By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, a former British colony situated on the northeast coast of South America, will celebrate 47 years of independence from British colonial rule on May 26, 2013.
On May 26, 1966, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) gained its political independence. British Guiana has also been 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.
The history books tell us that Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to sight the Guianas in 1498. (Guyanese scholar and historian, Ivan Van Sertima, in his book, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, wrote that there was an African presence in the Americas before Columbus.) Columbus was quickly followed by other Europeans searching for El Dorado, the golden city.
They never found El Dorado, but many Europeans became rich on the coerced, unpaid labour of enslaved Africans. 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.
Beginning with the Dutch, who colonized the Essequibo region when they established their first settlement on the Pomeroon River in 1581, Europeans exploited the native people who they unsuccessfully tried to enslave, then the Africans. The native people, 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 1616, Dutch traders established a trading post 25 kilometres 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. 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 to June 8, 1815) which was the official end to the European tribal warfare of that time. Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia met secretly to divide the spoils of Napoleon’s empire. In 1831, the British unified the three colonies to become British Guiana.
The Napoleonic Wars had seen various European tribes (Austrians, Belgians, British, Dutch, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, Prussians, Russians, Spanish, Swedes and Swiss) 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, the Africans drove the French out of Haiti and seized their freedom and independence on January 1, 1804.
The British continued the Dutch legacy of slavery in their new South American colony 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 the Africans.
Although they had been paid reparations for the loss of their “property”, the plantation owners who had benefitted 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 labour 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 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) elected leaders democratically 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 them 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, resulting in 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. The largest group of indentured labourers to go to British Guiana, first arriving on May 5, 1838, was South Asians from the Indian subcontinent. Originally from Calcutta, the majority of the indentured labourers were Hindu and 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.
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, which had its beginning when Josias Booker arrived in the colony (from Britain) to work as the manager of a cotton plantation in 1815, 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 and African labour. The Booker brothers (Josias, George and Richard) were part of this group who, between 1815 and 1834, bought plantations and established merchant trading houses in Liverpool to exploit the flourishing sugar and rum trade.
After establishing Booker Brothers & Co. in British Guiana, they bought their first transport ship, the Elizabeth, in 1835. In 1854, Josias Booker Jr. (eldest son of Josias Sr.) and John McConnell (who had worked as a clerk for the Bookers since 1846) created a new partnership, which they named the “Demerara Company”.
With the deaths of the remaining Booker Brothers – Josias Sr. in 1865 and George in 1866 – Josias Jr. and John McConnell assumed control of all the Booker properties, including the sugar plantations and trading companies in Britain and South America.
In his book, The Global Marketplace, Milton Moskowitz writes 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.
Today in the Guyana of the 21st century, independent for 47 years, the British exploiters have gone but it seems there is a new group. The news that has been coming out of Guyana recently speaks of companies like Bosai Minerals Group (China) and RUSAL Bauxite Inc. (Russia) exploiting the mineral wealth and the people of Guyana. As recently as April, 2013, a group of Amerindians were protesting their exploitation by RUSAL.
After 47 years, how independent is Guyana? What will the people of Guyana be celebrating on May 26, 2013?