Those who arrived and their contributions to culture

(Stabroek News file photo)

Around this time in Guyana and the Caribbean, the arrival of peoples of different ethnic and cultural origins is commemorated. Of interest, is that by far the dominant medium through which these observances are expressed is the arts – mainly the performing arts and means of cultural expression, even though there are historical accounts and political statements.

In Guyana, yesterday, May 5, was a public holiday – Arrival Day. Among the dominant events was the large annual Indian Arrival Day programme at the Monument Gardens in Georgetown, at which there were the usual treasures of Indian dance and music among an atmosphere of cultural expression. There is also still in progress the annual full theatrical production of Nrityageet 39, a stage performance of dance, music, and dramatic pieces produced by the Nadira and Indira Shah Dance Troupe. It closes tonight at the National Cultural Centre.

Quite noticeable too, was the observance of May 3 as Portuguese Arrival Day, recognising the presence of another group of people who arrived as indentured servants. Still, the East Indian Arrival anniversary activities are usually most visible and most vibrant on and around May 5.  This is so to the point where there are often reminders thrown out that the indentureship system brought several other groups to Guyana and the Caribbean, some of them arriving for the first time even before emancipation. Some arrived as early as 1806 in anticipation of the end of the slave trade in 1807.

The history is well known. The planters needed replacements for the Africans who had fought relentlessly to put the estates behind them and after the end of Apprenticeship in 1838 took the opportunity to be rid of it. But the planters had other motivations. One was to guarantee a supply of cheap labour, and another was to retain a labour force that they could control, but yet another was to increase the white population in the colonies against the majority of black Africans. Also, immigration schemes started with attempts to counteract the effect of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

In Guyana, the importation of Chinese and Portuguese is very well known, although the most attention is paid to the arrival of the East Indians. Even less attention has been paid to the indenture of immigrants from Europe and from Africa after emancipation. Under this scheme, several workers were brought in from Africa, in addition to others from Barbados and other West Indian islands migrating to British Guiana. Villagers in Guyana are known to make an important distinction between people who came directly from Africa as immigrants and those from Barbados or the West Indies who came mainly for religious purposes. Research in these villages revealed that some ancestors were known as “Africans”, while those from the islands were all called “Bajans” regardless of island of origin. The “Africans” were likely to practice what survived of the Yoruba religion and traditional culture.

The attempted European indentureship schemes included labourers from Britain, significantly Ireland and Scotland as well as other parts of Europe including Germany, Syria and Lebanon.  Interestingly, Britain already had a history of exporting labour. This included the penal system in which conviction for fairly petty crimes attracted the death penalty, but there was the alternative of transportation – banishment to one or the other British colonies, most prominently Australia, but also Barbados to a lesser extent.

Interestingly, many women had a counter scheme of “pleading the belly” in order to avoid the death penalty. “Pleading the belly” was an English Common Law dating back to 1387, which reprieved women of execution, for a capital offence, until delivery of the child. By the 16th century, those who ‘pleaded the belly’, were either pardoned or transported and this led to an abuse of the system which was rendered obsolete in 1931.

Since the arts are of relevance here, it is interesting how this was treated in literature. In most cases the plea was fraudulent. English novelist Daniel Defoe treated it in satirical fashion in the novel Moll Flanders (1722) in which women made false pleas of pregnancy in court. In similar humorous fashion, a contemporary of Defoe, satirical playwright John Gay included this plea in the popular and very acclaimed play The Beggar’s Opera (1728). A character in the drama hired himself out to women facing the court as a “child getter”, helping them to a convenient pregnancy so they could ‘plead the belly’.

European indentureship was attractive to the colonies because of a continuing fear of the overwhelming majority of black African populations. They welcomed an increase in the white populations hoping that after serving terms of indentureship, the white labourers would eventually join the local middle class and maintain a more favourable balance in the ethnic population. British indentures, however, proved quite unsuitable as plantation workers, as the Chinese did in the early stages. Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese and Portuguese were well known to leave the estates as soon as they could to go into setting up shops and other money-making businesses. A good deal of animosity developed between them and the Africans, because these immigrants were highly favoured and given advantages over the former slaves.

In fact, both the Chinese and the Portuguese are commonly represented in West Indian literature stereotypically as shopkeepers. Many plays, particularly in the ‘back yard’ tradition out of Trinidad, as well as fiction, will have a stock character who is a Chinese shopkeeper. This representation is also prevalent in popular literature in Jamaica. Similarly, there is a Trinidadian play, Man Batter Man by Errol Hill with the equally typical Portuguese shopkeeper as a character. The descendants of Syrians, Lebanese and Portuguese in the Jamaican popular culture are all called Syrians. They, and the Chinese, are all stereotyped.

In Guyana, the most prominent historian to treat the presence of the workers from Madeira was Mary Noel Menezes who acknowledged the motivation of the colonials in their interest in European immigration but assessed it as not very successful. One of the marks of Portuguese arrival and prominence in Guyanese society may be found in culture. They made a telling contribution to the cultural life of the colony and their heritage made a mark in the independent nation.

There is a particularly significant treatment in Guyanese drama. Founder of modern Guyanese drama Norman E Cameron wrote a play in which he fictionalised and dramatised a brief moment of history concerning the Portuguese in Guyana. This was one of Cameron’s few plays actually set in Guyana. The dramatic focus was the Angel Gabriel riots in British Guiana in 1856 when John Sayers Orr instigated violent attacks against the Portuguese commercial community in Guyana. Orr was called “Angel Gabriel” because he was in the habit of blowing a trumpet to attract attention before his public wayside speeches. He railed against the Portuguese in British Guiana which helped to incite the crowds against them in a riot.

However, more than being the subject of drama, they were the creators of it in the 19th century after their arrival in the colony. Menezes analysed the Portuguese propensity to artistic performance. They brought to Guyana their love and practice of music and were constantly engaged in concerts and public performances. This heritage is notable in contemporary Guyana as there are occasional public musical concerts at the band stand at the Georgetown seawall.  That tradition owes its origins to those Portuguese performances.

Through its history British Guiana has been host to a long history of theatre productions. There were visiting theatre companies from England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries bringing mostly English plays for the entertainment of the European elite. Several theatres opened up including more than one incarnation of the Theatre Royal. Many of these theatres did not last as they were notorious for falling victim to fires.

The Portuguese helped to localize theatre. They performed a number of plays brought over from their native land in their native language. Menezes reported on the considerable popularity of Portuguese drama, including contributions to local drama because of the treatment of the subject of migration. Unlike the English plays, even those short types written by white residents in the colony, Portuguese theatre began to grow local roots. Their cultural presence has therefore been strong.

They were in the habit of leaving the plantation to establish shops and other businesses and this led to considerable economic success and a major contribution to industry and commerce in Guyana as a nation. They are also known for eventually entering the professions and politics.

What is rarely articulated is the Portuguese contribution to national sports. There is a list of outstanding cricketers and there were even sports clubs through which these players flourished.  But most outstanding has been their contribution to Guyanese development and prominence in hockey. Guyanese hockey has seen years of leadership at the top of the sport in the Caribbean with notable contributions from the Portuguese and the Chinese who dominated at one time. A similar contribution is seen in squash; and from the Chinese in table tennis, where they were also once dominant.

Portuguese immigrants were Roman Catholics and their descendants have been traditional members and leaders in the contemporary Roman Catholic church. Within that institution, a number of significant local practices have been established sometimes to the point where it becomes blurred as to whether certain cultural traditions originated with the Roman Catholics or with the Portuguese.