By Estherine Adams
This is the second instalment in a series of articles which gives a brief overview of Eusi Kwayana’s involvement in national politics in British Guiana between 1950 and 1961. In the first article, I examined Kwayana’s rise to the national political arena, and his involvement in the original People’s Progressive Party (PPP) up to the 1953 elections. In this article, I will examine his stint as a minister of the government, from May 1953 until the suspension of the constitution and the party was put out of government in October 1953, after only 133 days.
On assuming office the PPP was in the strongest position ever achieved by a Guianese political organization. ‘For the first time in the history of Guiana most of those who spoke in the legislature on behalf of the people were genuine representatives of the people’. This was evident from the very first sitting of the legislature, when Sydney King, Mohamed Khan, Jane Phillips-Gay, Fred Bowman, Ram Karran and Jessie Burnham spoke out against colonialism and imperialism.
In the legislature the PPP had the numbers, but the British retained the power. The supposed superiority of numbers was merely ‘an empty gesture which emphasized the condition of Guianese’. The PPP leadership understood this, hence King’s statement in May 1953 that the PPP ministers were not ministers of government, but were members of the “People’s Opposition” who had moved into positions of strategic advantage in the House of Assembly and in the Executive Council.
Upon assuming office, the PPP Government realized its limitation in tackling the social and economic problems effectively. Nevertheless, “despite the setbacks and disadvantages, the Ministers did get down to work to improve the lot of the people…” In their manifesto under the heading ‘Communications’ the PPP had promised, among other things that “we shall immediately institute a thorough investigation into the working and administration of the Public Works Department and seek better control of expenditure in that department.” However, when King, as Minister of Communication and Works proposed to appoint a few committees to examine and report on certain aspects of the Public Works Department, and on the competition between bus, taxi and coach services on certain routes, he was never advised on the legal position of these committees and his own position as regards making the appointments, despite several requests.
Also as Minister, King secured the approval of the Finance Committee for an increase in the subsidy to the Wakenaam-Leguan Launch Service. He got the Committee to vote $460,000 for the construction of the East Bank Canje Road and $58,000, an additional amount required to cover the cost of the New Amsterdam end of the Berbice Road originally estimated to cost $120,000.
Departments as vast as the Public Works, Transport and Harbours and Telecommun-ications required careful handling. The Minister introduced a system of ‘democratic vigilance’ in the execution of all public works. The representatives of workers were to be consulted and given the opportunity to criticize and express views and suggestions on Government works, democratically review the plans from time to time, and take an interest in their execution within the scheduled time. With regard to the Telecommunications Department, he discovered that apparatuses that were the property of the Colony were on loan for a long time free of cost to a private commercial firm. He immediately ordered the return of the equipment to Government.
According to Ashton Chase in his pamphlet, 133 Days Towards Freedom in Guiana, “it was impracticable for the Ministry to inaugurate new schemes, but every assistance was given to the pushing ahead of sea defence works, irrigation and drainage schemes, roads under construction and railway and telephone rehabilitation.” The construction of a new house for the General Manager, Transport & Harbours Department, was stopped by this Minister. It was revealed that $2,225 spent on the building was charged to various heads so that a statement submitted by the General Manager to the Minister on 20 June  was in fact false. The Minister felt that the statement was much more than had come to light through an audit investigation ordered by him. “Departmental oversight”, the reason given for the inaccurate presentation of the facts, was discounted by the Minister who felt that the statement was so arranged in order to conceal from the Financial Authorities and him the true cost of the building.
Friday, 9th October, 1953, to some, will always be remembered as Black Friday. That was the day which ended the 133 days of the PPP in office under the Waddington Constitution. The people of British Guiana learned from a radio broadcast by Chief Secretary John Gutch that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) had seen it fit to dismiss the PPP Ministers and suspend the Constitution in order to prevent the possibility of a totalitarian regime, ‘Communist subversion of the Government and a dangerous crisis both in public order and in economic affairs.’
Gutch went on to say that “there is no doubt whatever that Dr. Jagan, Mrs. Jagan, Rory Westmaas and Sydney King, to name a few of the ring-leaders are closely associated with international communist organizations…” The Governor was instructed to declare a state of emergency, withdraw the portfolios of the Ministers and assume full control of the government.
The allegations made against the PPP suggested the need not only for preventative detention, but that criminal charges be brought against them. As such Cheddi Jagan was restricted to Georgetown and subsequently imprisoned for six months for leaving the city. Janet Jagan was given four three-month sentences for holding a meeting, for demonstrating, and for being in possession of “subversive” literature. Dr. J. P. Lachmansingh, Mohamed Khan, and Fred Bowman were jailed for being in possession of “subversive” literature, while Sydney King, Martin Carter, Rory Westmaas, Ajodah Singh, and Pandit Misir were imprisoned for demonstrating and for holding meetings.
Stung by criticisms that it had overreacted to events in British Guiana, the Colonial Office issued a “defensive” White Paper, which stated that the PPP Ministers had neglected “the true welfare of the Colony and threatened its progress as an orderly state.” The White Paper levelled eleven charges against the PPP Ministers. King was directly named in three of these charges.
The first charge was that they were guilty of the “Fomenting of strikes for political ends.” The White Paper concluded this charge by pointing to the escalation of the sugar strikes as a result of the activities of Minister Lachmansingh and King, and Deputy Speaker Janet Jagan.
The eighth charge argued that the PPP Ministers were guilty of a “Neglect of their administrative duties.” In dealing with this charge the White Paper was specific in the claim that: “In the case of the Minister of Works, who was responsible for drainage and irrigation, important issues had been left undealt with for several months.” It must be pointed out in relation to this charge that the Minister of Works, who was subjected to the brunt of the attack, had in early July informed the Chief Secretary about the inadequacy of his staff.
The eleventh charge lay in the claim that the PPP Ministers were guilty of “Threats of violence.” Supportive evidence pointed to Cheddi Jagan’s March 10, 1953 statement that the Guianese masses should, like the Mau Mau, climate the ‘stooges’ in their midst. Supportive evidence which sought to indicate that these statements were not mere bombast took the form of reference to the fact that the Minister of Works, King, had actually “encouraged a mob to rush the Legislature…”
Following the suspension of the constitution, the Robertson Commission, appointed on 2 December 1953, was set up to enquire into the suspension. It reached a definitive conclusion that some senior persons in the leadership of the PPP were communists: “On the evidence as a whole we have no doubt that there was a very powerful communist influence within the PPP. At the time of the election at least six of the Party’s most prominent leaders – specifically Dr. Jagan…, Mrs. Jagan…, Mr. Sydney King…, Mr. Rory Westmaas…, Mr. B. H. Benn and Mr. Martin Carter – accepted unreservedly the “classical” communist doctrines of Marx and Lenin, were enthusiastic supporters of the policies and practices of modern communist movements and were contemptuous of European social democratic parties including the British Labour Party.”
The Commission attempted to distinguish between the communists, led by the Jagans and included King, Carter, Westmaas and Benn, and the moderate democratic socialists led by Burnham, who did not toe the “party line.” The report of the Commission was followed by several appendices showing the communist links of the PPP leaders. There were quotations from Thunder and other PPP publications, plus a list of communist literature which had been distributed by the PPP. The suspension of the constitution postponed for a long time the development of responsible thought about the real economic and social problems of the country.