One has the impression that the public’s familiarity with the history of this country is not as great as it used to be – all except the period since the Second World War, that is. Those seven decades are subject to endless recitation, at least one version of which forms the premise on which a whole political creed has been constructed. In contrast, a certain vagueness attends the period before that, and confrontational debates are on occasion prosecuted on the basis of some very dubious historical data.
The most recent pseudo-historical debate being carried on in the letters column of this newspaper relates to African land claims as reparations for injustice, and in part sets the Amerindians against the Africans in terms of who was here first and when, and how that relates to entitlement. However, the case for African land here does not depend on some of the ‘history’ which has been summoned in its defence, and what follows below has no bearing on the substantive issue of ‘land rights’ at all; it is about history per se.
Of course it is true, as Mr Eric Phillips pointed out in his letter to this newspaper published on Friday, that the cradle of humankind is in Africa, and everyone on this Earth, of whatever race and from whichever continent, is descended from the early African ancestors. It is also true that a number of groups are thought to have landed at one or another point in the Americas before Columbus, including Africans (in the modern sense), Chinese, Vikings and others; none of them, however, as far as we know, was ever domiciled anywhere within our present 83,000 square miles.
It is equally the case, as Mr Phillips also related, that the skeleton of a woman found in south central Brazil in 1975 (she did not begin to be studied until 1995), was dated to 11,500 years ago, before the ancestors of the modern Amerindians are believed to have started arriving in the Americas. What has attracted attention is that the scientists have said that she did not have “Mongoloid” features, but “Negroid” ones. After years of study, most of them are of the view that she was of south-east Asian origin, possibly “Australoid”; she was not African in the modern sense of that term.
However, Luzia and her people, while fascinating, also do not have much bearing on the land space which is now Guyana, and which was settled many thousands of years ago by the northern Asians, ie, the ancestors of the modern Amerindians – not by south-east Asians. In addition, it is impossible to associate modern nations with any specific people who came thousands of years ago, with the arguable exception of the Warraus in the North West. As far as the nations referred to in the historical record from the beginning of the colonial era are concerned, there were some living here at that time who are no longer here, and there were others who entered from outside what are now our borders during that era, although given the peripatetic nature of most of them, it would be impossible to claim that they had never been in what we now know as Guyana at some point before that.
Mr Phillips identifies the Wapishanas and the Wai Wais as arriving after the Africans. He dates the coming of the Africans a little late – mid-seventeenth century – when in fact they were here in the 1620s. The date is 1627 for Berbice and possibly earlier than that for Essequibo. In terms of the chronology of arrival of the various peoples to this part of the continent, the Amerindians were the first-comers, while many thousands of years later, Europeans and Africans arrived together, since the Dutch brought Africans with them when they first settled. There is no doubt, however, that the colonisers met Indigenous people when they came, and incidentally that in Berbice, at least, these saved the Dutch from starvation.
And as for the Wai Wais and Wapishanas − and the Macushis too, it might be added − while it is true that in colonial times the first Africans preceded them by a century and a half in the case of the last two nations and longer in the case of the Wai Wais, Africans also did not come all at once, but arrived over an extended time frame. In fact, by far the largest number of Africans were brought in by the British between 1796 and the abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of 1807 – a matter of a decade. (African numbers under the Dutch were always very small in comparison with other plantocracies.) Then there are those Africans who came here in the nineteenth century after emancipation, some of them rescued from Portuguese slavers; they included Yorubas and Congos, among others.
There is something else too: The Macusis and Wapishanas who are here today are descended from forebears who revolted in the Portuguese missions in the Rio Branco in the 1780s, and took refuge in the Rupununi in the Dutch sphere. Even if they did not sometimes frequent the Rupununi savannahs before that (which seems unlikely) they were in the second half of the eighteenth century possible targets for enslavement by the Caribs first in the Rio Branco, and in the case of the Macushis, later in the Rupununi.
While a great deal is known about the African slave trade, it is not generally recognized that there was also an Amerindian counterpart to it. In this part of the world the trade was prosecuted through Essequibo; the procurers were the Carib nation; and the main purchasers were in Suriname, although there were also enslaved Amerindians in Essequibo, and to a much lesser extent, Berbice. Four nations were protected from slavery, but others were vulnerable. The point is, there were in Dutch times some Amerindians of various nations enslaved alongside Africans, subject to the same exploitation, brutality and suffering. For them emancipation came under the Dutch around forty years before Africans finally secured their freedom.
Mr Phillips rightly cites the unbelievable work Africans did to make this coastland, where 90% of the population now lives, habitable. It is an extraordinary and impressive accomplishment by any standards. But as an aside it perhaps should be noted that it is not the case that all Indigenous nations here were nomadic at all times. Our modern drainage structures have a pre-colonial antecedent on an infinitely smaller scale in the form of the Arawaks and their raised field system, complete with drainage trenches. Some of these complexes were large, and all would have required intensive labour to create, although why the Arawaks abandoned them to return to a semi-nomadic life is a matter for speculation. Whatever the reason, perhaps this nation can be regarded as the pioneer civil engineers of our corner of South America.
Ultimately, no matter how just a cause, there is no advantage in preferring arguments in defence of it which are based either on over-simplified historical generalizations, or which do not stand scrutiny in the light of our present knowledge. While it is true that the exploration of our history of the Dutch period, in particular, has only just begun and there is a great deal yet to discover, there is perhaps a case for attempting to sensitise the public to what the current state of our understanding is about aspects of our colonial past, including the post-emancipation period. Similarly in the case of our pre-history. This process would presumably have to begin in the schools, and be reflected in the curricula and syllabi put out by the Ministry of Education. There is no point in providing or recommending teaching material which has been overtaken by more recent research.