Sugar has defined us. Barring those interludes when crops like cotton, coffee and cacao were grown here, sugar until recently was our primary crop, our primary employer and our primary export. And this goes back not just decades, but centuries. Sugar is why many of us are here, and it has passed its demands in terms of agronomy, drainage, harvesting and boiling down the ages from one generational cohort to the next. It has held sway unforgivingly, and its needs have been accommodated by the infliction of unspeakable cruelties in earlier times, in particular.
Yet the days when sugar’s pre-eminence was on public display with files of massive sugar transporters trundling their way down the East Coast road to the Demerara Sugar Terminals have long since gone. There is no shortage of unstable-looking rice trucks to be seen heading for Port Georgetown nowadays, but nobody catches even a glimpse of the vehicular evidence of sugar’s one-time dominance. In fact, when visitors come here, unless they are taken to a sugar estate, or they happen to pass the Chateau Margot chimney, they probably would have to be told that this was traditionally the anglophone Caribbean’s leading sugar producer.
One might have thought that given the importance of sugar in the nation’s history, and the profits it has generated down the years, especially since Independence, one or another of our post-1966 governments would have found it incumbent on them to preserve some of the material heritage associated with it, to open a sugar museum and to create a sugar heritage village, both for the benefit of a nascent tourist industry, and for the edification of our school-age population. But no, even in sugar’s heyday, no one who sat in the Agriculture Ministry or State House or The Residence gave even a passing thought to the need to give acknowledgement to the past in the form of a museum or museums, estate archives, heritage villages and the like. And this was in the days when sugar made money, unlike current circumstances, where the industry has become a drain on the economy.
But for those who thought that even our oldest industry was doomed to be memorialized only in passing references in school text books, there was a press release which came fluttering in from NICIL’s Special Purpose Unit at the end of last week, and which we carried on Friday.
It said that the Skeldon Estate Staff Compound had been converted to the Skeldon Heritage Resort, and that this development was intended to preserve some of the history and culture of the sugarcane industry in Guyana. In the words of the head of NICIL-SPU, Colvin Heath-London, “…[the industry] plays a necessary role in enabling us to learn from our past, and prepares us for greater future achievements.” Estate Manager Rama Persaud added, “The facilities … are ideal for corporate retreats, to camping facilities for kids and vacation facilities for all. Guests who are seeking peace and quiet can enjoy a relaxing environment and take in the sites of this historic sugar plantation.”
Before anyone heaves a sigh of relief that those with responsibility for the sugar industry have finally been visited by a streak of enlightenment, they should hold their combined breath. In the first place, this is just a quick idea so it can be said that something is being done for Skeldon. There is no comprehensive tourist plan; no project to preserve the sugar heritage – it would have to be a long-term project in any case, since it would involve considerable funding; no exploring of the various possibilities, including material representations of buildings not just for estate managers but also indentured workers, or the enslaved, say.
If, for example, one wanted to recreate the buildings on a sugar estate, one would have to pick first the period one intended to represent, and then decide whether logies, for example, are to be rebuilt. Ideally, one would want to have structures from various periods in Guyana’s sugar history, although as said above, that would be a long-term process.
One would certainly need at least one factory still in operation, so that guided tours could be undertaken – although that might be the intention at Skeldon. Apart from that at least one museum with models of earlier sugar grinding methods would be required, along with photographs and pictures of life on a plantation. Wherever possible there should be little local museums, as in the case of Chateau Margot, where photographs of the factory still exist. There is too Walter Rodney’s little edited work on an Argosy account of the plantations in the late nineteenth century, which would provide information and guidance. There are many other things too which could be considered for a material exposition of sugar’s history.
In case anyone had any doubt about what the Skeldon excursion intended, they should look at the photographs which accompanied the release, and then read again Ms Persaud’s statements. The dining room is completely ahistorical, with its modern long tables and factory turned chairs, not to mention its plumped-up contemporary Guyanese-style settee, which would be considered an alien force by any early 20th century senior estate personnel. It is clear that what Skeldon is, is not so much a heritage site as a campsite.
Even at this late stage, someone with cultural clout needs to sit down with the relevant powers and look at what can be done about saving the heritage of sugar, and before any more of it disappears, of its built heritage. Allowing it all to fall to rack and ruin, is to allow the historical architecture which made us what we are to be lost forever.