Most people would have found that 2012 was not a year to heal the national psyche or lift the mood. Stalemate on the political front; an unbelievable level of what is euphemistically called domestic violence; any number of other categories of murder plus armed robberies and the like; fatal accidents on our unsupervised roadways; a filthy capital which defied all efforts at a clean-up; clogged drains, choked waterways, defective pumps and the inevitable flooding; a chorus of noise nuisance complaints; lack of action against corruption – not to mention a host of other things major and minor which tried the patience and were vexatious to the spirit.
Unfortunately at this point in the season, 2013 does not give the appearance of offering the promise of anything much better, except, it may be said, on the cultural front. It is a year of anniversaries, and major ones, at that. It is an opportunity, therefore, for the weary public to focus on events outside the framework of our tiresome politics and reconnect with our forebears on whose shoulders we stand – to paraphrase an African saying. It will be the 250th anniversary of the Great Uprising of 1763, and the 175th anniversaries of Emancipation as well as Indian Arrival.
Despite the fact that at a very rudimentary level Guyanese history has been taught in the primary school system for decades, it has made little impact on the consciousness of pupils, who are limited to regurgitating a few historical snippets of often dubious accuracy for the purposes of the Social Studies paper in the Grade Six Assessment. It is an opportunity, therefore, for teachers to become acquainted with some information about the past that has a rather sounder foundation than much of what is repeated in the classroom, and for the Ministry of Education to review its outdated and sometimes inaccurate Social Studies syllabus.
For example, despite the fact that for nearly forty years now, it has been recognized that the Great Uprising did not begin on Plantation Magdalenenburg in Canje, but on the main Berbice River, the Magdalenenburg origin is still peddled in schools, in the media and in texts of one kind or another. There was indeed a rebellion on February 23, 1763, on Plantation Magdalenenburg, owned by the absentee Vernesobre family, but those rebels who were joined by 10 others from La Providence next door, ran off to the Corentyne the following day. When the party of sailors which Van Hoogenheim, the Governor of Berbice had sent to deal with them arrived, the Magdalenenburgers had already fled. They eventually had to confront an attack by the Caribs of the Corentyne, and were subsequently mostly killed by a combined Carib-European force sent by Governor Crommelin of Suriname.
It seems that the rising began on February 27 on the plantation of Hollandia, which was next door to Lelienburg where both Coffy and his army commander Accarra were based. There clearly was a conspiracy involved, although how long it had been in existence is not known. What does seem to be the case, however, is that the people of Hollandia acted prematurely, because they thought their plans had been betrayed, and Coffy himself appeared to suggest that he was angry that they started. After they did so, however, they went and collected Coffy and Accarra and the uprising got officially under way.
Most Guyanese are not aware of just how significant the events of 1763 were in terms of Caribbean revolts of the period; it was, in some respects, a harbinger of the Haitian revolution. First of all, it lasted for more than a year, largely because of its professional military character whereby not just European weaponry but also European battle tactics were employed. While the major battles ended in defeats, they were a long way from being humiliating defeats. Second, and most important, it is the first time that an enslaved group dreamed of setting up a political arrangement close to what we would regard as fulfilling the qualifications for a state. There are many examples of maroon groups in the region whose territory was given recognition by the colonial authorities, but Coffy’s idea was not a maroon-style existence, but some kind of formal economy where certain plantations were kept in operation, and trade in their produce was carried on with the Dutch. It was something which was actually attempted by Toussaint L’Ouverture thirty years later, who sent the former slaves back to the plantations, paying them a small wage.
When Emancipation came in 1838, a different colonial power was in charge, and the lead-up to it was part of a different sequence of events. However, that sequence was premised on the action of all those held in bondage over the centuries who had rebelled in a quest for freedom. As it is, Emancipation marks the great divide in the history of this country; despite the discrimination against the newly freed Creoles, and the stymieing of their economic ventures in a variety of ways, there is no comparison between the society which went before and that which came after. It still left enough space for a measure of self-expression, which became more pronounced with the spread of education. Most of all, of course, it introduced entirely new ethnic and cultural groups into the community which formed the basis for the Guyana we know today.
The largest of these by far were Indians from the sub-continent, who arrived under the indentureship system, another form of bondage, albeit of a temporary character. That did not end until 1917, when all the inhabitants of this country were technically, ‘free’, although since it was a colonial context, not all enjoying the same rights and privileges.
In the 1980s, Guyana mounted a series of observances beginning with the 150th anniversary of the Abolition Act in 1984, and culminating in two major conferences first for the Indians and then the Africans in 1988. While the conferences concentrated on those two groups, all the people who came here were celebrated at some point or another over the four-year period. It required a large-scale organizational effort, attracting as it did academics from India, the Caribbean and other places. Furthermore, for once, politics took a back seat, and the PPP, at that time the major opposition party, also gave support to the efforts.
Clearly nothing on that scale can be planned for the current anniversary, if only because there is simply not enough time. However one would hope that whatever is decided as constituting appropriate recognition of the three anniversaries, the politicians once again will put aside their differences and contribute to the celebration of our shared heritage. It is an opportunity to learn more about another group, and achieve greater understanding of the path we all took to reach the present. Each group has contributed to Guyana’s evolution, and it is an opportunity for all of us to appreciate the historical experiences of others.
And as for the politicians, one does not hold out too much hope that three anniversaries will bring an epiphany for them, but still, for the duration they may be persuaded of the inappropriateness of the usual diatribe and give the nation a little break. And where the government is concerned, it really needs to reconsider with some urgency the resiting of the 1823 monument. That it committed itself to a spot on which all were agreed twelve years ago, and now has embarked on erecting the monument by the seawall, says a great deal about its defective historical memory – and, it must be admitted, that of this editorial column too where this matter is concerned.
As we move into a year in which both Indian and African ancestors will be remembered, the government should not start off on a discordant note. Turn the area near Carifesta Avenue into a liming spot, or small garden, or something of that ilk, and reassure the African cultural groups that the memorial to 1823 will be located at Independence Park where it was originally intended to be sited. While everyone’s ancestors should be respected, they are all due especial veneration in the coming year.