Guyana is described as a plural society. By this it is meant that we are a diverse society with a variety of ethnicities and cultures which together gives us our sense of national identity. It is therefore fitting that we take some time to reflect on our past and the role played by our early descendents in shaping this cultural mosaic which is unique to us and which, as mentioned earlier, gives us that uniqueness in terms of our nationhood.
As all of us know from our reading of history, Guyana for the most part could be regarded as a transplanted society.
This is to say that with the exception of our Amerindian people, all of the other ethnic groups were brought to the shores of Guyana to provide cheap labour to the European planter class. In the case of the Africans, they were brought against their will to provide labour in the sugar plantations.
The harsh and inhuman conditions under which the African slaves were forced to endure are well documented by several historians and cannot be adequately represented in this short presentation. Suffice it to say that the Africans were treated in the most brutal and inhuman conditions imaginable until they managed to gain their freedom in 1834. Full emancipation did not take place until 1838 when the slaves were completely free of their servitude. The majority of them opted to leave the plantation in pursuit of an independent existence.
QUOTE: The full potential of this country can only be realised by the combined efforts of all our peoples regardless of which race or ethnicity they belong. Guyana belongs in full and equal measure to all Guyanese and it behoves each and every one of us to play our part, however modest, in this exciting task of nation building. Our richness resides in our diversity. Let us celebrate our diversity and pledge to do all within our power to create a society in which there is peace, progress and prosperity for all.
The withdrawal of Africans from the sugar plantation consequent upon the granting of emancipation status created an immediate labour vacuum which was met by the importation of labourers from Asia, in particular East Indians who were by far the largest ethnic group that came to the colony as contracted labourers.
Others who came were Chinese and Portuguese but in comparatively smaller numbers. In fact, both the Chinese and the Portuguese preceded the arrival of East Indians to the colony. Needless to state, the conditions under which these contracted or indentured labourers worked were not significantly different from that of the slaves which they replaced.
The physical chains were replaced by ‘paper’ chains. Such treatment persisted for the greater part of our colonial history culminating in the massacre of five sugar workers in 1948 at Enmore which, incidentally, provided the catalyst for the formation of the People’s Progressive Party a mere two years later.
The formation of the PPP in January 1950 could therefore be seen as a watershed year in terms of the evolution of workers’ rights in Guyana.
This is not to suggest that there were not, in the past, sporadic or even organized efforts to represent the cause of the workers in the country. Names such as Cuffy, Accabre, Damon and later on Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow are popular in terms of their contribution to organized resistance to the exploiters. However, most of these were limited to bread and butter issues and were not aimed at changing the colonial status quo which not only benefited from the prevailing order but also facilitated the process of labour exploitation.
In other words, there was a symbiotic relationship between the Colonial Office and the planter class in order to keep the working class in a state of dependence and subservience.
The fact of the matter is that all of the ethnic groups suffered at the hands of the planters’ class in active collaboration with the Colonial Office.
It was not until the emergence of mass based political parties, in particular the emergence of the PPP that the rules of engagement between the workers and the employers changed in very significant ways. The struggle was advanced to the political level and not limited to economic issues.
In the long and hard struggle for genuine emancipation, the stranglehold of the sugar lords were effectively curtailed with the nationalization of the sugar industry in the mid-1970’s even though it must be said in passing that the full benefits of the nationalization process were not fully realised by sugar workers as a consequence of mismanagement of the industry and an unconscionable levy imposed by the previous PNC administration.
Be that as it may, the nationalization of the sugar industry was a significant advance in terms of the realization and safeguarding of our national patrimony. As mentioned before, the arrival to the colony of all our ancestors with the exception of the Amerindians, revolved around sugar. The sugar industry until this day remains the single largest employer of labour and contributes significantly to our Gross National Product.
It is important, therefore, as we reflect on Arrival Day which is now declared a National holiday that we get our perspective right and avoid a tendency to project one ethnic group as having made a greater or lesser contribution to the growth and development of our modern day Guyana.
Such ethnocentrist views that are sometimes peddled are not only counterproductive but dangerous in terms of our desire to foster a harmonious and cohesive society. The full potential of this country can only be realised by the combined efforts of all our peoples regardless of which race or ethnicity they belong.
Guyana belongs in full and equal measure to all Guyanese and it behoves each and every one of us to play our part, however modest, in this exciting task of nation building.
Our richness resides in our diversity. Let us celebrate our diversity and pledge to do all within our power to create a society in which there is peace, progress and prosperity for all.