Remembering colonial days

Dear Editor,

By the time of my birth in 1950, my mother’s family had been in British Guiana for 150 years. I am Guyanese ‒ well half anyway. The other half is Scottish-Liverpool. The 1950s was bliss to be a child, especially a privileged one on the sugar estate of Providence on the EBD. That and my mother’s family made me.

So too did Sacred Heart RC school in Main Street. Strict nuns and stricter teachers, even to us non-Catholics. Learning by rote, but effective learning. So much so that I won the Demerara Scholarship, top of the colony, in 1961. QC for me but we came to England instead.

Our home crossed cultures. Proud Guianese mother whose family had seen the good life ‒ partly through estate and slave ownership ‒ and then lost it nearly all. An equally proud father, the scion of a powerful Liverpool academic family who had taken to sea to escape his father’s ambitions. He loved ‘BG’ but it frustrated the hell out of him too. For his three decades there, he refused to eat local food: “that West Indian muck”, he called it. Two meals were always prepared by our home helps.

Me? I learned to love Guyanese cuisine. Still do.

Privilege was not abused. As a little boy, my family were always having to come and fetch me from the logies across the tracks where I readily made friends. We were not snotty colonialists. Our heritage mitigated that. Even today, I still enjoy the sheer theatre of an Indo-Guyanese wedding with the men at the back supping liquor surreptitiously whilst the formal stuff happens out front.

Sugar estates were strange social    structures with the pure whites at the top of the tree followed by a caste system based on skin colour. They were mini-welfare states with provisions ‒ down to toilet paper ‒ and transport provided. My cousins from Georgetown used to come to Diamond to take advantage of the pool and more.

My maternal grandmother was a one woman welfare state too. She robbed Peter/Clara (my mother) to pay Paul/Thelma (one of her other daughters) as a matter of routine. One Christmas we hid all the goodies from her so she could not do her ‘social work’. Awful kids.

Royal visits in the 1950s were a highlight. I recall waving a small Union Jack at Princess Margaret and had a guided tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia moored at the Sandbach Parker wharf. I got a decal as a memento. Little things, little minds.

Meanwhile on the streets an anti-colonial struggle was going on. It touched the estates through strikes and through virulent hatred of the PPP and especially Janet Jagan by the overseer class.

I found that difficult to tally with the same woman who picked up ‘Joey’ Jagan once a week from cub scouts on Thomas Lands. Dob, Dob, Dob! Joey…

The world changing rapidly, I  recall driving on the school bus through  an ‘Axe the Tax’ demonstration outside Parliament in 1960.The cardboard axes were conveniently provided by Peter D’Aguiar and his company across the road. The tax was on alcohol.

But by and large our privilege remained undisturbed. The noise of trouble ahead was enough for my parents to decide that ‘Blighty’ was a safer place for us. Onto a Dutch boat at the same Sandbach Parker wharf, and three weeks later a new life in Surrey. Guiana just a memory until my regular return from 1993 onwards.

Happy Anniversary Guyana. But remember those six races…

Yours faithfully,

John Mair

‘Bill Cotton/reform’

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