The Road to Independence

The independent state of Guyana was forged in the crucible of contention. It was in 1946 that Dr Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet, along with Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase formed the Political Affairs Committee, and it was out of the PAC that the first mass-based nationalist party in what was then British Guiana emerged in 1950 – the People’s Progressive Party. Three years later, there was a new constitution in place which introduced universal suffrage for the first time and made possible internal self-government, and in the election which followed in April 1953, the newly formed PPP won with a handsome majority. The party’s supporters reflected the multi-ethnicity of the society, but more importantly included the colony’s two largest groups, the Indians and the Africans. The Leader of the PPP was Cheddi Jagan, while Forbes Burnham was its chairman. The secretary was Janet Jagan.

Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan boarding British Guiana Airways Ltd
Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan boarding British Guiana Airways Ltd

The tenor of the new administration was decidedly left-wing, and this coupled with the fact that the Jagans and some other senior party members were seen as being of a communist persuasion did nothing to endear the PPP government to the Colonial Office. In a Cold War environment, with Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister, the new government was not destined to last long, and in a matter of months the constitution had been suspended and all democratic advances abandoned. Thus in October 1953 British Guiana was returned to government by the Governor, which at the same time thwarted any progress on the independence front.

By 1957, the British were obliged to return to a democratic format, albeit within a more limited governmental framework, and in an election held that year, Cheddi Jagan’s PPP won a majority again. However, this was no longer the same party which had won the 1953 election; the PPP had split in 1955, the breakaway faction being led by Forbes Burnham, who took many of the African members with him. After his section of the party lost the 1957 poll, Burnham formed the People’s National Congress, and it is within the context of this split that the country’s subsequent fraught steps in the direction of independence were taken.

The 1960 Constitutional Conference

The first formal discussions relating to independence took place in London in 1960 under the chairmanship of Colonial Secretary Iain McLeod. Dr Jagan led the PPP delegation comprising Brindley Benn and Balram Singh Rai, while the opposition PNC was represented by Burnham and W O R Kendall. Jai Narine Singh attended on behalf of the Independence Movement, and there were also two nominated members of the Legislative Council in attendance.

All of them were interested in moving towards independence, but not in quite the same way. The PPP wanted independence in 1961, while Jai Narine Singh asked for independence outside the Commonwealth. Burnham’s position was a little more complex; he argued for full internal self-government straight away, with independence as part of the West Indies Federation.  However, the PPP had already declined to join the Federation when it was formed in 1958, and said that the country could always join the Federation after independence.

There were various other issues dividing the parties, but where the substantive matter of independence itself was concerned, McLeod effectively rejected the PPP position by announcing there would be internal self-government on the basis of a new constitution to come into effect in August 1961.

By the time of the 1961 election, there was a new party in the mix, the United Force, led by businessman Peter D’Aguiar. In addition to support from the Portuguese community and big businessmen, it also attracted Amerindians to its fold. As for the PNC, by this point, in concert with the other parties, Burnham too was campaigning for independence directly.  In the end, the PPP won another solid victory in a constituency, or first-past-the-post electoral system.

1962 and 1963 Constitutional Conferences

Before the 1962 conference was held (it was postponed more than once) disturbances had broken out. The ethnic divide which now had been given political expression was the fuel for the troubles, which continued until 1964. US anxiety about independence being granted to what Washington saw as a communist government, caused it to put pressure on the British to prevent this outcome, while certain of its agencies interfered in the local situation.

This time the conference was chaired by the new Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys, but there was no bridging of the gap between the PPP government and the opposition. The PNC and UF wanted elections held before independence, while the PPP wanted immediate independence.  The voting age and electoral system were also bones of contention, and had been raised at earlier conferences. Not surprisingly, the encounter ended with no agreement.

The parties reconvened in 1963, with positions unchanged, although this time, with independence further away on the horizon than ever, all sides eventually signed on to putting the decision in the hands of Sandys. What the Colonial Secretary decided was regarded as a betrayal by the PPP, because he resolved to concede everything to the opposition, and nothing to the government.  Before independence was granted, an election was to be held under a proportional representation (PR) system, rather than the existing constituency one which Jagan preferred; while the voting age was to remain at 21, as opposed to 18 which the PPP had argued for.

1964 elections; 1965 Constitutional Conference

In the elections of 1964, the PPP won a plurality of the votes; however, a coalition eventually forged between the PNC and the UF gave them the overall majority, and so Burnham became the new premier with D’Aguiar as his finance minister.

The final Constitutional Conference took place in November 1965, and it was there that the date for independence was set – May 26, 1966. The PPP did not send a delegation because among other things, it wanted the state of emergency lifted first, but this was not done. This conference was chaired by Anthony Greenwood, the British Minister for Overseas Development, members of the PNC and UF, Sir Richard Luyt (the governor), David Rose, the then advisor to the Governor on Defence, Lionel Luckhoo and Sonny Ramphal, the Attorney-General. According to Hamilton Green, who was one of those who attended, “There was no historical significance to May 26. Burnham wanted Independence to be in February because of the historical February slave rebellion, and D’Aguiar wanted August since it was August (of 1834) that the British granted emancipation. May was the middle ground between the two months, a compromise.

The motto of One People, One Nation, One Destiny had been approved by Brindley Benn as far back as 1958, while the flag was the winning design of an American vexillologist, Whitney Smith. A decision on the National Anthem was longer in the making, both in terms of the words and the music, but at the end of a competitive process the words written by Rev Archibald Luker were chosen with music by Cyril G Potter. The name Guyana had been decided on as far back as 1962.

The Independence celebrations continued for a week, with a pageant, float parade, cultural performances, parties, fireworks and all the various ceremonies. The high point was the lowering of the British flag at midnight on May 25, and the raising of the Golden Arrowhead, and in a different sense, by the famous hug between Jagan and Burnham.

The political formalities followed on May 26 when the Duke of Kent, representing the Queen, read a speech on her behalf, following which he handed over the constitutional instruments whereby Guyana was recognized as an independent nation, to Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.


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