By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
In Guyana on May 26, 1966, the Union Jack (British national flag) was lowered and the Golden Arrowhead (national flag of Guyana) was raised, signifying the end of British rule. The Guyana national anthem, “Dear Land of Guyana”, replaced the British national anthem that had been sung for generations in our dear land of Guyana.
After an international contest organized by the National History and Arts Council of British Guiana (the colonial/pre-independence name of Guyana), the Golden Arrowhead was designed by White American, Whitney Smith, who was the Director of the Flag Centre in Florida, U.S.A. The flag of Guyana was designed with a “golden arrowhead” along its middle to represent the vast mineral wealth of Guyana. The narrow white and black strips along its sides, was set on a green and red background.
The five colours symbolize the various resources of Guyana: green for the agriculture and forests; gold representing the mineral wealth; red for the zeal of nation-building; black border depicting the people’s endurance and white symbolizing the natural water potential of the country.
The national anthem was chosen after a nationwide competition sponsored by the National History and Arts Council. The words of “Dear Land of Guyana” were written by a White British Anglican priest, Archibald Luker, who was in charge of All Saints Anglican Church in New Amsterdam, Berbice. The words were set to music by Cyril G. Potter, a prominent African Guyanese educator and musician. Potter, who was born in Graham’s Hall village on the East Coast, Demerara, had previously composed the music for the songs “My Guiana Eldorado” and “Way down in Demerara”.
On May 26, 1966, when Guyana gained its independence from Britain, it was after more than 135 years of British colonization. However, the British were not the first European colonizers of Guyana. The history books tell us that Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans who sighted the Guianas in 1498. (In his 1976 book, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, Guyanese scholar and historian, Ivan Van Sertima, argues that there was an African presence in the Americas before Columbus.)
Other groups of Europeans searching for “El Dorado”, the golden city, quickly followed Columbus. None of these “adventurers” ever found “El Dorado”, but many Europeans became rich on the coerced, unpaid labour of the enslaved Africans, who they bought and sold like chattel.
In Guyana, beginning with the Dutch, who colonized the Essequibo region when they established their first settlement on the Pomeroon River in 1581, Europeans exploited first the native (Amerindians) people who they unsuccessfully tried to enslave, then the Africans. The Amerindians, being on familiar territory, fled into the interior of the country, unlike the Africans, who were thousands of miles away from Africa and unfamiliar with the South American terrain.
In 1814, the Dutch were forced to cede the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo to the British after the Treaty of Paris was signed during the Congress of Vienna (November 1, 1814-June 8, 1815). The Treaty of Paris was signed following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon apparently had visions of grandeur and thought he could become ruler of the known world. There have been quite a few Europeans who had this delusion.
Having defeated Napoleon, the Europeans decided to dole out territory and Britain gained the three Dutch colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. In 1831, the British unified the three former Dutch colonies and renamed the country British Guiana.
It must have been quite a shock to the enslaved Africans (who up to the point of British colonization had been forced to speak Dutch) to be confronted by English speaking Europeans who would demand/expect to be understood. Imagine the added trauma of an enslaved African being beaten when someone gave a command in a language that was totally incomprehensible. Eventually the country became known as the only country in South America where English was the official language.
Through the years of British colonization, British Guiana was also known as the land of many waters and the land of six people (Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, East Indians, Europeans and Portuguese) with the nine groups of Amerindians being the indigenous people of the land. The petroglyphs found near Kurupukari in the Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana prove that Guyana’s indigenous people (Arawaks, Arecunas, Akawaios, Caribs, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapisianas, Warraus and Wai-Wais) have lived on the South American continent since at least 5,000 BCE.
British Guiana was sometimes referred to as “Bookers Guiana” because of the stranglehold on the economy of the British business firm “Booker Brothers, McConnell & Company”, popularly known as “Bookers”. The company had its beginning when Josias Booker left his home in Britain to work as the manager of a plantation in British Guiana in 1815. Booker Brothers, McConnell & Company was formally established in 1834 as “Booker Brothers & Company” and held a monopoly on the economy of British Guiana by the end of the 1800s.
“Bookers” history is inextricably linked to Britain’s slave holding and imperialist past. When the Congress of Vienna divided the northeast coast of South America among Great Britain, the Netherlands and France in 1815, merchants from those countries quickly began to exploit the region’s natural resources. To exploit the natural resources of the region and avoid the backbreaking work which this entailed, the Europeans decided to enslave Africans and brutally force them to work without pay.
The Booker brothers – Josias, George and Richard – were part of this group which, between 1815 and 1834, bought several plantations and established several merchant trading houses in Liverpool to exploit a flourishing sugar and rum trade. Following the establishment (1834) of Booker Brothers & Co. in British Guiana, they bought their first transport ship, the Elizabeth, in 1835.
Africans in Guyana during that period were compelled to work for 40 hours a week (the “apprenticeship” period after slavery was abolished August 1, 1834) without pay on the plantations until 1838. The Booker brothers had a captive work force for at least four years (1834-1838). White British author, Dave Hollett, documents the fascinating story of the Booker family practically owning British Guiana in his 1999 book, Passage from India to El Dorado: Guyana and the Great Migration.
Hollett even details the amount of money the Booker brothers made after being compensated for the loss of their human property. In the 1830s, the Bookers collected thousands of pounds in compensation; it is little wonder they were able to expand their company.
White American author, Milton Moskowitz, writes in his 1988 book, The Global Marketplace: 102 Of the Most Influential Companies Outside America, that the Booker Brothers company “became the principal shopkeepers of the colony”, building a formidable trade during the late 19th century. Their “Liverpool Line”, established in 1887, became one of the top shipping links between South America and Europe.
Bookers even ventured into the “books” business. In The Global Marketplace, Moskowitz writes: “One of the most unusual diversifications made during this era was a division the company called ‘Authors.’ This highly unusual sideline developed after the discovery of a loophole in the British tax code that allowed the conglomerate to purchase an author’s copyrights, pay him or her a fat fee partly at the expense of the taxpayer, and then collect the royalties. Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming were just two of the bestselling authors in Booker’s stable.”
The “Booker McConnell Prize” (now the Booker Prize), awarded for the best novel published in Britain by an author from the British Commonwealth, came out of that venture. Moskowitz writes: “The Authors’ venture soon spawned another celebrated aside. According to Booker’s 1994 annual report, Fleming suggested to Campbell over a game of golf that the company pump some of the millions it was earning on the backs of writers back into the literary community.”
While the enterprising Booker brothers and other White men from Britain were establishing companies (including Sandbach Parker and Fogarty’s) and making money hand over fist in British Guiana, racialized people were relegated to the backbreaking and underpaid work that enriched Europeans.
At the time of Guyana’s independence from Britain, the population included not only the original people (Amerindians) but also some of the descendants of the colonizers from Britain, the descendants of the enslaved Africans and the descendants of the people who immigrated to British Guiana as indentured labourers, beginning in 1834 after slavery was abolished.
Although the Portuguese from Madeira were the first group of indentured labourers to arrive in British Guiana (1834), the largest group of indentured labourers hailed from the Indian sub-continent, arriving in Guyana beginning May 5, 1838.
The population of Guyana 49 years after independence also includes the descendants of the Chinese, who immigrated as indentured labourers beginning in 1853, when three ships (the Glentanner, the Lord Elgin and the Samuel Boddington) left Amoy in the Fujian Province of China with 1,549 labourers bound for British Guiana.
The descendants of the people who populated Guyana from the 1500s to the 1800s and the indigenous people of Guyana are all Guyanese who share parts of their culture to make a unique Guyanese culture.
As Guyana celebrates 49 years of independence, there is a new government in power elected by Guyanese, who went to the polls on May 11, 2015. For the first time in 23 years Guyanese have a change in regime.