It is convenient, but properly justified by theme, form and history, to define Guyanese Literature into a number of periods starting from its early beginnings. The two large divisions generally used and acknowledged by scholars are Guyanese Pre-Independence and Post-Indepen-dence Literature. But there are many significant sub-divisions to be recognised within those two eras.

We continue the broad theme of Independence, considering Guyana’s very recent celebration of 49 years as a nation on May 26 last, and in anticipation of the greater commemoration of 50 years to come in 2016. We introduced ways of considering a national literature (Arts On Sunday, May 31, 2015), followed last week by the question of what constitutes Guyanese Art. A study of the large corpus of paintings, drawings, and sculpture has also been approached according to Pre- and Post-Independence, although a few finer sub-divisions are possible. We take this opportunity to further consider Guyanese Pre-Independence Literature.

al creightonWithin the two broadly accepted periods the following may be usefully considered. First there is the Period of Oral Literature before European settlement and colonisation, followed by the Colonial Period which technically/historically ended in 1966. But it was a lengthy age with many changes, particularly the birth of Modern Guianese Literature in 1889, and the rise of the early Age of Nationalism in the 1940s.

The period of Oral Literature may be more commonly known as the Pre-Columbian Period, or the Pre-Colonial. This was what obtained before the arrival of the Columbus and the Spaniards, and colonial settlement by the Dutch. Oral literature existed among the Amerindians mainly in the form of myths, folk tales and speech acts from traditional rituals. These included creation myths, myths of origin, tales involving spiritual beliefs, animism and animal tales that existed in a non-literate culture, which were orally transmitted from one generation to the next and were not written down by the people who told them. They were documented in a later period.

There are creation myths that have survived with versions of how the world was created, how the first people came on earth, the origins of the Caribs and of the Arawak nation. There were myths of origin explaining how many things in nature came into being, containing explanations of how the people coped with their environment or attempted to understand and explain cosmology and the often hostile environment around them. These included tales of animals and how they came to develop certain characteristics. Some tales are heroic and some humorous, including animal folk or culture heroes and tales in the trickster tradition. Others reflect the spiritual beliefs of the people. While it can never be properly said when these came into existence, since most of them were written down and documented in the nineteenth century, they belong to oral literature, a product of the Pre-Columbian society.

Guyanese literature then, originated there. However, the written, literary variety of the nation’s literature originated with the work of a visitor who was never a resident in the colony of British Guiana but wrote the first publication that gave rise to Guianese writing. The title of that founding document is lengthy and euphuistic according to a common practice for recording titles in English that remained for many centuries, and its style of writing is as Lilian as the exorbitant claims made by its author about the wealth of Guiana.

The first piece of published Guyanese literature is The Discoverie of the Large Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado and the Provinces of Emeria, Aromaia, Amapaia and other countries with their rivers adjoining performed in the year 1595 by Sir Walter Ralegh, Captain of Her Majesty’s Guard, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Her Majesty’s Lieutenant General of the County of Cornwall.

Thankfully, it has come to be known simply as The Discovery of Guiana (1596) by Sir Walter Ralegh. There has often been a conflict with the spelling of his name, which most will know as Raleigh. But the original document has the shorter spelling and the claim is that Sir Walter always wrote his name and signed as Ralegh.

Untitled (Couple in Embrace)  1992 – Omawale Lumumba
Untitled (Couple in Embrace)
1992 – Omawale Lumumba

It is not only the timing of The Discoverie of Guiana that gives it its place in the national literature, it is its contents and its heritage. It contains details of the Elizabethan courtier’s voyage to South America and Trinidad and most importantly details of the City of Gold, Manoa on Lake Paraima somewhere in Guiana’s interior and set off the search for El Dorado. The quest for gold was a driving force in Elizabethan times, the reign of King James I and long after. It fuelled colonialism and slavery and inspired myths and themes in Guyanese literature that have inexhaustibly inflamed the imagination ever since. It truly gave rise to Guyanese literature.

The colonial periods of the Dutch and the English are dominated by the several chronicles of visiting explorers, geographers, botanists, naturalists, anthropologists and colonial administrators. The nineteenth century is rich in the contribution of writers like those, many of whom defined the colony and helped to create its literature in the colonial period. One of them even enlarged the work and reputation of Ralegh, keeping it even more alive in the nineteenth century. This work by Sir Richard Schomburgk stays well within the ancient tradition of circumlocutious titles.

He published The Discoverie of the Large Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado and the Provinces of Emeria, Aromaia, Amapaia and other countries with their rivers adjoining performed in the year 1595 by Sir Walter Ralegh, reprinted from the edition of 1596, with some unpublished documents relative to that country, edited with copious explanatory notes and a biographical memoir by Sir Robert Schomburgk, PhD Knight of the Royal Prussian Order of the Red Eagle of the Royal Saxon Order of Merit, of the French Order of the Legion of Merit. It was “published by the Hakluyt Society, London, M.DCCC, XLVIII (1848).” Even these publishers are in full relevance here, named in honour of a contemporary of Ralegh, Richard Hakluyt, a great promoter of English settlement of North America through his works such as Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (1582). He is included as an Elizabethan prose writer whose work is a part of English literature of the C16th.

Just as Schomburgk, among his other writings, harked back to the Elizabethan beginnings of Guianese literature, other colonial writers created a great volume of work focused on the output of the Pre-colonial period. They were the ones who documented the myths, legends, folklore and spiritual beliefs of the Amerindians to contribute to the weighty corpus of tales and traditions in C19th colonial Guianese literature. Rev William H Brett collected and recorded Legends and Myths Of The Aboriginal Indians Of British Guiana (1880), along with Mission Work Among The Indian Tribes In The Forests Of Guiana (1881) during his time as an English missionary in British Guiana.

This was the dominant quality of the literature of this period to which many others contributed. These include Barrington Brown’s Canoe and Camp Life in British Guiana (1876). Everard im Thurn, apart from being a scientist, was a colonial administrator in BG, and a writer. If Ralegh and Schomburgk are to be deemed long-winded, then consider the following from im Thurn’s contribution to the literature. The Botany Of Roraima Expedition of 1884: being notes on the plants observed; with a list of the species collected, and determinations of those that are new (1887) followed by Among The Indians Of Guiana: Being Sketches, Chiefly Anthropologic, From The Interior Of British Guiana etc. which includes detailed observations of the Pemon Indians of Venezuela.

Other contributors include William Hillhouse an Englishman who took up residence among the Amerindians, whose rights he championed against the colonial government, and wrote Indian Notices (1825), which was to be edited and reprinted by contemporary scholar Mary Noel Menezes. Indeed, these writings carried over into the twentieth century through the work of another British anthropologist Walter E Roth who also worked as an administrator in BG and published An Inquiry Into the Animism and Folklore of the Guiana Indians (1915).

Even among the poets of the nineteenth century, the literature was heavily colonial in quality. One major poet wrote in both the era of slavery and the Post-Emancipation period. Francis Williams, a free Black, was educated in England, where he was sent by missionaries, and was one of the best known poets, and perhaps the first black Guyanese poet. Yet even his sonnet in celebration of Emancipation in 1838 was more in praise of colonial rulers and the Empire than it was in solidarity with the end of slavery.

This Age of Colonial Guyanese literature changed in the 1880s with a young poet who wrote under the name of Leo. Egbert Martin (his real name) holds the distinction of being the first native West Indian to publish

collections of poetry and fiction. With his Collected Poems, Leo’s Poetical Works (1883) and Leo’s Local Lyrics (1886), as well as his book of short stories, Scriptology, (1885), Leo was the founder of Modern Guyanese Literature.


Note: The photograph used with last Sunday’s Arts column ‘Guyanese Art,’ was not of a piece by Winston Strick as named in the caption. It was in fact the prize-winning piece in the Guyana Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition, 1989: “Massasekeree” (1989) by Oswald Hussein. Since neither Massasekeree nor Woman, Strick’s piece that was referenced in last week’s caption are in this year’s Independence exhibition, ‘Abstract Art in the National Collection’ below is a piece from this year’s offering.

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