Fascinating history of Guyana needs to be taught

By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

During the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, “the British imperial government conquered the Dutch colony of Berbice and took over the management of a number of presumed government slaves. These comprised persons on four estates and others – mainly artisans – in New Amsterdam, the colony’s capital, who were known as winkel (that is “shop”) slaves. The Colonial office had sent a circular dispatch to the governors on January 24, 1831 ordering them to set free all escheated slaves immediately”.

Excerpt from Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice Guyana 1803-1831 by Alvin O. Thompson, published in 2002.

The “escheated slaves” referred to in the January 24, 1831 circular dispatch were “owned” by the British government. Some of these enslaved Africans lived in what is now called Winkle in New Amsterdam, Berbice.

It is well known that slavery was finally abolished on August 1, 1838 throughout the British Empire after a four-year “apprenticeship” in most of the Caribbean. What is not as well known outside of Guyana is that a group of enslaved Africans who were “crown property” and members of the winkel group gained their freedom seven years earlier.

Passing through Winkle, New Amsterdam on my way to Stanleytown during a recent visit to Guyana, I remembered that, as children, we had heard stories of the “Winkel slaves.” That glimpse of Winkle also started me on a quest to learn more about the Village Movement that Africans began after they were freed from chattel slavery in Guyana. I visited the New Amsterdam public library and the Georgetown public library in my search but there was not much to find in either library. I found a booklet about Victoria Village on the East Coast Demerara and that seemed to be the extent of books about the Village Movement in both libraries.

At the Georgetown public library, after some probing, I unearthed a book I had read about on the Internet about Plaisance/Sparendaam on the East Coast Demerara, Plaisance From Emancipation to Independence and Beyond by Beryl Adams-Haynes, published in 2010. Further investigation yielded information that the book was also available at the University of Guyana Berbice Campus Library located at Tain on the Courentyne and could not be taken out but was available for a two-hour loan in the library.

I am still puzzled and disappointed at the lack of books about the Village Movement in the Guyana public library system. It was at the Toronto Reference Library that I eventually found a copy of Thompson’s 2002 book, Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice Guyana 1803-1831. In spite of the fact that it is the only copy in the Toronto Public Library system, I was happy to have the opportunity to read it since it yielded much information about the “Winkel slaves” and the area of Winkle, New Amsterdam.

The intriguing and little known history of this group of enslaved Africans includes the fact that they were highly skilled and a “versatile group of artisans, capable of working in iron, copper and brass.” The enslavers also described them as “decidedly the most intelligent body of Negroes in the Colony.”

Their skill as artisans was exploited by government (through the Winkel Department) as well as private citizens because they were hired out to work on plantations while the British government pocketed the money they earned.

In Unprofitable Servants Thompson writes: Payment for winkel work done for private individuals was made to the Colonial Treasury. This was under the charge of the Governor of the Colony who received a commission of 10 per cent. It was not surprising to read that “Graft and corruption were the frequent bedfellows of several officials involved in the department.”

I have to wonder how many families in Britain are still benefitting from the coerced, unpaid work that came directly from the “winkel slaves” of Berbice, and when we will receive reparations.

Although the Colonial office had sent a circular dispatch to the governors on January 24, 1831 ordering them to set free all escheated slaves immediately, it was not until November 17, 1831, that the Africans of Winkle were given their certificates of freedom. Lord Goderich, the secretary of state for the colonies, sent a follow-up letter to Benjamin D’Urban, who had been appointed governor of British Guiana on March 4, 1831, and would have missed the original dispatch of January 24, 1831. This letter directed D’Urban to set the winkel people free and give them land grants.

D’Urban, who disagreed with the concept of emancipating enslaved Africans, resisted, even arguing that the Africans did not deserve freedom. (Imagine Durban Street in Georgetown is named after this character.) He also argued that the labour of the winkel slaves was too important to the public works department and high government officials. He doubted that they were capable of living on their own and he was concerned about disrupting “their happiness with the state of comfort they enjoyed.”

Unfortunately, D’Urban was not the only White person who thought Africans enjoyed being kept as chattel and working without pay to enrich White people. That was a popular thought that allowed them to continue enslaving Africans under brutal and inhumane conditions for more than 400 years.

This history, unfortunately, is not taught in the Guyanese public education system. It is very sad and disappointing that the history of Africans is not readily available to their descendant, never mind non-African Guyanese. At what point did people stop caring or began suffering from group amnesia? It seems a long way from the days when elders passed on their knowledge to the youth.

In this day and age, when information is more readily available, there is a puzzling lack of African history in the libraries and schools of Guyana. Maybe it is the lack of information about the history of their ancestors that has the descendants of those enterprising and hardworking Africans selling the land their ancestors sweated to buy.

Some of the descendants of Africans whose blood, sweat and tears bought abandoned plantations and established scores of villages between 1839 and 1850 seem to have lost their way.

Thankfully, there is at least one organization in Guyana that is addressing the lack of African culture and history in Guyana. The African Cultural Development Association (ACDA), founded in 1993 and based in Georgetown, located at 9 Thomas Road, Thomas Lands opposite the National Park, is valiantly filling the void. With a school on the premises (Centre of Learning and Afro-centric Orientation), ACDA is educating the next generation, and indeed all Guyanese.

They need the support of Guyanese in Canada. After attending the 20th Kwanzaa celebration hosted by ACDA in December, I am in awe of the work this group has done. During the Kwanzaa celebration, the Education Management Committee of ACDA presented scholarships to students who excelled in their educational achievements. ACDA is also the sponsor of Emancipation Day (August 1st) activities at the National Park; (Maafa) African Holocaust Memorial Day on October 12 and was heavily involved in activities to recognize the United Nations-designated International Year for People of African Descent (IYPAD) last year.

Inspired by the work of ACDA members, I have decided that my 2012 New Year’s resolution is to learn more about the history of Guyana’s Village Movement, learn the names of the villages established by Africans in Guyana and how they have survived.

I am off to a great start because both of my parents were born in such villages and during my trip to Guyana I was able to visit Courtland/Fyrish/Gibraltar, the village where my father was born.


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