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GUYANA EMERGES FROM SHACKLES OF COLONIALISM:  
Will CARICOM nations gain political/economic liberations?

 

Imperialists’ rivalry among the great Powers of Europe had projected many of their battles almost always into Guyana and the Caribbean region. The British, Dutch and French waged war constantly to gain possession of territory in Guyana. Spanish conquerors and many European buccaneers were fiercely determined to discover El Dorado - the imaginary City of Gold. Control over these colonies changed hands frequently until the English finally succeeded in August 1814. The cession of Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice (three colonies) to Britain whereby expanding the British Empire, was affirmed by a convention between Britain and Holland. This came about even after the Dutch had established settlements on the three largest rivers that traverse the country. After centuries of colonial domination Guyana and many other Caribbean nations have emerged politically comatose and economically paralyzed or rather at the threshold of economic collapse.

 

GUYANA STRUGGLES FOR SELF-DETERMINATION

 

Guyana gained its Independence from Britain on May 26, 1966 and four years later on February 23, 1970 became the first Co-operative Republic in the world, severing all formal ties with the British monarchy. The name Guiana is derived from an Amerindian word meaning Land of many waters. It is perhaps fitting that one of the country’s most popular dishes is called cook-up, for this aptly describes the society - an amalgam of six ethnic groups brought together by history: Amerindians (the original inhabitants, now make up about 5% of the population).

The country, endowed with rich, extensive and diverse natural resources, is situated on the northeast coast of South America, between Surinam to the east and Venezuela to the west. On the southern border is Brazil and to the north there are 270-miles of Atlantic coastline.

More than 90 percent of the 805,000 citizens live on the coastal plain. Guyana’s dry evergreen and seasonal forests and savannah located just inland from the coastal plain, perhaps as much as 500,000 hectares have been denuded, exploited for fuel-wood and charcoal. At the extreme south of the country extending to the border with Brazil is the Tropical Savannah Landscape. About 35,000 indigenous people comprise the Amerindian population and most live in 65 reserved areas scattered across the hinterlands. They have autonomy over the use of their lands, which have a total area of 11.39 million hectares.

       Some Amerindians are involved in ranching and logging. Amerindian tribes have for the most part maintained their traditional form of livelihood - hunting, fishing, gathering and subsistence agriculture. In many hinterland communities there are other residents, usually ranchers, loggers, gold and diamond miners, as well as professional hunters and wildlife collectors.

SLAVE LABOUR ON PLANTATIONS

 

Cotton had played an important role until about 1819, but it was ruined by the increased cultivation of this crop in the United States. Following a decline in coffee production because of competition from Brazil, sugar was practically the only merchandise to be exported. The British were determined to keep Guiana under their control and made investments in the then profitable sugar industry.

In 1831, the colonies of Berbice and Essequibo-Demerary united and became British Guiana. Within 50 years of British control Guiana, was producing sugar in significant quantity as a result of Slave labor. The legacy, which followed, constitutes the most grievous sin ever perpetrated against any group of people. There is little doubt that chattel slavery, which Africans have suffered at the hands of Europeans and other imperialist forces for more than 350 years, is abhorrent and indeed an unconscionable exploitation of man by man. This, the most heinous crime committed against humanity, has cost Africa at least 65,000,000 of its people.

Slavery was not a European invention. Man’s practice of enslaving his fellow men dates from the earliest times, well before the birth of Christ, and before national states had developed in Europe. Slavery was also practiced in Ancient India and China, though it seems that slaves were never a large proportion of the population in either country. It is significant, however, that when Greece rose to power slaves became an essential element in Greek society. Slaves were also important in the Roman Republic during the second and first centuries B.C. when the slave trade developed to a scale never before reached by a nation of antiquity.

Slavery was associated with the development of agriculture, though slaves were also widely used in ancient society in a purely domestic role. But with large scale sugar cultivation in the New World especially by the Portuguese in Brazil and a modest degree in the Spanish West Indies, notably Hispaniola (the present Dominican Republic and Haiti), it imposed quite different labor requirements, for it necessitated a large disciplined work force which the planter could command at crucial times in the planting season but more especially when the cane was ready for harvesting.

There were three possible sources of disciplined labor available to the planter, Indentured white labor, men bound by indenture to work for a planter for a fixed number of years in return for a grant of land at the end of the period of indenture. A similar system was used by the French in Cayenne (French Guiana), and by the British and French tobacco planters in the West Indies.

The Amerindians were another source of labor, but enslaving them conflicted with the policy adopted by the Dutch after winning the friendship and confidence. Moreover, it was illegal for Europeans to enslave Indians unless the person was already a slave among his own people. In addition, the male Indian was not inured to intensive field labor, which was customarily left to the womenfolk. They were used to a nomadic way of life in contrast to the routine and discipline plantation life.

The third option allowed the Dutch to use Negro slaves and decades later East Indian immigrants who worked as indentured slaves. It is necessary to take cognizance of the principle the Europeans applied regarding the Negro slaves. It is propitious to reiterate that the enslavement of Africans was brought about for economic reasons, and probable that humanitarian consideration for the Indian was of secondary importance.

As Dr. Eric Williams pointed out in his classic work, Capitalism and Slavery, it was only when the slave trade and chattel slavery stood in the way of bigger profits that the English, as it were, became humanitarians and abolished the iniquitous systems.

The African slave trade which started in the New World by the Portuguese in 1542, increased in volume and very soon the owners of plantations began importing large numbers of slaves. This pattern of white oligarchy, possessing immense political and economic power became pervasive in the West Indies and continued for decades until the liberation movements on the sugar plantations reduced the proliferation of this despicable practice.

The first record of slaves to arrive in Guiana was around 1672, when two groups were brought to Essequibo by the Dutch West India Company during the Middle Passage the infamous journey between Africa and the West Indies.

Living conditions on the plantations could only be described as abominable. The slaves lived in poorly constructed huts a section of the plantation known as the niggeryard (Black ghettoes) or the bound-coolie-yard (coolies) referring to the East Indian immigrant indentured slaves.

Slaves received no wages and were forced to work from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., during harvesting period the slaves worked late into the nights. They were allocated a weekly portion of meager rations - two pounds of salt-fish, beef or herring and as many plantains as they could use. Many of them supplemented their diet with cassavas, tannias, eddoes and yams, which they cultivated in their spare time.

The appalling conditions forced many slaves to escape; those who were unfortunate to be recaptured received severe punishment or even death in some cases. An English missionary, the Reverend John Smith, an African slave sympathizer described the working this way:

The plantation slaves are of course employed in cultivation             of the ground. The field, then, is their place of work. At about six o’clock in the morning the ringing of a bell, or the sound of a horn is the signal for them to turn out to work. No sooner is the signal made, than the Black drivers loudly smacking their whips, visit the Negro houses to run   out the reluctant inmates, much in the same manner as you             would drive out a number of horses from a stable yard, now and then giving a lash or two to any that are tardy in their             movements. Issuing from their kennels, nearly naked, with their instruments on their shoulders, they stay not to muster, but immediately proceed to the field accompanied by the drivers and a white overseer.

Smith’s account of the punishment slaves received was just as vivid and compellingly graphic. When a slave commits anything deemed worthy of punishment, he is ordered to lie down with his face to the ground. Should he show the least reluctance, a couple or four Negroes are called to throw him down, and hold his hands and legs, stretched out at full length. In this posture a driver flogs him on his bare buttocks till his superior tells him to desist. In punishment no distinction is made between the men and the women, the latter being forced to strip naked and held prostrate on the ground by the men.

The slaves grew impatient waiting for their emancipation to come from above by evolutionary stages and revolted on many occasions. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on rebels, they did not capitulate. Slaves found guilty during mock trials were brutally treated and subdued by whipping, mutilation of their limbs, burning over a slow fire or execution on the rib-rack, a torture mechanism on which the body joints are broken and the person left to die slowly.

 

GUYANA LIBERATION MOVEMENT

 

The Berbice Slave Uprising, more often referred to as the Berbice Slave Rebellion, started February 23, 1763 on Plantation Magdalenenburg and posed the greatest threat to the European presence in Guiana. This drastic action culminated years of minor revolts induced by bottled-up anger and revenge after suffering unequivocal inhuman treatment imposed by planters.

A well-organized slave rebellion led by Cuffy, a house slave of Plantation Lilienburg, took place in an attempt to overthrow the government. The Dutch Governor, Hoogenheim, was ordered to leave the Colony with all his white inhabitants. Cuffy, proclaimed himself Governor of Berbice and along with his revolutionaries, experienced independence and freedom in a self-governing state for more than ten months.

Many European planters retreated and took refuge on Fort Nassau, where an epidemic of dysentery and exceedingly low morale prevailed until reinforcements arrived. The capture of Fort Nassau would have secured for Cuffy, complete control of the entire territory, but instead he decided to partition the state, contemplating perhaps that freedom for Africans in Berbice would be better secured. Apparently, he was influenced by the success of the Bush-Negroes of Surinam who had entered into a similar arrangement with the Dutch.

Before capitulation, a dispute arose among the slave leaders. The slaves formed themselves into rival groups and began fighting against each other. Atta, a fierce combatant eventually defeated Cuffy and in accordance with African custom, Cuffy was forced to kill his close followers before he committed suicide.

Accabre, another leader that fought against Atta, had held out against the Dutch with about 300 men. On December 19, 1763 an impressive flotilla sailed up the Berbice River, simultaneously an attack was launched from Upper Demerara, the rebel slaves were caught between both invading forces and were easily defeated. About 30 men were killed after a few hours of fighting; Accabre and about 80 others were later captured and held prisoners.

Between March and April 1764, as many as forty slaves were sentenced to be hanged, twenty-four to be broken on the wheel, and another twenty-four condemned to be burned. All the leaders of the revolt were captured, brutally tortured then executed.

It should be expounded here, that the failure of this Uprising was not due to the Africans fighting quality, their tenacity or courage but rather their lack of unity. There were divisions between Creole and African-born slaves, tribal rivalry between the Congo tribes and those from Asante and Dahomey. The bitter rivalry among the leaders themselves contributed to the demise of this rebellion.

 

REFORMS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

 

 When the American War of Independence came to an end in 1783, it brought freedom for its thirteen colonies. This forced a change in the monopolistic mercantile system, shifting the pattern of economic development and trade. The new industrialized era in Britain meant that slave colonies and sugar plantations in British Guiana and the West Indies became irrelevant. By 1807 the plantation system based on African slavery was tottering. The Anti-Slavery Society in England received overwhelming support in its endeavor to alleviate the maltreatment of slaves. As external pressure increased the planters were forced to concede and in 1826 agreed to a number of reforms.

The flogging of women was forbidden, it was also prohibited to whip slaves in the fields and slaves were granted the legal right to own property, purchase their freedom and for the first time, to marry.

With money saved from wages earned during apprenticeship, the Africans purchased several abandoned sugar estates. These plantations were divided into lots and given to the shareholders. By 1851, the population had increased to about 60,000 African and mulattoes, about two-thirds had migrated to villages. The Africans had constructed approximately 11,152 houses across the colony; estimated value of the property was nearly one million pounds. In Demerara alone, 14,127 persons had occupied 2,943 lots. This accomplishment by Afro-Guyanese gives credence to the co-operative approach to nation building, espoused by the Peoples National Congress in the early 1960s.

The labor vacuum created by an exodus of African workers ruined many estates. In view of the labor crisis many planters became eager to import laborers from abroad. Some efforts were made to attract African from the Caribbean. A relatively small number arrived and very soon became dissatisfied with the poor conditions. Sugar as an economically viable option was beginning to lose its impact in Europe; this resulted in very little money being left to circulate in the colonies.

The situation for planters deteriorated to the point that preferential duty, which sugar enjoyed in the United Kingdom was drastically reduced. From all indications there was a common problem which many planters encountered after Slavery was officially abolished on August 1, 1834.

       Their inability to command capital necessary for sugar production meant that creditors in Holland and England increasingly controlled the local economy. Many imperialist countries had benefited financially, as European planters operated plantations with slave labor. The new industrial revolution meant that the importance of sugar had declined and modernization through technological advancement emerged for sustaining economic growth in Europe.

 

THE LEGACY OF COLONIALISM

 

The significance of the Berbice Slave Uprising has left an indelible mark on the history of Guyana and perhaps the entire English speaking Caribbean region and even beyond its seas.

The Berbice Slave Uprising, which started on February 23, 1763, began the process towards regional emancipation and self-determination. The war of national Liberation in Haiti under the outstanding generalship of Toussaint L’Ouverture an illiterate slave was the first country in this Hemisphere (after the U.S.A.) to wage a successful rebellion for its Independence. Today, Haiti remains an impoverished nation still experiencing tremendous difficulties in attempting to assert itself. The constant threat of political instability, economic paralysis, acute poverty, wide spread social and infrastructure decline, serve as a reminder to all developing nations that political liberation without economic freedom is meaningless.

 After the initial attempt to free ourselves from the bondage of imperialism and the spread of slavery, the effects of colonialism are now manifested in the divisiveness among Nation States (leaders and people alike). By deliberately acting on the principle of divide and rule our erstwhile European perpetrators have bequeathed to us in Guyana and the Caribbean in general, a State/s not of one people but many, each competing against the other. Indeed, since the arrival of Europeans to the New world (500 years ago), inhabitants of the West Indies and Caribbean Archipelago have been passive victims of economic, military, cultural, intellectual and political forces beyond their control.

Guyanese as well as other peoples of the region have all been victims of the abominable plantation system. For even with the attainment of political liberation a great majority of the region’s population unfortunately remains mentally enslaved.

The legacy of sugar is indubitably portentous to Guyana and the West Indies; it has been a major formative influence in our history. It was the major factor behind the large-scale introduction of Negro slaves with all its political, economic and social implications. Sugar cultivation has encouraged the emergence of a class of wealthy planters, owning large estates and exercising a phenomenal amount of power over their enslaved subjects. The pattern of a white oligarchy, possessing immense power and influence and ruling over a population brought from other continents against their will or descendants from those brought to serve and enrich that oligarchy is assuredly a derivative of sugar and the monetary wealth it generated.

 

REGIONAL INSTABILITY

 

The stability of the former British colony and the Caribbean region hinges on Venezuela’s desire to renew its unjust claim to Guyana’s territory (Ankoko Island- Essequibo). This border dispute had its origins in the rivalry amongst European nations during the period of the 16th to 19th centuries.

In 1966 as British Guiana was proceeding to Independence, Venezuela laid claim to nearly three fifths of the country’s territory. Even though both the Colony of British Guiana and the United States of Venezuela accepted the findings of an International Tribunal of October 1899. Moreover, the government of Venezuela had agreed in 1932 to the spot on Mount Roraima marking the boundary or TRI-JUNCTION point of Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil.

During October 1966 the Venezuelan army invaded Guyana’s territory and still occupies the eastern half of Ankoko, an Island in the Cuyuni River. Two years later, shortly after general elections in Guyana, Venezuela assisted a group of local ranchers and Amerindians in their efforts to take over the Rupununi Savannah, near the Brazilian border. However, the Guyana Defense Force (GDF) on orders immediately put down their illegal plan for secession from the central government.

The dilemma now facing leaders of Guyana and other Caribbean countries, is trying to determine how to effectively cope with the bequest of colonialism, neo-colonialism and the myriad of new problems as a result of current trends towards globalization and regional integration.

In a rapidly changing world environment, evolving are political unions/realignments and the growth of Mega-Blocs for enhancing trade. These unfolding realities necessitate perhaps that the Caribbean political leaders seriously contemplate their commonalties - history, language, culture and political institutions to formulate a closely-knit community of nations, or ultimately a single nation state.

       By failing to implement an adequate framework for political and economic integration, the politicians run the risk of having the region become marginalized in world affairs and relegated to being impotent trading States.

 

THE EMERGENCE OF TRADING BLOCS

 

Between 1984 and 1994, the Caribbean region has witnessed many profound changes, the establishment of a USA/CANADA FREE TRADE AGREEMENT, augmented by NAFTA (involving USA/CANADA/MEXICO), the European Union - with possibly the inclusion of some East European countries (former USSR Eastern Bloc satellites), the emergence of the Pacific Rim as an economic giant and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).

In Europe there is also a move towards political integration, the recent unification of Germany and the perpetual exertion towards some kind of political union among democracies of Western Europe.

As a consequence of the economic, technological and geo-political developments during the 1980s, CARICOM countries are in danger of losing their markets abroad - the replacement of sugar by fructose corn syrup in the United States. Markets for sugar and bananas in the U.K. may be lost or severely diminished under the European Union.   

The establishment of massive Trading Blocs, a proliferation of technology, a shift of funding to Russia and Eastern Europe following the democratization of these former communists regimes, the geo-political interaction, and fierce competition from Western Europe and South-East Asian countries have strengthened the need for change.

The rise in Muslim fundamentalism, escalating regional conflicts around the world and a growing disillusionment by the inequitable distribution of the world’s wealth endangers the peace and civility envisioned with the so-called New World Order.

There are too many countries where about half the population continues to live below the poverty line. Under this new phenomenon, regional trade within the Caribbean as well as international commerce will be affected in the very near future, which makes the present status quo unacceptable.

A comprehensive analysis should be undertaken to ascertain the immediate impact on Caribbean imports/exports, and any resultant repercussions emanating from these trading Blocs.

 

            SEARCH FOR REGIONAL UNITY

   

In spite of some improvements under CARICOM, the region has remained almost as balkanized and fragmented (both economically and politically) as experienced during the period when there was competitive greed and conflict among the European Powers. Fragmentation has long characterized if not debilitated the region, perhaps indicative of its history as separate colonies, being integrated totally or partially into a combined union.

Anguilla separated (as a colony of the United kingdom) from St. Kitts and Nevis. Barbuda has repeatedly threatened to severe its links with Antigua. Union Island (a part of the unitary state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines) attempted to secede but failed. Some groups in Tobago have constantly expressed their intentions to secession from the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago, but so far that desire has proven futile.

In 1961 Jamaicans in a referendum voted against remaining in the West Indian Federation, formed four years earlier. This eventually led to the break-up of the first serious attempt at forming a political union, involving ten (10) of the then British Colonies. Since then any mention of West Indian Federation has sparked reaction ranging from concern to ridicule to total dismissal. Many opponents of regional integration contend that no federation of island states has ever succeeded. The short-lived Malaysian federation is often cited as testimony to this reality.

There were other initiatives in recent years aimed at forging economic links, a typical case was the proposal from the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister, Patrick Manning seeking closer ties by creating an economic union, involving Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. Another was an attempt to bring about political integration of the Windward Islands in order to protect the banana industry. Caribbean banana producers have fought tirelessly to retain preferential prices and access to Europe.

The last solicitous effort for Caribbean integration was rejected in 1994, two years ago by CARICOM Heads of Government after the West Indian Commission had held public hearings in Europe, North America and through out the Caribbean. The Commission was established in July 1989 following a proposal submitted by the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the Hon. A.N.R. Robinson, to the Tenth Conference of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) in Grenada.

In December 1991 the Commission visited Canada and held public consultations meetings in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. A large group of Caribbean nationals in the predominant French speaking Province of Quebec braved freezing temperatures and waded through a major snow storm to participate in the process.

The Commission headed by Guyanese born Shridath Ramphal, former Commonwealth Secretary-General, was mandated to advance the cause of regionalism - including goals of the inter alia, Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) in 1973.

For many years the political leaders have struggled to eradicate common regional problems, through enhanced economic integration, common services, culture and a practical approach in formulating constructive foreign policies. Their efforts have proven limited, as they may be, that there is one undeniable truth deriving from the West Indian historical experience, that is, whatever the task, it is achieved by working together.

West Indian cricket perhaps crystallizes the invaluable possibilities of unity, achieving levels of excellence and international recognition; an unlikely accolade had the teams played separately.

Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) is another such example, founded in 1965 by Antigua, Barbados and Guyana; it affords the indulgence of positive achievements. Despite initial opposition and embryonic difficulties, it started functioning in May 1968 when the other Commonwealth Caribbean countries re-examined their alternatives and became members. CARIFTA was incorporated into the Caribbean Community Market (CARICOM) in July 1973. The acronym CARICOM now refers either to the Caribbean Common Market having to do only with economic integration or with the Caribbean Community as a geographic region.

Similarly, there are many Common Services that have proven advantageous throughout the region for many decades; perhaps less dramatic in their impact, but confirming nonetheless that Caribbean integration is tantamount to success. Including but not limited to among others - University Education (U.W.I.), Regional Secondary School-Leaving Examinations, (the CXC), Intra-regional Shipping (WISCO), Intra-regional Air Transportation (LIAT), Media Services (CANA and CBU) and Functional Co-operation in relation to joint measures to combat Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse; Culture (partly through CARIFESTA) introduced by Guyana in 1972, the country also played host to the first ever regional exhibition of Caribbean Arts and Crafts. In recent years a cultural identity, uniquely West Indian has begun to emerge with substantial influence from North America, Europe, Africa and India.

Guyana is poised to negate further decline in this vicious circle on economic strangulation by placing its tremendous wealth in natural resources at the disposition of fellow CARICOM partners. Then maybe, by demonstrating a willingness to stem the tide of regional regression, Guyana’s President Dr. Cheddi Jagan can solidify the initiative of his predecessor to accomplish political and economic integration.

The late Forbes Burnham and his regime were credited for introducing CARIFTA, which thirty years later has been transformed to CARICOM and accepted by many experts as a beacon for Caribbean economic stimulus.

Dr. Jagan, leader of the PPP/CIVIC, was elected President of Guyana in 1992 and holds the distinction of being the Caribbean longest sitting parliamentarian. As he begins his third year in office, many political analysts are expecting him to play a greater role than his predecessor as the thrust to Caribbean integration gains momentum.

It is difficult to envisage profound advances in the region, even if the major economies were to emerge from stabilization, structural adjustment and debt problems. The economies of many Caribbean countries are facing serious problems. A marked decline in living standards, an increase in the use of illicit drugs and related crimes are matters of grave concern and pose a greater challenge to governments.

In addition, structural adjustment touted as the panacea for regional modernization has instead caused divestment, huge devaluations; inadequately low wages, which continue to threaten industrial peace and high interest rates. Unquestionably, each one contributes to economic contraction at a time when all the components of the economy should be expanding.

Guyana, in the last few years, has adopted a structural adjustment program and like other countries in the region that undertook similar ventures the results have been disastrous. The damage inflicted on these nations is visible; eroding infrastructures, wide spread social decline, acute child poverty and a high crime rate are all manifested in the people’s daily life.

The prevailing pathetic conditions have disappointingly, made the disparity between rich and poor wider than ever before. From all indications it appears that structural adjustment has failed to alleviate Guyana’s social or economic problems. The effects of these programs will have far-reaching consequences for future generations.

It would be regrettable if not counter productive for the region to perpetuate these destructive social, economic and political paradigms inherited during the colonial era. The region must re-define its historic dependency on external markets for primary agricultural products and proceed with a sense of purpose and conviction to fashion a political structure that accommodates a cohesive region.

The Caribbean people owe it to themselves, and quite deservingly so to develop their sovereignty where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed to all. Maybe, sometime before the commencement of the next millennium, descendants of those men and women who were enslaved on various types of plantations could finally put the legacy of those Dark-days to rest.

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