I remember the arresting sight of this tall, slim, bearded man coming into class to teach us high school biology in a khaki bush jacket. Later, when I learned that he had gone to university in Scotland, I was puzzled trying to figure out how he acquired his elegant BBC English accent. For this and other reasons many of us teenagers found Josh Ramsammy to be a combination of enigma and inspiration at the same time. After the dark days of Guyana’s 1953 oppression this young man represented a welcome challenge to the establishment, particularly as represented by our English headmaster and some of his less qualified foreign staff at Queen’s College.
Josh wore a white version of his bush jacket for dress-up occasions such as Speech Day. I recall one less conscious teacher referring to it derisively as “formal jungle dress”. Josh’s dress preference, his bearded face, different accent and imposing height might have given some students the impression of an aloof teacher who was to be feared. In reality Josh was not only an excellent teacher but a kind and considerate person who was a mentor in the class room and on the cricket field. I am eternally grateful for Josh’s nurturing that brought me success in “A-level Botany” after only three years as a science student. He was one who contributed significantly to the ethos of Queen’s College. Our alma mater seems to have lost this ethos along the way as Guyana’s wider society was taken to the depths of incivility.
After leaving Guyana for university, I lost touch with Josh but was happy to “catch up” with him again in 1968 when Harry Drayton recruited us to teach in the University of Guyana’s biology department which he headed. Upon arriving at UG, I linked up with radical colleagues such as Harry Drayton, Maurice Odle, an old school friend, and Bill Carr a radical Englishman. We enlarged the staff association to include the so-called junior (non-academic) staff and had it registered as a trade union. Josh was a natural fit to join the leadership of this movement. Because of my esteem for Josh, I also invited him to join a small discussion that later morphed into the Ratoon Group. Earlier I had convened a meeting with two close friends, Maurice Odle and Andaiye, to discuss forming an activist movement along the lines of Jamaica’s Abeng. At the second meeting, we reached consensus on three important issues.
First, because we three Afro-Guyanese were conscious of the racial divisiveness tearing at the fabric of our society, we felt our meetings should deliberately embrace progressives of other ethnicities.
Second, we decided to expand our activities beyond the university. And third, we agreed that before engaging in the normal intellectual pursuit of publication we would engage in community work out of which the strategies and tools of the movement should emerge. So we invited Josh to our third meeting. Soon after, Clive Thomas was banned from Jamaica. He returned home, joined our group and persuaded us that we needed to publish a paper to advance the movement. He became the leader and suggested we call it “Ratoon” to symbolize the way in which the movement, like the sugar cane plant, would survive by spontaneously sprouting new shoots with every attempt to cut it down.
When the UG Staff Association, of which I became President, joined with the Ratoon Group, ASCRIA and IPRA to form the precursor of the Working People’s Alliance, Josh was a willing and tireless worker among the leadership. Others will chronicle his significant political contribution to Guyana, which early on provoked the establishment to attempt to assassinate him in October 1971. My small contribution is this more personal remembrance of a worthy son of Guyana. I remember one evening while we were having refreshments at the UG staff bar, someone got on Josh’s wrong side and he uttered a statement that caused much laughter. Josh’s retort was, “I am a man of great equanimity but when you rile up the Madras blood in me, look out.” In reality, Josh was one of the kindest persons I’ve known and his Madras blood really only got “riled up” when he encountered exploitation of the disadvantaged. This made him a very political animal and earned him my admiration and respect. Josh’s passing is sad but our memories of him and his contribution should be an inspiration to the young and a comfort for his family and friends still above ground.