We need a dictionary of West Indian biographies

The staff and members of the History Department of the University of Guyana used to produce a feature in Stabroek News called History This Week. These vignettes from   Guyana’s past added up to an important contribution in making Guyanese aware of their heritage and their heroes and heroines. I remember, for instance, wonderful features on George William des Voeux, the great magistrate, and marvelous Herbert Moshett, one of the pioneers of Guyanese art.

There is so much wonder in any life – so much interest and excitement and achievement, so much agony and failure too, everything so vivid if only we knew the details. But in Guyana, and in the wider West Indies, we hardly bother to remember. “What the earth swallows is soon forgotten,” Isaac Singer wrote. He could have been a West Indian.

This is an extract from the obituary, in The London Times of July 30, 1996, of a man I consider a remarkable West Indian: “When, on a day in the summer of 1937, the Secretary of State for Air, the Earl of Swinton, paid a visit to Squadron Leader Arthur McDonald at the Biggin Hill Experimental Flight station and told him and his two fellow pilots standing by their gauntlet biplanes: ‘I hope you young men realise that the whole future of this country depends on the results of what you are doing here’, he was not exaggerating. What was at stake was the future of the air defence of Great Britain. And the experimental programme led by McDonald in 1936-7 proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the principle of radar interception of incoming aircraft – without which the RAF could not have won the Battle of Britain – was possible.”

My father’s elder brother had an extraordinary life. He lived to 93 and packed his life with exploits. He was a very vivid personality. When he was age 86 I remember him asking me to crew for him in a yacht race in which he was competing but I told him I was too old to keep up with him. His father and mother were Antiguan and he was born and brought up in Antigua. When he was a young man he decided to join the Royal Air Force. He rose to become Air Marshall Sir Arthur McDonald, one of Britain’s top air force commanders. When Pakistan gained independence he was seconded to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Air Force. Twenty-five years later, celebrating their beginnings, the Pakistanis did not forget but sent a Presidential jet to bring him back to visit in high honour. Arthur McDonald had another career – in his spare time he was one of the world’s top yachtsmen – he had practised enough off Antigua’s windy coasts. He captained Britain in the 1948 Olympics and on behalf of the athletes took the Olympic oath at those Games.

In deep historical terms, however, probably most remarkable was his work as a test pilot in the 1930s. Britain was developing a secret new technology and the time had come to test it operationally. I have my uncle’s letter in which, years later, he described the event to my father. He and another pilot had flown from an airfield outside London to conduct the first trial ever made of the new technology simulating actual flying conditions. He describes the extraordinary flush of feeling he experienced when on the experimental monitor in front of him the blurred blip appeared – a commercial air-liner rising out of Schipol airport in Holland hundreds of miles away out of sight – and he knew the trial was a success. That was in 1936 – the first interception ever made by radar.

I give this thumbnail sketch to make a simple point. I don’t know if my uncle’s name will be recorded in West Indian archives, but I think it should be. And I do not doubt he can be counted a West Indian achiever. Over the centuries how many thousands of Spanish, British, French, Dutch, to name a few, were claimed for their countries though they lived the greater part of their lives far from homeland? In our turn, we too have our outreach in reverse – as Guyana knows so well.

Generally, however, we make a custom of forgetting. We do not record, and therefore never learn, the stories of hundreds, thousands, of Guyanese and West Indians who have lived valuable and even marvelous lives. We are not good at remembering the contributions of the generations before us. Yet it is part of slowly creating a real history for ourselves that we should not forget what men and women have done before us, that we should take some minimum of care to record their lives, their trials and distinctions, so that the national memory lengthens, so that we are not left decade after decade with a growing blank behind us.

Could I suggest that the UG History Faculty (but does such a department still exist?) consider seriously a project which I think it would be well equipped to undertake and which would be of inestimable value to Guyanese, especially young Guyanese, and to succeeding generations. The project is to compile and publish a Dictionary of Guyanese Biographies. This project would have as its starting point A.J. Seymour’s similarly named Dictionary in two volumes which AJS, as one of his many immense contributions to the literary and cultural life of the country, compiled with the help of his wife, Elma. This work should be revisited, extensively revised and supplemented and republished. Annual supplementary volumes could then be published as more historical information comes to light and as Guyanese deserving entry die and qualify for recording in the DGB.

I go further still. Might not the History Faculty contact its counterparts in other West Indian countries, inform them of its plans for a DGB, find out if they are doing the same, and aim in the years ahead to publish a Dictionary of West Indian Biographies which in time might come to be an essential part of the scholarship of the region? I am sure the necessary funding could be obtained for the work. It would help define our nationhood. And what our forebears bequeath to us would have some fitting monument. The earth will not, after all, have swallowed them without remembrance.


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