Simon Christian Oliver’s poetry and its contribution to Guyanese literature

1st of AUGUST, 1838

20101114artsonsunday‘Oh ye first of August freed men who now liberty enjoy;

Salute the day and shout hurrah to Queen Victoria;

On this glad day the galling chains of Slavery were broke

From off the necks of Afric’s sons, who bled beneath its yoke.

With hearts and voice you should rejoice, to God the glory give.

Now freedom is your happy lot, as freedmen you should live

Your minds you ought to cultivate as well as till the ground,

And virtuous actions imitate wherein true bliss abound.

To your masters then you’ll fill a glass and drink with grateful glee,

And to all those of the same class who nobly set you free.

Then you should sing, God Save the Queen, oh, may she live forever;

Great Britain your true friend has been—forsake you, may she never.’

Simon Christian Oliver

 

 

Clearly there are multitudes of poems by diverse Caribbean writers about Emancipation, whose anniversary on August 1, is still very topical at this time. However, it is very rare to find poems written around the time of emancipation itself, and even rarer to find them written by black poets at that time. Much more was taking place in the oral traditions and there is oral literature that has survived to demonstrate that.

The poem reproduced above was written by a “free black” citizen of British Guiana, a significant poet named Simon Christian Oliver. According to writer and columnist Petamber Persaud, Chairman of the National Library of Guyana, it “may be the only surviving verse on the freeing of slaves in British Guiana.”

Contemporary poems on the subject abound. Among the most remarkable pieces of verse in the modern scribal tradition is “Verse in August” by Trinidadian Eric Roach, which happens to bring both the written and oral traditions together. Roach draws on a number of African and African-derived performances like the kalinda of stick fighting and the bungo dance to comment on the passing of greatness in the powerful African Caribbean culture. He focused on traditions once observed to mark Emancipation in an ironic poem about emancipation or the lack thereof.

Among the most celebrated is Derek Walcott’s poem “Ruins of A Great House” in which he remarks “deciduous beauty flourished and is gone” to talk about the former grandeur of a plantation great house now in ruins.

He makes ironic reference to the “great” house and the period, the imperial power it once represented alongside the notoriety of that regime. Walcott contemplates the way the poet’s emotional response is tested by contesting forces of angry outrage and compassion.

In the oral literature, the verses of the kalinda are still accessible with their precarious balance of rivalry, heroism, courage and sheer violence. Actually Errol Hill wrote plays on both of the traditions treated by Roach. Man Better Man is about stick fighting and Dance Bongo is about the dirge-ful spiritual dance. Also surviving are verses composed and performed by the enslaved, such as “Freedom A Come O”, and the song “Aagas Maanin” (August Morning). The folk in Jamaica still refer to the First of August as “August Morning”. The St Lucian Festival of the Rose – the “La Rose” tradition, with its many songs of praise and rivalry, which still survive, is not at its climax until August 31, but has very strong post-colonial and Emancipation elements within it.

Where the written literature is concerned, Oliver’s “The 1st of August” is important to Guyanese literature. Oliver was a poet and a schoolmaster. Accounts say he belonged to the village of Buxton, but that claim is in need of some historical refinement or clarification if the research is to be done. First in need of attention is that the village of Buxton was not founded until 1840 when a team of former enslaved bought Plantation Orange Nassau and settled on that land. The adjoining Plantation Friendship was purchased in similar fashion in 1841. Buxton was given the name of British Abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton, while Friendship kept the name of the former plantation to form Buxton-Friendship.

 

Oliver was confirmed by the historical accounts as a wealthy man who was educated and likewise was able to educate his children at English universities. He was clearly not among those who joined together to establish the village. Neither did the village exist for most of his career (he died in 1848), and was writing poetry in the 1830s. “1st of August 1838” was written to celebrate Emancipation in 1838.

The poet and his work are important to Guyanese literature because poetry written in the scribal tradition by African Guyanese was unknown before him. He therefore made a very significant contribution to the development of the literature, despite the fact that a post-colonial reading of his verse would be decidedly unimpressed. Before him, there was the poet who wrote under the name “Colonist”, who was most likely white and whose verse did not address native Guyanese writing any more than Oliver’s. He was followed by Thomas Don – very significant because he became free because of Emancipation in 1838 and was self-educated. His Pious Effusions reflected the religious Christian influence.

Oliver, therefore, was really breaking some ground and moving the local literature along and “1st of August 1838” was thus very notable in this regard. It treats a thoroughly local issue and is addressed to local people – the former enslaved. Yet, with equal thoroughness, it is a decidedly colonial poem, more in celebration of Queen Victoria, colonial masters and their system than liberation. On the contrary it admonishes the “first of August freed men” to resist being truly liberated.

However, it is to be remembered that Oliver was a product of his time, not a revolutionary.  The versification and the language are English Victorian/Romantic — quite true to his education and background. Caribbean poets did not begin to emancipate themselves from those verse forms until around 1940 so Oliver cannot be blamed in 1800s. He does make very strong reference to the ills and suffering of slavery in a number of lines of the poem. Those may be regarded as quite appropriate and approved. But the poem is much more interested in the glory of the Queen, of Great Britain, and of the colonial “masters”. Hence the following lines:

 

To your masters then you’ll fill a glass and drink with grateful glee,

And to all those of the same class who nobly set you free.

 

The praise of Victoria was typical of the time, since it is known that the Africans (however inaccurately) considered her the author of emancipation. Oliver goes further to ask his audience to toast their “masters”, who are still “your masters” even after the end of slavery.

What is more, he preaches obeisance to “all those of the same class” which establishes a class hierarchy with a firm notion of superiority and inferiority. Then there is the poet’s sense of eternal gratitude for something that was a human right. As if that is not enough, the planter class is conferred with nobility for the act of emancipation as if it was bestowed upon the enslaved out of feelings of generosity.

 

The poem is a toast to England, her Queen and her noble class of colonists. It is reminiscent of the work of another black poet – Francis Williams of Jamaica who was, like Oliver, in possession of wealth, and was educated at university in England (supposedly Cambridge) to prove that blacks were capable of learning. Williams wrote odes in Latin and praised Britain and British governors, glorifying and perpetuating the colonial system.

Oliver also advises the ‘liberated’ Africans to improve themselves. Some 60 years later there was another period in which Guyanese literature was advanced in the face of social and political conditions. In similar fashion to Oliver, Joseph Ruhomon, a product of Indian indentureship, called on his fellow immigrants to “improve themselves” by inculcating middle-class values and Indian culture. This was followed by a period of pronounced consciousness among the separate groups of East Indians and African Guyanese.

For those and other reasons, the poem “1st of August 1838” and its author are important to the rise of local literature in Guyana and the Caribbean. It has very significant implications for literary development and for poems on the issue of Emancipation.

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