MARCH 6 is a fateful date in Guyana’s history, because it was on March 6, 1997 that Guyana lost its greatest freedom-fighter, Dr. Cheddi Jagan.
But there were other fighters for various freedoms and rights who fought the oppressors relentlessly, even to the extent of sacrificing their lives. Kowsilla, for instance, fought on the labour front for workers’ rights, and was crushed to death by a tractor driven by a “scab” on March 6, 1964.
Guyana’s history is replete with heroes and heroines, and numbered among them is a young sugar worker, a woman named Sumintra, a weeder, and two other workers at the Leonora Sugar Estate who were shot dead by colonial police in February 1939; but they were relegated to oblivion in the annals of Guyana’s history, except for a brief mention in the following day’s newspaper. However, this tragic incident led to the Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) being recognised by the Colonial Government as the first representative of the sugar workers.
According to Rakesh Rampertab, “… A quarter century after Sumintra, we arrive at the same village, at the same estate, and have the same situation; death of a woman, Kowsilla (or Alice), and hardly anything substantially is recorded about her. There has been no serious attempt by anyone to recreate, as best as possible, the life of this woman who sacrificed her life in support of her position in an industrial strike against the colonial sugar masters.” Her murderer was one Felix Barr, who was acquitted by a jury at the Assizes because, apparently, the forfeit of Kowsilla’s life was of scant matter to the Colonial plutocrats.
It was estate workers’ resistance that concretised a young and idealistic Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s determination to relentlessly struggle for freedom and human rights against all oppressors in this nation, a resolve that was further strengthened after the brutal and senseless murder of the Enmore Martyrs.
Kowsilla was a staunch supporter of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and an executive of the PPP’s WPO branch at Leonora. Rampertab writes: “To speak of her, one must speak of Leonora, especially as it was during the violent but rich sixties. As many Guyanese know, the early sixties was a troubling and violent time; it centered on the PPP leadership, and the need to resist two forces; one external and one internal. The external force was the British colonial force that existed and operated in the colonial office, as well as via the channels of the largest symbol of British industry in the colony, the sugar magnate, Booker/Tate. Secondly, the resistance, on the greater part of its stomach, was against the onslaught of violent politics ensued from Forbes Burnham and his PNC party, which resulted in a circle of violence between Indians and Blacks.”
He continued, “Leonora, already famous for its resistance in 1939 (and even before then in 1869), as well as being the epicentre of East Indian life and culture on the West Coast, was naturally feared, and through this fear, respected… It was at Leonora that the great Sugar Strike of 1964 began. Like other prominent estate villages across the country such as Enmore on the East Coast, and Albion in Berbice, it was a nerve centre of PPP/Jagan support.
“At Leonora, it must have been both dangerous as well as excitingly momentous to be at the centre of socio-political activities in the early sixties. It is here that Kowsilla existed and resided; it is here that we must begin to understand how and why Kowsilla did what she did on March 6, 1964. Two days before she is buried, Harry Lall, the PPP representative and president of GAWU, gave a necessary and exhilarating speech, for which he would be tried for sedition later by the colonial authorities. Harry Lall was extremely defiant, and demanded that people resisted both the estate authority and the anti-PPP politics of the time. While many regarded Kowsilla’s death as being tragic, it seemed both of the time and of the natural process of resistance familiar from the Leonora region, after all, Kowsilla was a Leonora woman.”
Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Kowsilla gave their lives, in different ways, to create pathways to rights and freedoms that the entire Guyanese nation is enjoying today.