Book Review | A review of David Granger’s and Barrington Braithwaite’s The Era of Enslavement
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The Era of Enslavement, 1638-1838 by David Granger and Barrington Braithwaite, is an illustrated story which is aimed at giving children a graphic account of the history of African enslavement in Guyana. The book, first published in 2008 by Free Press, is an important contribution to the transmission of African-Guyanese history.
Every ethnic group has a responsibility to pass on its history, however traumatic, to succeeding generations. Africans have had a proud tradition of transmitting their history by oral, visual and written means. Earlier works on African enslavement were written, invariably, from the perspective of the oppressors. This book follows the tradition of the descendants of Africans who, since 1838, have been providing a more authentic account of African enslavement.

African enslavement cannot be unwritten or undone. It can be pushed into the recesses of history through de-emphasis and selective amnesia, however. This can produce a sterile story which distorts and revises the record of African enslavement. Future generations are entitled to an accurate account of their ancestral history. They should be spared the threat posed by historical amnesia or revisionism.

African enslavement is a central feature of Guyana’s history. Africans and their descendants were enslaved for more than 200 years, beginning during the Dutch occupation and ending under British regime. Africans were transported forcibly from their homeland and brought to the Colony, under inhuman conditions. They were auctioned upon arrival and consigned as chattel to toil on the Colony’s cotton, coffee and sugar plantations.

Their exertions on the plantations created the wealth which was expropriated to enrich the economies of Europe and America. The world is now coming to comprehend the fact that the wealth of Western Europe and North America was built on the proceeds of the greatest crime against humanity – human enslavement. The descendants of enslaved Africans are a free people today but they still bear the onerous burden of the legacy of more than two centuries of human enslavement.

Schools have a pivotal role in transmitting such knowledge. The primary schools’ curricula incorporate basic accounts of the arrivals of various peoples and elements of the cultures but such history does not engage in much detail about African enslavement or Chinese, Indian or Portuguese indentured labour. The Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examination provides for a much better understanding of human enslavement in the Caribbean.

The Era of Enslavement fills a gap in disseminating knowledge of African enslavement in Guyana, therefore. That experience shares many commonalties with Caribbean slavery but also has its own distinct features of which every local student should be knowledgeable.

David Granger is a fit person to perform this task. His efforts in researching, preserving, propagating and transmitting history are well known. He is the author of numerous scholarly publications – including Crime against humanity: The Trans-Atlantic Trade in Captive Africans; Crime without Punishment: the Caribbean case for reparative justice; and, The Emancipation Movement: The pursuit of dignity and liberty – which examine the African experience in Guyana.

The Era of Enslavement, 1638-1838 traces the origins of slavery and accounts for its slow development during the first 150 years of Dutch rule. The book highlights the regimen of arduous work, backed by punishment for even the most minor of indiscretions and infractions to which the enslaved were subjected and details their dreadful living conditions, including their diet and housing. It concludes by examining the process leading to Emancipation in 1838.

The book, while written as an illustrated text for children, is better suited for secondary school students. It provides a general overview of the African enslavement in the Colony.

The Era of Enslavement, 1638-1838, is a collaborative effort between David Granger and Barrington Braithwaite, the latter providing the illustrations. With more than 30 years of producing drawings, illustrations, sketches and cartoons, most of which address African-Guyanese themes, Braithwaite has a fine eye for historical authenticity. His drawings depict accurately the items and objects in their historical context, down to the minutest details. Braithwaite’s drawings are the product of scrupulous research.

Braithwaite is underrated as an artist and his work has not received the recognition which it deserves. Braithwaite recalled that, after a bout of early criticism from his peers, he bought some books on anatomy and started to study the human body. The influence is evident in his art which emphasizes torso, limbs and muscles. His illustrations in the book are cluttered with human imagery which detract from the purpose of storytelling and are better suited to canvas and paint rather than paper and ink. This in no way diminishes Braithwaite’s ability.

David Granger has written extensively on African-Guyanese history. With this book, he has made another invaluable deposit in the bank of knowledge of African enslavement and, consequently, to the preservation and propagation of African-Guyanese history.

David Granger, as President, has emphasized the link between education and culture. Addressing the General Assembly of the International Year of People of African Descent- Guyana, he argued that, in its wider cultural context, education extends beyond the classroom noting that education:
“…involves peoples’ histories, race, religion and economic political and social relations. Culture, in turn, can impact on the values of education and the way it is organised and taught…Education prepares people for social integration and cannot be divorced from its cultural context and content. It has to be responsive to that context and to the challenges which it presents.”

The Era of Enslavement, 1638-1838 represents a model for teaching African-Guyanese history in the country’s school system. Educators should not shy away from the responsibility to transmit cultural knowledge, even if it involves experiences as abhorrent and gruesome as African enslavement.
The Era of Enslavement 1638-1838 should be listed among the recommended texts for secondary school students. They will benefit from the knowledge, penmanship and artistry of two of the foremost proponents of African-Guyanese history – David Granger and Barrington Braithwaite.

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