by Ruel Johnson
They seized the opportunity of Emancipation to establish the foundations of a civilised life – the quest for education, employment, equality and the pursuit of happiness.” – David Granger
In the early 1600s, the Dutch West India Company brought the first set of African slaves to what is now known as Guyana. What followed was over 200 years of oppressive and exploitative cruelty under the plantation system with occasional, but significant instances of revolt or open rebellion. The most notable of the latter was the 1763 Rebellion led by the house slave Kofi or Cuffy, although later revolts like those led by Quamina (1823) and Damon (1834) would be recorded as significant mileposts in the movement towards Emancipation.
By 1838, when full Emancipation came about, the former slaves of what was by then British Guiana had survived systemic subjugation, brutality and economic disenfranchisement, and were ready with the establishment of a vibrant plan for sustainable self-development built upon the village system. It is notable that almost immediately after being freed, villagers from places like Buxton and Victoria were able to gather the resources to purchase from plantation owners the very land upon which they lived.
According to David Granger, in his article, ‘The material culture of African-Guyanese’ (Stabroek News – July 29, 2010): “These villages rested securely on four pillars – the home, church, farm and school – that were the wellspring of a distinctive culture. Creole culture, therefore, was engendered entirely through the African experience in Guyana. Certain values – cooperative work, love of the land, religious faith, self-reliance and thrift – came to typify their communities at an early stage of development.”
While this distinctive Creole culture would define the Afro-Guyanese ethos and experience, it was unfortunately at the expense of a connection to the ancestral cultures of the original slaves. The Afro-Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott wrote, in his poems Sea Canes, “out of what is lost grows something stronger that has the rational radiance of stone”.
This is emblematic of the history of Afro-Guyanese experience, the Afro-Guyanese experience of history, the creation of something radiant and substantial out of tragedy and loss. Despite the traumatic events of slavery and colonialism, the descendants of Africans have ascended to heights of achievement in every conceivable field of endeavour. Eddie Grant has achieved the sort of global stature in music as Wilson Harris has achieved in literature, and Walter Rodney in history and politics. In the epitomic Guyanese/Caribbean sport of cricket, Guyana has produced a gallery of Afro-Guyanese legends – Basil Butcher, Roger Harper, Lance Gibbs, Clive Lloyd and Roy Fredericks.
Afro-Guyanese have also excelled in political leadership in Guyana, dating from the time of Cuffy and Damon to the labour movements of the early parts of the 20th century, to the Independence era to contemporary Guyana.
Indeed, four out of Guyana’s five executive presidents have been Afro-Guyanese, beginning with Forbes Burnham, followed by Desmond Hoyte, Samuel Hinds and currently His Excellency David Granger. The latter, notably, has been one of Guyana’s primary historians in general and a publisher on African-Guyanese history, with his annual magazine ‘Emancipation’ enjoying a successful run from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s; interestingly enough, he has also become a significant part of that history.
The history of Afro-Guyanese in this society is a history that is constantly evolving, a history interwoven with and shaped by both conflict and cooperation with other ethnic experiences in Guyana, but one which, like those other experiences, retains at its core a distinct and luminous thread.