Alissa Trotz teaches at the University of Toronto and is the editor of the In the Diaspora column
How many times have we seen the coat of arms without really understanding what it stands for? Or without knowing how it came to be? Speaking with Stanley Greaves this week, one learns that in fact there was a competition for the flag and coat of arms. As Greaves remembers it “I entered the competition, and you had any number of artists, so that what you are seeing is a composite where elements were taken from different artists and put together. My contribution was the two jaguars holding up the shield, but without the pick and the plant (representing mining and rice). Those were added. The wavy lines in the shield that represent the waters of Guyana and the national lily Victoria Amazonica were added by the painter E.R. Burrowes (founder of the first Guyanese art institution, the Working People’s Art Class, in the 1940s). The scroll with the motto – one people, one nation, one destiny – was designed by Compton Parris. The composite design came from the Institute of Heraldry in the UK, they are the ones who said the helm must be on the shield as it was a requirement for the coat of arms of all Commonwealth countries. When Guyana became a republic, the cacique crown was superimposed on top.”
Greaves’ original design had featured the cock of the rock, but someone pointed out that it was the national bird of New Guinea so the Canje pheasant, also known as the hoatzin, was placed at the bottom of the shield instead. For Greaves, the kiskadee would also have been a good choice, since according to him its character is very Guyanese; a bird found in country and city, that lives within the community and establishes its presence with its voice.
There is another Guyana independence story, this one from Robert Hill, who in 1966 was a Jamaican student at the University of Toronto in Canada. Now Research Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, Editor in Chief of the multivolume edition of The Marcus Garvey & Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, and Literary Executor of the Estate of C. L. R. James, Professor Hill offered the following memory: “When Guyana was becoming independent, I got a letter from George Lamming, the Barbadian writer. Lamming wrote me and said that himself and Lloyd Best, Trinidadian economist, had decided to bring out a special expanded issue of New World to commemorate Guyana’s independence. Now the New World was a very important journal that originally began in Guyana, I think in 1963, to try to address the question of ethnic and political violence in Guyana. And George said to me, we have a big issue lined up but it requires you and the people in Canada to help. And here is what he said. He said, in order to go forward, we need a guarantee that you can provide us with five hundred dollars. And at the time it was a lot of money, but that’s not something you debate about. George has written to say you have to assure us that you can get us 500 dollars otherwise we can’t print the issue. So, I said yes, I will guarantee that. It is a landmark issue, a landmark event in the field of Caribbean thought. He said I will ship you in return something like 200 copies of the journal. When the package arrived that day with the issues, I took them to a house where the West Indian students would meet, and we started selling. I took those issues to any fete where West Indians were going to be gathered and I said come now, you have to read this. We held special Sunday events where we had a cook-up and we sold those issues. We here in Canada basically provided the subsidy that was requested and that was required for the special Guyana issue. To me, I loved that. It taught me that there were things that I could do, there were things that we together here could do, here in Canada, working with the brethren and sistren inside the Caribbean. When all these events took place we never thought of ourselves as Canada or as belonging to a Canadian sort of domain; we always thought transnationally. But the point is, looking at it from the distance of today, those things might look challenging. They weren’t challenging to us, they were just another day and that’s what we were about, we were about building ourselves, equipping ourselves, though we didn’t think we were, but that’s what in effect it amounted to. We were learning how to become citizens of our world by doing, by engaging. Canada didn’t know what it had gotten in this group of Caribbean people that had come into Canada, from the domestics to the agricultural ticket workers to the students. The Caribbean was in a state of becoming and we were simply part of that. And you did what you could, and at the end of the day, did it amount to anything? I think it did. But it’s not something that we, at the time, kept examining. We just, every day, we did what we were going to do. In other words, you did what you had to do because it was for a cause, it was for a goal, it was for the Caribbean.”
Two years later, in 1968. Robert Hill attended and spoke at the historic Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, where he presented with Walter Rodney, who was then teaching at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Campus in Jamaica. Upon his return, Rodney was banned from returning to the island, a move by the Hugh Shearer government that would lead to protests and feed directly into Black Power movements across the Caribbean.
Robert Hill’s recollection speaks to a deep and wide sense of regionalism that existed across the pre-independence Caribbean (we might well reflect on the irony that today, across a Caribbean that is predominantly politically independent, and where regional integration is institutionalised, we seem to be more insular and narrow minded than ever). Both Guyana and Barbados raised their flags in 1966, four years after Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and on the heels of a vast wave of anti-colonial movements that had swept the Global South.
The 1966 New World Special Issue that marks Guyana’s independence is truly a remarkable collection. It was edited by Martin Carter and George Lamming, with a foreword from the new Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and an opening excerpt from Cheddi Jagan’s The West on Trial which had not yet been published. There is an essay by Walter Rodney, Masses in Action, that considers the pre 1953 political landscape, and a superb contribution from Sydney King (now Eusi Kwayana) that makes a convincing case for the 1763 Berbice slave rebellion to be given the kind of treatment accorded the Haitian Revolution by CLR James. Deeply attentive to the wider regional context in which Guyanese struggles were given meaning, the issue ranges from essays through prose and poetry, and with contributors drawn beyond the English-speaking Caribbean. Remarkably to us now, there is not a single woman included in its pages, reminding us always of the unfinished business of liberation, and that the birth of a new nation was already positioning people at its margins. Looking back at that issue 50 years later, one recognises in its pages not just the celebration but the repeated cautions about the distortions that could come if independence did not guarantee transformation; the inclusion of Martinican psychiatrist and writer Franz Fanon who warns of the dangers of neo-colonialism (As Lloyd Best warned even in the midst of the heady days of the 1960s, would independence really come to mean an ex-change, again and again, again and again, and not a real change, what the late Jamaican economist Norman Girvan pointedly referred to on Jamaica’s own 50th anniversary celebrations, as In-Dependence?), and a reflection by the Trinidadian man of letters CLR James that closes with the lines “Colonialism versus independence, slavery versus freedom, that is still the issue.”
Stanley Greaves’ memories share with Hill the sense of community – a shield that sought to represent all of Guyana and all Guyanese, and that manifested the creative labour of many. If in the independence New World issue, Martin Carter’s included essay, a Question of self-contempt, would remind us of the importance of psychic decolonisation to rid ourselves of what he described as ‘spiritual parasitism at work in the groin of the land’, Greaves’ modest reflection, the lack of significance he gave to his contribution relative to others (in other words, it is a composite whose individual elements are not recognisable outside of their connection to others) speaks clearly to us of the importance of the sovereignty of the imagination, that wonderful term gifted to us by Barbadian novelist and co-editor of the Guyana issue, George Lamming.
The 1960s represented a time of immense excitement, of new and seemingly endless possibilities. Those were the dreams of an independence generation, grizzled now, that we were one people, one nation, one destiny. That in Trinidad, every creed and race would find an equal place. That in Jamaica, out of many, we would be one people. Our mottos were aspirational, inviting us to believe, beckoning us to put our shoulders to the wheel to make them a reality. Fifty years later, what did the raising of the Golden Arrowhead at midnight represent? From bondage to freedom? Or, as Martin Carter entreats, “Show me a little freedom, different from this”.