Beterverwagting (Baron) is one of our villages whose history is laced with legends, among which the win by the 8th of May Movement (8MM) at the recent local government elections will certainly takes its place. The fact that against the odds that group was able to make itself a force in local politics confirms my belief that there is a substantial streak of independence within the Baronian character which suggests to villagers that they must take a stand even in turbulent conditions if they are to live satisfactory lives.
Take for example, the first villagers suing the governor when he prevented them from purchasing what is now Triumph, the travails of Balram Singh Rai as he struggled against the ruling oligarchs in the PPP, and former Minister of Education Ceceline Baird, who fearlessly took on the PNC founder leader when necessary. In more modern times, we have seen in play the challenging nature of Paul Slowe and the doggedness of Adam Harris.
At the local government elections, 8MM took 12 (it claims 13 since the leader of its youth group, 19 year old Jimmaul Bagot, won as an independent) of the 18 available Beterverwagting/Triumph Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) seats, with the PPP/C taking the remaining 5. Given the drubbing the traditional parties gave to independent groups and individuals who contested the elections, it might seem to the outsider that the PNCR must have deliberately stood aside in favour of 8MM, but as the chairman of the group and now the NDC, Mr. Leyland Harcourt, tells it, nothing could be further from the truth.
In brief, what appears to be at the heart of the rise of this community group is the awareness that villagers were not comfortable with the traditional PNC operatives, who they believed were not operating in the interest of the village. According to Harcourt, who is also a Muslim Imam and village historian and was until the 2011 elections a regional councilor for the PNC, once they decided to run independently and rejected the approaches and cajoling of the PNC for them to stand down, the game was up for the PNC, who quickly recognised that to take a beating at the hands of community group could have lasting political consequences. It would appear that the major problem for the PNC was that many of the members of 8MM were its core activists!
Beterverwagting/Triumph is a multi-ethnic NDC: Africans are dominant in Beterverwagting while Indians comprise about 60% of the population of Triumph. The NDC has an area of 1,487 acres (BV 488/Triumph 999) and its history is mythical. Native son Justice Prem Persaud has told us that it has all the ingredients of a bestselling book or movie (http:// landofsixpeoples.com/news 402/nc4050913.htm), but here I relate only a small part of the story, which I hope will indicate the historical depth of the independent streak mentioned above.
On Sunday, 8 May 2016, I was invited by 8MM to a thanksgiving service at the Beterverwagting Holder’s AME Zion church in celebration of the 177th anniversary of the formation of the village on the morning of 8 May 1839. Harcourt told the story that began when not long after emancipation, 62 ex-slaves heard that the last Dutch planter in the colony, Baron von Gronigen, had decided to migrate to Holland and would be selling the BV plantation. The slaves decided to pool some of the earnings they would have acquired during the emancipation period (1834-38) to purchase the property. According to folklore, the former slaves gave their savings to one trusted villager who hid them in a hole at the bottom of a Tamarind tree and on the fateful day wheeled the princely sum of $52,000 dollars in a barrow to the good baron.
It is said that von Gronigen was less cruel than the other planters, thus although the name Beterverwagting – ‘better expectations’ – was already in place, the new owners named the plantation Baron in honour of von Gronigen.
The story of the purchase of Triumph about three years later is also colourful. John Clarke, a friend of von Gronigen, owned the plantation immediately east of Baron, which was then acquired by one Lambert Christian, who wanted to name it Plaisance Profitt, but as plantation Plaisance (where the current village is) was already in existence, the name Triumph was given.
Christian ran into financial problems and so Triumph was put up for sale for $48,000. Again, the people of Baron came together, quickly pooled their resources, which amounted to $20,000, and made an agreement to pay the remaining $28,000 within 90 days. On this occasion, however, they were thwarted as the central government stepped in, squashed the sale and paid the required sum in cash.
The villagers resisted with the aid of the owners of The Creole, the local newspaper, who thought that the attempt by the villagers to be self-reliant was being stymied, and a resident planter. They took the government was taken to court but then as now, the files kept disappearing and nothing ever came of the matter.
I remember the village precisely as Justice Persaud has portrayed it, having been born and spent my childhood not a hundred yards from a bustling village market that attracted customers from far and wide and ‘was perhaps the busiest place in Guyana on Saturdays’(Ibid.).
The demise of the market demonstrated in no uncertain terms the pernicious nature of racial confrontation. East Indians formed the majority of the merchants in the market but the racial confrontations of the fifties and sixties drove many of them out of BV/Triumph. They moved with their wares to Mon Repos Public road and the latter is now perhaps the busiest market on the East Coast on Saturdays, while the BV/Triumph market is nothing but rubble.
In the local government elections, traditional supporters voted solidly for the PPP while the PNC supporters went with 8MM. This situation is indicative of both the existence and non-existence of the so-called ethnic security dilemma. The PPP’s electioneering for the 2015 national elections, its loss of government and the general political atmosphere since those elections have heightened ethnic fear among Indians. On the other hand, the coming to government of a coalition led by the PNC has reduced that fear among Africans, and this, coupled with a context in which supporting the PNC or 8MM presented no risk of Indian ethnic dominance is indicative of the willingness of citizens to migrate from the traditional parties when ethnic voting has little or no value. It is perhaps also suggestive of how we should seek to organise our constituencies in future electoral reform.
Apart from the core concerns of village councils – garbage, sanitation, drainage road repairs, etc. – 8MM is developing a 20/30 Development Plan, which will focus on youth employment and poverty alleviation. Mr. Harcourt speaks of developing the backlands, youth skills and entrepreneurial training and the like. Whatever 8MM does, its focus will have to also be on local political cohesion, for it has hardly taken office and there are already predictions coming from the PNC old guards of its impending doom!