It is in our best interest to accept that both ethnic groups were exploited by the colonial authorities and use this knowledge as the organizing principle of our discourse

Dear Editor,

As I gaze upon the post-Independence landscape littered with discord and discontent, I cannot help but recall Bob Marley’s song to all humanity:

Until the philosophy which hold one

race superior

And another

Inferior

Is finally

And permanently

Discredited

And abandoned –

Everywhere is war –

Me say war.

War, war.  The two major ethnic groups are locked in a combat that is good neither for themselves nor the country. Just as I was becoming unfathomably dismayed, I remember John Lennon’s counter “Imagine …,” a visionary song that sings of transformation from a destructive state to a harmonious and enriching one.  Here I use the word “war” not in its literal sense but as a metaphor for the ethnic spite and bitterness between Africans and Indians – the ethnic warfare that has trapped the country in a low-level equilibrium, way below its potential. The worst of ethnic belligerence comes a few months before an election and shortly thereafter and, in this case, just prior to the flood of oil manna from the bowels of the earth.  Along with corruption and the narco-trade, oil may become another source of aggrandizement and thus adds to ethnic bitterness.

In the ongoing ethnic war, neither group, but one more than the other, is prepared to accept defeat at the polls.  If only we can imagine the absence of ethnic war or make it a causality of love, then we can proudly sing what I learned in school as a child: “Oh beautiful Guyana/Oh my lovely native land/More dear to me than all the world.”  We have the resources, including land, several minerals … gold, diamonds and oil, and the talent to make Guyana a heaven on earth.  Only the political will to transform spite into brotherhood is absent, an absence that seems to grow darker every day.  Some of us, including this writer, may look back with nostalgia at our rural background.  For example, Indians, Africans, Amerindians, Mixed people and other ethnic groups lived peacefully on the Essequibo Coast, where I was born and raised, and where the first African village, Queenstown, arose and marked the “beginnings of the proprietary village system” (Cecilia McAlmont, SN, 29 Sept. 2005).  At school, some of my best friends were Africans and, though we have lost contact with the steady drift or time and different geographies, I still remember the good times we had together. 

With this background, I come to the principal purpose of this essay.  It seems to me that during the last two months or so each of the two major ethnic groups is more insistent in its claim to victimhood while painting the other as the villain.  This perspective I gather from letters and other columns in the press. In particular, one gets the impression that Indians were privileged and Africans gravely handicapped. In this state of unclarity and confusion, it is necessary to remember that our colonial master always had a motive for doing something.  That motive was the profit motive.  The colonial powers did not come to the New World to civilize the savages but to exploit them to the hilt.  If Indians were privileged, it was because the sugar estates wanted to ensure an adequate labour supply, which kept wages down, and which, in turn, pumped up the surplus extracted from helpless and hopeless people. At one stroke, our colonial masters achieved two things: they exploited Indians and Africans to further their own interest and created dissonance between them, which later matured into ethnic war.

Let’s step back to almost 100 years ago to get an idea of whether one ethnic group lived on colonial largesse while the other subsisted on colonial negligence. At the First Special Session of the Combined Country of British Guiana in 1924, Mr. Da Silva wanted to know “the number of adults of each nationality receiving assistance from the Board of Guardians in each of the [16] Fiscal District in the Colony.”  The same question was asked about children.  In all, 1,499 adults received “out-door-relief,” otherwise known as Poor Relief.  This number includes 219 East Indians and 1,138 Africans.  According to the 1921 Census, there were 124,938 Indians and 117,169 Africans living in British Guiana. This meant that 0.18 percent of the Indian population and 0.97 percent of the African population was receiving Poor Relief.  It was not simply that Africans were more destitute than Indians.  Instead Poor Relief to Indians was restricted on the ground that they would become lazy and refuse to work on the sugar estates. A shrinking labour force drives wages up.  Simple demand and supply theory.  A total of 868 children from all ethnic groups received assistance, including 179 Indian children and 603 African children; that is, 3.4 times as many African children as Indian children received assistance.  This is only one example of the faked “privileges” grudgingly doled out by the colonial masters to the two major ethnic groups but always with the intention to enrich themselves. 

A second example comes from the report on the “Dietaries of the Working Classes of British Guiana,” done in 1921 by Professor J. B. Harrison, Director of Science and Agriculture in the Colony, Dr. Rose and Mr. W. H. Cook.  According to paragraph 3, wages of most working-class people “have been materially increased,” but only a small proportion of the increase was spent on food.  “It is usually, if not always, in the case of Blacks of the laboring classes the children who feel the pinch of short commons or of increased cost of food.”  The report goes on to say that Indian “children are well-fed even if their parents feel the pinch of their characteristic stringent economy in purchase of foodstuff or suffer from the effects of high prices.” A third example comes from the Report of the Mortality Commission of 1905-06: (a) there was hardly any evidence of the prevalence of any deficiency diseases such as Pellagra, Beri-Beri, Scurvy or Rickets in British Guiana; and (b) there was evidence that children of the working-class other than the Indians suffered from malnutrition due to the relative paucity and high price of milk, “and to insufficient feeding generally but not to complaints due to ill-balanced ratios of their food-constituents.  Their food is more deficient in quantity than quality.”  Indian children were better nourished because their parents sacrificed themselves for their children and because Indians “mine” lots of cows.  Milk was available in relative abundance for their young children whose bodies and brains were just developing.  By training and work experience, I have come to realize that the ability to make money, save it, and convert it into capital via investment is the most effective motivator of people.  As a bonus, it raises the standard of living for all.  Now I appreciate what it means to say that my ancestors were rational economists and not idle dreamers.

Numerous examples exist of colonial actions and policies pitting Indians and African against each other. This ignored fact must be acknowledged if we are not to paint one ethnic group as more righteous, conscientious, preserving, rational or visionary than the other. It is difficult to pronounce that our Colonial Masters were more sympathetic and helpful to one ethnic group or the other.  Their unswerving goal was to extract as much profit as possible regardless of the means employed.  For the colonials, ends justified means.  It is the mutually reinforcing means and ends of colonialism that fueled ethnic bitterness.  Our error is to eject motive and means and see the results only.  We see what we want to see and accept what we see without questioning how we got to this point.  Surely, one ethnic group was not a more accomplished magician than the other.

While both ethnic groups were victims, the question of which group suffered more will be eternally controversial.  It is in our best interest to accept the unalterable fact that both ethnic groups were exploited and use this knowledge as the organizing principle of our discourse.  Otherwise the stalemate cannot be broken, and we shall be unable to shape the future of the country in ways that promote the best interests of all citizens.

Yours faithfully,

Ramesh Gampat

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