Guyana marks 43 years of independence


The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, a former British colony situated on the northeast coast of South America, will celebrate 43 years of independence on May 26.

The Dutch were the first European colonizers of the 83,000 square miles (214,970 sq. km) of flat coastland, hilly sand and clay belt, vast rainforests and savannah. In 1616, Dutch traders established a trading post 25 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the Essequibo River. In 1627, the Dutch West India Company established a colony on the Berbice River, southeast of Essequibo.

Demerara, situated between Essequibo and Berbice, was settled in 1741. Although under the general jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company, the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo were governed separately. The colonies changed hands several times as the European colonizers battled each other in various tribal wars.

The Dutch eventually ceded the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo to the British in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, which signaled the final stages of the agreements that had been made at the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the official end to the European tribal warfare. Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia had met secretly to divide the spoils of Napoleon’s Empire.

The Napoleonic Wars had seen various European tribes (Austria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) making and breaking alliances (1793-1815) as they battled with each other over territories in Europe and elsewhere, including Africa, North and South America.

Incidentally, while Napoleon’s army was wreaking havoc in Europe, they were defeated by the Africans who had been enslaved by the French in Haiti. Led by Toussaint L’Overture, a former house slave, the Africans drove the French out of Haiti and seized their freedom and independence on January 1, 1804.

Following his defeat in Haiti, Napoleon suffered another major defeat at Waterloo, Belgium in June 1815, which ended his reign of terror.

As part of the division of the spoils of war, the Dutch ceded their three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo to the British, who in 1831 combined the three colonies, which became British Guiana.

The British continued the Dutch legacy of slavery in their new South American colony for a further three years before slavery was abolished by the British Parliament on August 23, 1833 to become law on August 1, 1834. The abolition of slavery did not entirely free the Africans, who had been enslaved their entire lives; the slaveholders persuaded the British government to institute a period of apprenticeship for them.

Although they had been paid reparations for the loss of their “property,” the plantation owners who had benefited from the forced, unpaid labour of the enslaved Africans were reluctant to allow their captives to leave the plantations. The apprenticeship period was used to further enrich the White British plantation owners and impoverish the Africans.

The apprentices were forced to continue working on the plantations of their former “owners” for seven and a half hours a day or 45 hours a week. Any work over 45 hours a week was supposed to be paid work. Many plantation owners resorted to acts of trickery, treachery and coercion to avoid paying the Africans wages due for overtime work. This was to ensure that the plantation owners were provided with free labour even after slavery was abolished and this caused a few incidents of “rebellion”.

With widespread rebellion among the Africans in some other British colonies including the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Trinidad, the apprenticeship period, which was expected to last for six years until 1840, came to an end on August 1, 1838.

No longer compelled to work on the plantations of their former owners, there was an exodus of Africans from the plantations. The Africans organized groups of 60 to 70, pooled their money and bought abandoned plantations. They divided the land into lots where each person had a house lot and farmland. The maintenance of the village drainage and irrigation system was the responsibility of the collective. The members of these villages (mostly established between 1838 and 1852) democratically elected leaders and organized communities which still exist.

Not all the Africans had saved enough money to be a part of the exodus and so were forced to remain on the plantations where they had been enslaved. These workers could now demand wages and, while some plantation owners grudgingly paid, others attempted to coerce the Africans into continuing a slave-like existence by expecting the Africans to work for no wages simply because they continued to live on plantation land.

The unpaid work of the Africans for their entire lives should have made them owners of that land.

After the Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, the White plantation owning class had anticipated that, once the act became law, Africans would exit the places where they had been enslaved and that there would be a labour shortage. Some of them began to look for an alternative labour force by recruiting indentured labourers, beginning in 1835 when Portuguese labourers arrived from Madeira. The first group of Chinese labourers arrived in 1885.

But, the largest group of indentured labourers to come to British Guiana, first arriving on May 5, 1838, were South Asians from the Indian subcontinent. The majority of them originated from Calcutta and were mostly Hindu although approximately 16 per cent were Muslim.

The indentureship period lasted from three to seven years before the labourers were free to leave the plantations to which they were indentured with a guaranteed return passage to their homeland at the end of their contract. The plantation owners encouraged the retention of Hinduism and Islam by helping with the building of mosques and temples to persuade the labourers and their families to remain on the estates after their indentureship period. Some of them returned home but many remained and their descendants help to make up the Guyanese mosaic today.

The population of British Guiana was 98,000 at the time of emancipation. Between 1838 and 1917, more than 300,000 immigrants arrived, of which 238,909 were South Asians from the Indian subcontinent. According to a 2008 Government of Guyana estimate, the population is 766,200 with 43 per cent East Indian, 30 per cent African, 9 per cent Amerindian and 17 per cent identifying as of mixed race.

The majority of Guyanese, descendants of enslaved Africans and descendants of indentured Asians, live on the coastland while most of Guyana’s indigenous people, comprised of nine groups – Akawaio, Arawak, Arekuna, Carib, Macushi, Patamona, Warrau, Wai Wai and Wapishiana – live in Guyana’s interior, which is mostly rainforest and savannah land.

Guyana, celebrating 43 years of independence on May 26, is the only country on the South American continent where English is the official language (courtesy of British colonization.) Guyana also boasts the world’s tallest wooden structure (St George’s Anglican Cathedral in Georgetown) and one the world’s natural wonders, Kaiteur Falls with the world’s longest single drop waterfalls. At 855 feet, Kaiteur Falls is five times higher than the drop of Niagara Falls.

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