all, the source of most the USA’s swept-under-the-carpet problems have always been rooted in the deep-seated belief that African-Americans, Native Americans and non-European immigrants are not really full members of the society.
Truth is, it doesn’t matter when it comes to the US. Other countries’ mottos say something about them or their ideals, such as the Bajan Pride and Industry; even if it’s something trivial, such as Canada’s A mari usque ad mare (Latin: From sea to sea) or obscure like Saint Helena’s Loyal and unshakeable. But the US, where flag-pledging and anthem-singing is more prevalent than anywhere else, is also given to self-delusion bordering on psychosis. What George Orwell referred to as “doublethink”.
The USA is a country whose 1776 independence declaration claims that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” while viciously enslaving black people and practicing genocide against Native Americans.
The US was the last NATO country to establish democracy, having legally implemented racial apartheid up to 1964, and continued it by other means ever since. It is a country that has installed dictatorships in other client states worldwide and since 2001 believes that peace can only be built on permanent war. Yet it considers itself to be the democratic land of the free (with the world’s highest proportion of incarcerated citizens).
Maybe their motto should be taken from the Party's three slogans in Orwell’s 1984: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.