OP-ED : Village Revival

By Basil Williams
(Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs)
NEXT year – on the 7th November 1839 to be precise – we will be marking the 180th Anniversary of the purchase of Plantation Northbrook by 83 free men and women from five plantations – Ann’s Grove, Dochfour, Enmore, Hope and Paradise. These men and women pooled their savings and courageously agreed to purchase this Plantation Northbrook, which they renamed Victoria; this I consider to be the mother of the village movement.

That simple financial transaction by unlettered men and women transformed the then colony of British Guiana. The purchase of a single plantation and conversion into a village laid the foundation for establishment of a nation. As you are aware, it ignited the greatest movement of freed persons within the Anglophone Caribbean. It was an ineffaceable moment whose importance cannot be diminished.

The village movement was described as: “The most spectacular and aggressive land-settlement movement in the history of the people of the British Caribbean and a movement which seemed to one planter in British Guiana to be certainly without parallel in the history of the world!”

The village movement precipitated a peaceful but powerful exodus of persons off the plantations and into the villages. Within the first decade of Emancipation, more than 44,000 Africans lived in villages and by 1856 the village population accounted for half of the entire coastal belt. Every great movement in history is driven by an idea whose time was ripe. The village movement was no different. Underlying this mass movement of personnel were two powerful ideas, both of which were minted by the newly emancipated Africans. The first was the ideal of economic independence and the second was the notion of the village as a centrepiece of human and community solidarity.

Emancipation on the 1st August, 1838, brought an end to the barbaric and dehumanising system of slavery. The free Africans were convinced that their emancipation lay not merely in a declaration of freedom, but in them securing economic independence.

Economic independence for them was to be the cornerstone of the new society which they sought. The basis of this quest for economic independence lay in them acquiring their own lands on which they would establish a peasant economy. The acquisition of lands was not made easy. The establishment of villages by free Africans represented a threat to the existence of the plantations.

The depopulated plantations led to a shortage of labour. The planters reacted by using their political muscle to engineer the passage of a series of ordinances between 1839 and 1848; these were intended to limit new land purchases by freed slaves by proscribing joint ownership of land by more than 20 persons; requiring the partitioning of lands purchased by more than 10 persons and by doubling the upset price of Crown lands so as make them to make these lands unaffordable for purchase by the free population.

High taxation, poor drainage, flooding and physical destruction of produce were used to undermine the economies of the villages. High transportation costs, lack of access to capital and the fragmentation of plots inflicted misery on village economies. Africans nonetheless persevered in the face of these difficulties. They continued to view the plantation as a symbol of their oppression. Consequently, distancing themselves from the plantation was seen a means of improving their economic independence.

They saw the villages which they were establishing as a means to ensuring their economic survival.
The peasantry was a product of villages. African-Guyanese established homes, farms and economic enterprises in their villages. Households maintained kitchen gardens; farms produced fruit, ground provisions and these produce were sold in markets. Micro-businesses such as bakeries, clothing stores, retail shops, cottage industries and parlours mushroomed. Artisans– including blacksmiths, tinsmiths, painters, carpenters, cobblers and joiners– honed their skills within the villages.

This is the village model which has been bequeathed by our ancestors. It is a model which is now being made more relevant to the present time and to extant challenges. Village revival is a work in progress.

In so doing, we must be careful not to discard those central ideas which inspired the village movement – the notions of economic independence and communal solidarity. Your government is committed to ensuring that our villages are transformed into centres which can support economic independence. Your government – the government which I represent – is placing emphasis on revitalising the economies of villages, so as to ensure the provision of sustainable livelihoods.

Development, if it is to be impactful, must reach down to the grassroots. Development for us should permeate through to our villages and percolate within them. It is the philosophy of your government that the economies of villages must be revived if people-centred development is to be prioritised. We are therefore committed to improving the economic infrastructure – roads, bridges irrigation and electricity – to support village economies, including the development of your farmlands.

Your government is stimulating entrepreneurship and enterprise in order to invigorate the economies of villages, particularly in developing cottage industries and small and medium-scale enterprises.

Your government is supporting the continued quest of people for economic independence. We see villages as important to generating jobs and wealth for our people. We will continue to support the development of economically vibrant villages. The reintroduction of local government elections in 2016 was a first step in the empowering of villages to have a greater say in the management of their communities. Local government elections are over. We are committed to respecting the democratic will of the people and working with all elected local authorities – regardless of which party or group is in control – to reboot the economies of our villages and ensure improved public services to residents.

The second major idea undergirding the historic village movement was the notion of villages as communities of solidarity. Many of the lands which were developed into villages were purchased by groups of individuals. The joint proprietors had the task or organising and planning the development of these communities. They also set about establishing places for worship, education and recreation.

The imperative of working together to provide common services spawned human and communal solidarity; villages developed a spirit of oneness. Everybody knew everyone else; they supported each other in times of distress and sorrow; they practised self-help and they worked collectively for the benefit of the community. Elders were respected. People helped one another. These are the values around which community life should be revived. Villages should become socially cohesive units promoting inter-ethnic harmony and promoting cultural activities on weekends. The playfields must come alive after school with athletic and other physical pursuits for young people. Villages should be made safer, more secure and more caring.

This is what your government is seeking to achieve. It is to this mission that we are committed, a mission consistent with the spirit of 1839. That spirit is being rekindled right across communities. Village economies are being revitalised; community spirit is being rejuvenated. I thank the people of Victoria for their efforts in reviving and rejuvenating the spirit of 1839. I thank the organisers for hosting this special event. I thank you for turning out in your numbers. The sprit of 1839 lives!

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