Villages and the birth of our nation

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NATIONAL Day of Villages, which was observed on Wednesday, commemorates one of the most significant aspects of our history and celebrates the resilience of our ancestors in their determination to build a nation.

Villages are collectively nothing less than the foundation of our country, and it is appropriate that Guyanese recognise that fact, and honour those who built that foundation. The great village movement, which spanned the decade between 1839 and 1848, shaped the way our country evolved and determined our form of government, including our system of local government. The movement began when enslaved Africans were finally emancipated in 1838. European planters, needing labour, tried to prevent the former slaves from leaving the plantations. But the former slaves were determined to build independent lives, and they left their former places of captivity, slowly at first, but the exodus soon gained momentum across what was British Guiana.

According to President Granger, the movement was driven by four major factors: the human desire for liberty and happiness, the natural yearning for economic independence, the availability of large amounts of land, and the fact that the freemen had hoarded money. The former slaves could therefore use their coin to collectively and individually purchase land from planters, and set up the communities that we call villages. In that decade of the rise of villages, more than 6,075 hectares (15,000 acres) were bought for more than $1,000,000; serious money in those days.

Two general strikes directed against the plantations – in 1842 and 1848 – had a huge effect on the population of the newly established villages; by the end of the first strike the population had reached 15,906, and exploded to 44,443 by the end of the second strike. Thus, villages became an established part of the country’s reality, and as the residents started to plant their own crops and produce items for their own use and sale, village economies were born.

Our country’s first village is Victoria. Then known as Plantation Northbrook, the land was purchased on November 7, 1839 by 83 pioneers who had saved their coins, put them in a wheelbarrow, and walked to Georgetown to pay for the plantation. They named the new community Victoria, after the then Queen of England. The national significance of that date was recognised by the administration, and National Day of Villages is now observed every year on November 7.

Following the establishment of Victoria, the village movement rapidly expanded; by the end of 1856, about half of the population lived in a chain of villages, stretching from the Corentyne to the Pomeroon Rivers. Thus, the village movement shaped our landscape, defined our inter-community relations, and later, influenced the way that we chose to govern ourselves.

Guyanese owe a great debt to the men and women who decided to take charge of their destinies and establish the villages which we now call home. As such, we acknowledge their sacrifices, we honour their resilience, and thank them for the legacy which they have bequeath to us, nothing less than the Guyanese nation. The challenges that they faced were enormous. For example, from 1849 to 1861 the freemen were relentlessly persecuted by planters by the imposition of unbearable taxation, and vandalism of their drainage and other village infrastructure. Their persistence, though, has given us a nation despite the odds being stacked against them.

At the ceremony in Essequibo Islands-West Demerara marking National Day of Villages 2018, Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan delivered the feature address. The minister said that government is committed to reviving village economies. He stated that, “This administration has embraced a different approach to governance and to development.” He noted the theme of this year’s celebration, “Working in Harmony, Building Better Relationships for a Brighter Future.”

As Guyanese once again pay tribute to the men and women of that era who have molded the shape of our country, we remember their contribution to our way of life, particularly in the countryside. President Granger stated that, “The beginning of free village life was the catalyst for the infrastructural development of rural areas. The construction of homes, churches, schools, burial grounds, bridges, and roads forever changed the pattern of settlement.”