Black History? African Heritage?

I was in my mid-twenties, a school teacher and reasonably conscious of our local politics when Forbes Burnham opted for a Republican Guyana in 1970.

After outmanoeuvring Cheddi Jagan, with now-proven external assistance and local surrogate interests, Burnham decided to end the British version of its monarchy in the four-year old politically-independent Guyana. He chose February 23 for the nation’s Republic Day. Why?

It is my earnest hope that our teachers and historians are using this month to introduce, or re-inforce, the wonderful intriguing story of  the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion to our nation’s young. I’m assuming that those teachers themselves know that portion of our history. That Rebellion, that virtual Revolution, would make young thinkers reflective, analytical, even proud and present day citizens would even appreciate why the nationalist, big-minded Cheddi Jagan actually agreed with the wily political tactician Forbes Burnham that February was most appropriate to locate our Republican date.

So to provoke the interest of both teachers and students – Two hundred and forty-six years after the event – I offer the following thumbnail sketch.

The 1763 Berbice Rebellion:

Eighteenth century slavery under the Dutch in their Guiana colony of Berbice – Guyana’s  eastern most county – was brutal on most of the plantations. The Dutch managers, overseers and “drivers” outdid themselves to make their slaves most “productive” – through the savagery of their punishments and penalties for real or perceived shortcomings of the oppressed Africans.

A breaking-point was imminent for months. Then, led by a House slave Kofi (Coffy), hundreds of slaves on plantations along the Rivers Canje and Berbice, staged aggressive, effective uprisings against their worst masters. The spontaneous “uprisings” evolved into a full-scale, month-long Rebellion Kofi (Coffy) assumed the status of (slave) Governor of  Berbice. As opposed to Holland’s Dutch Governor van Hoogenheim who reportedly, at the start of the 1763 February Rebellion, was actually considering some relief for the suffering slave population!

The angry slaves however exacted vengeance by burning down Plantation Great Houses, plundering store houses, raping some mistresses, assaulting others, taking hostages and beheading certain managers. Soon, they were in control of large swathes of riverside plantations. So that Kofi declared himself “Governor” demanding partition of the colony opting for the hinterland portions for the slaves.

But it did not last. Van Hoogenheim utilized strategic delays whilst maritime and military assistance arrived from Holland. Kofi took a white woman as his wife and secretary, as disease outbreaks, disagreements on strategies and between leaders from different tribes, premature attacks and general dissension all put paid to one of the then most sustained and ambitious revolts by enslaved people in that part of the world. Only Toussaint L’Overture’s revolution in Haiti was to surpass Kofi’s 1763 Rebellion.

That is why both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham had no difficulty in locating the attainment of Republican status in the month of February.

Why Republicanism? What For?

In the early fifties Cheddi Jagan had been persuaded to let the smart, young British-trained lawyer Forbes Burnham become the Chairman of the political mass party, the People’s Progressive Party. The rest is Guyanese political history.

Burnham became Jagan’s nemesis – sabotaging earlier strategies, exploiting the race card, collaborating with local capitalists and neo-colonialists, and then shrewdly manipulating British and American “Communist” fears to depose Jagan electorally for twenty-eight years, beginning at the end of 1964.

But even Jagan, the victim of rigged elections and other political violations, welcomed Burnham’s Republicanism of February 1970. Both leaders claimed that the four-year-old independent Guyana had to free itself from the British Queen as Head of State; from the British Privy Council being Guyana’s final legal arbiter; from all vestiges and symbols British, as well as assuming full control of the country’s national defence and economic management. Thus, in February 1970, new Constitutional arrangements, new songs and a new President ushered in even more “independence” for the young nation of Guyana. More imagined than real!

“Republican” Realities

For, thirty-nine years after – as a Republic still within the Commonwealth – that grouping of former British colonies – how has the Republic fared?

Honest Guyanese must admit: Republicanism and its consequences brought a once-proud, resource-rich, a Caribbean bread-basket and highly literate people, to its collective knees! And no current global crisis was or is the cause. Burnham’s corruption and denial of  the people’s will, inconsistent ineffective opposition, the Caribbean Community’s indifference to wrong doings in Guyana and yes, international economic challenges, all hobbled local productivity and production and scared off numerous overseas investors, except the few who ventured in for gold, bauxite and oil some day.

Political instability and the migration of hundreds of thousands of Guyanese brains and brawn to enrich other places were final nails in the Republic’s national coffin.

Post-1992 PPP’s resumption of office offered a lot but has delivered little. More freedoms -many now raped and exploited- were restored; civil rights and liberties re-established. But you can’t take those in the grocery or develop a country with ‘rights’ alone.

Corruption has been seemingly re-institutionalized, migration continues, both man-made and  natural disaster plague economic plans, much less “development” and the complete absence of  any political consensus, generate a sense of hopelessness in this 39th year of the Guyana Republic. So..?

Mash ’09: Celebrate? Observe…

Frankly Speaking, there is little to celebrate, but we deserve the therapy of observing the Republican milestone. Unlike so many others, we still manage to work, play, eat worship and live together despite various differences.

I see and hear diverse views about the Mashramani festival – the celebratory aspect of the Republic anniversary. Last year’s post-massacres festival was meant to be a “dress-rehearsal” for August’s Carifesta.

Carifesta in turn was meant to promote a grand “renaissance of culture” in Guyana. Amidst the floods and the economic challenges, is the renewal real?

Former Government Minister Dr. Henry Jeffrey recommends placing the festival within a European-type cultural conceptual framework which in turn addresses a most comprehensive cultural economic sector for national development.

The creole/folk proverb says “Doan criticize de food if you help stir de pot”. I’ll explain that next time, even as I wish you a pleasant Mashramani.

African History and Heritage

Apologies, but I’ll explore this theme, this issue, next Friday. Perhaps I missed it all but are there activities to celebrate the now-traditional “Black History” month this February?

All Africans are not actually “Black” how proud can those descended from the African continent be when today’s representatives seem to be under achievers, still “oppressed by Babylon?” What? You can be poor but justifiably proud? Since I agree with the latter, let’s discuss same next Friday.

*1) Customers are still being locked up for wrongfully parking outside the Georgetown Seawall night spot Celina’s? Why?

*2) New US President Obama’s “lucky-charm keepsakes” include a Hindu image!

*3) Support steelpan revival at the Georgetown C A Sports Hall tomorrow evening. Have a pleasant and safe Mashramani week-end.

‘Til Next Week!

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