A Fractured Nation - The British Creation and Encouragement of Racial, Economic, and Cultural Separation in Guyana by Premi Singh and Moses Seenarine
May 18, 2000 (Published by Saxakali.com on July 1 2000)
As Guyana continues to forge a strong national identity it is frequently noted that it is a nation composed of "six races living together". These six categories are the African, East Indian, Indigenous or Amerindian, Portuguese, and Chinese. However, for most of Guyanese history and for all of Guyana’s colonial history the six different "races" were encouraged not to live together and unite. In fact the diversity that existed within the country was used strategically to separate the working people, thus maintaining the dominance of the British colonizers. This policy of divide and conquer" has affected, or has been affected by three main areas: ‘Race’. Economics, and Culture. The fact that the people of Guyana have managed to develop a unique, although often volatile national identity that encompasses all of the different ethnic groups is very much shaped by the history of the colony and the three factors listed above.
From the onset of colonization, beginning with Columbus’ first encounter with the Caribbean the main focus of the Europeans has been accumulating wealth. As Eric Williams (1970) notes, Columbus was looking for gold as early as the day after he landed in the Bahamas. This legacy, started by the Spanish in the Caribbean was emulated by other European Imperialists. Williams (1970, p. 172) records that, "The Chamber of Commerce of Nantes stated categorically in 1762 that the value of the colonies was based purely on extent to which they enhanced the cultivation, arts and manufactures of the metropolitan country and furnished it with their produce, either for home consumption or for re-export." It is clear that the conquering of the Caribbean was less about "civilizing the savages" and more about economic gains for the Europeans.
Maulana Karenga (1993, p.275) defines race as "...a bio-social category designed to assign human worth and social status, using Europeans as the paradigm of humanity and social achievement." This definition is quite accurate because it encompasses both the ideas that "race" is a human construction, and that it was created as a hierarchy with Europeans being on the top of the pyramid. In fact, the illusory "rac& theory has been historically used to excuse and explain the colonization and enslavement of non-European peoples.
As Brian L. Moore notes, (1987, p.81) "These racist views achieved more credulity by the development of a number of pseudo-scientific race theories in the19th century. He also goes on to point out that the belief that blacks were inferior was equated with their inability to govern, and was used to justtify "strong centralized white rule" after emancipation. (1987, p.81) It was typically believed by the British that blacks could not handle the responsibility that came with voting. This of course was used to deny blacks the right to vote, thus maintaining white rule in the colony.
Although I previously stated that race is a purely social construct, it is also important for me to mention that the categories of race" had a significant impact on the way that many people in the world view the differences between people, and in turn, themselves. So although it has no scientific grounding it does have quite a bit of social significance. What is important here is not the reality that there is no such thing as race, but that the people who were oppressing the masses and consequently the working class themselves believed in racial categories and saw the world through a lens imbued with these beliefs.
Guyanese society was highly according to race, (Moore 1987, p.10) writes that there were Creoles:
of almost every conceivable color gradation, ranging from the fustee who were nearly white, through the mustee who were a ‘shade" darker, the cob of a still darker hue, to the negro, some of who were nearly jet black, but the majority of a dark brown complexion. Other categorizations included octoroon and quadroon—one eighth and one quarter black respectively many of these categorizations were not very precise, although they had great social significance especially within the Creole section itself.
He also notes that "Differences, particularly of origin and colour, divided the black and coloured section" and that the worst insult that could be used against a Creole was calling them a "******" (Moore, 1987) This internalized inferiority regarding blackness and the obsession with skin color shows that planters were already successful in creating divisions among the people. This was easily achieved during enslavement when a color hierarchy was implemented so that light skinned Africans had better positions (usually in the house) on the plantation and the darker Africans were forced to toil in the fields.
This hierarchical system was continued even after the introduction of indentured servants. The Portuguese were one of the first groups of indentured workers to immigrate to then British Guiana (Despres, 1967). The population of whites in the colony never exceeded three percent (Moore 1987, p. 82). Therefore the immigration of Portuguese workers "...was encouraged on essentially racial grounds" because the ruling whites admitted the importance of their numerical contribution to the white population and to the preservation of white interests in the colony." (Moore 1987, p. 140) The indentured Portuguese workers were sought after for their color and not for the economic benefits to the planters. Even after they escaped their indenture they were still encouraged to come to Guyana (Moore 1987; Despres, 1967).
In 1856 when the Portuguese refused to emirate and serve three years of indenture the planters waived the indenture obligation and granted "$35,000 of public money to finance their reintroduction." (Moore 1987 p. 140). By all standards this was not sound economic investment and therefore the planters actions can not be attributed to economics. Instead, the desire to have more whites, (even if they were considered lower than British whites) in the colony seems more plausible.
Unlike the Portuguese, the Indian and Chinese indentured workers introduced to Guyana for the exclusive purpose of providing cheap labor. All aspects of their lives were tied to the plantation. (Moore, 1987) Stringent laws were applied to the Indian and Chinese workers who tried to evade work. In addition, many planters tried to re-indenture the Asians to work for a longer period of time than the customary three years. Sometimes they used monetary rewards, but all too often coercion by the police was used to get them to re-indenture. (Moore, 1987) Still, even though the introduction of the Asians was primarily economic the Indians and Chinese became an integral part of the racial hierarchy. Like the Portuguese they served as a buffer zone between the white planters and the free Africans, and Creoles. The tensions created in the economic sector to aggravate "racial" hostilities in order to maintain white power will be discussed in the next section on economics.
After the Emancipation of the enslaved African population in Guyana planters were threatened with economic devastation. The plantations were built, and maintained with the sweat of the enslaved population of 100,000 Africans. In the immediate years following emancipation (1839.1842) the "...level of production declined by three-fifths (Despres. 1967 p.45) The planters were losing a significant amount of profits.
One solution to the problem of labor shortage was the introduction of Indian and Chinese indentured workers who saturated the market and created an oversupply of labor thus increasing competition with Creoles and driving down the wages. Walter Rodney (1981, p. 34) notes that, indentured labor "... continued to function as the basis upon which the plantation work force was constructed. They were the lowest paid group of workers." Creole and Black workers had to compete with the new immigrants for much needed jobs. Consequently, they had to also accept lower wages as well or face unemployment. Rodney (1981, p. 38) records that "In October 1886, G.R. Sandbach indicated.., that the most effective way of’ reducing labor costs "was to increase the indentured gang relative to the free Creoles. He explained that so long as an estate has a large Coolie gang, Creoles must give way to the prices asked or see the work done by indentured labourers..."
The planters played the Creoles and the Asians off each other thus creating tensions divided along racial lines. This type of economic policy creates what is referred to as a split labor-market theory. In this type of economic situation "...racial antagonism begins in the labor-market split along racial lines when business promotes worker competition to displace higher paid labor...class antagonism is transformed into racial antagonism." (Karenga, 1993, p.274) The racial tensions created amongst the working class divided them and allowed the planters to implement a divide and conquer strategy that lead to their own economic wellbeing, and their continual rule over the oppressed.
It is important to note that all of the aspects of colonial life, including "race", class, gender, economics, climate and weather conditions, etc. all interact to form the totality of the colonial experience. Economics then is wholly and inextricably linked to issues of race and class. Thus planter’s nurturing of animosity between Blacks, and Indians who now constitute the majority of Guyana’s citizens has created long lasting effects in every aspect of life Guyanese life.
With the case of the Portuguese the planters wanted to increase their status to a level above the Blacks, and Indians, and below their own. Public policy afforded the Portuguese immigrants room to improve their status within the society, while at the same time limiting the ascension of other groups. The Portuguese were very successful in retail trading and huckstering and amassed a significant amount of wealth. But Creoles were denied access to this market through a licensing system that "like the imposition of other licenses and forms of taxation, was calculated to hinder the Creoles from establishing an economic base independent of the plantations." (Moore, 1987, p.142) This policy not only hindered the economic success of the Creoles but also prevented them from gaining any political control held by the British planters.
This economic policy, like the practice employed by planters with the indentured servants created hostility between the Creole and Portuguese communities. Moore (1987, p.156) writes that "The high level of racial tension and antagonism, and sharp cultural and economic differentiation contributed to the persistently poor between the Portuguese and the Creoles." The result of these divisions is a nation that is fractured into very diverse segments. How then can contemporary Guyanese citizens claim "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" when there has historically been so much division created among them?
The British planter’s policy of keeping each group separate also played a role in the sharing of culture. The British authorities strongly discouraged the intermixing of the different communities in order to prevent "... the moulding of interracial understanding and cooperation between the two sections." (Moore, 1987. p.lSl) Of course other reasons were given for the separation of the people. such as the pretense of trying to prevent hostility and violence between any two groups.
Still, the intermixing of different groups in festive activities was not uncommon in the colony. ~It is true that Creoles participated in immigrant festivals, particularly the Muslim Mohurrum festivities and the Chinese New Year celebrations... During the 1870s the Creoles even organized their own "tadjas" (Moore, 1987, p.180) While some point out that there is still no significant intermixing between the two largest groups. East Indians, and Africans (Despres, 1967) the culture of the people as it has evolved to the present day shows some signs even though they are small of cross cultural interaction between the different groups have managed to blossom,and were probably initiated in the years of colonization by the attendance of the kinds of cross-cultural activitiesI have mentioned previously.
The challenge of the Guyanese people of today is to take the advances that came about slowly in the area of culture and use them to form a link between the different factions in other areas such as Economics, Education, and Politics. The Guyanese people can not allow legacy of the planters to continue dividing the country. The existence of a blending of culture is powerful and reassuring for two reasons. Firstly, it reaffirms the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity and find "sameness" and direction even in an overwhelming sea of differences. Secondly, it provides a kernel of hope that Guyana can really become "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" and march into the new mililenium stronger, better, and unified.
Despres, Leo A. (1967) Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guyana. Chicago: Rand McNallyand Company.
Karenga, Maulana. (1993) Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: The University of Sankore Ness.
Lionnet, Francoise. (1998) "The Politics and Aesthetics of Me’tissage" Women, Autobiography, Theory, Edited by Smith and Watson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Moore, Brian L. (1987) Race. Power and Social SeEmentation in Colonial Society. New York: Gordon and Breach Publishers.
Rodney Walter. (1981) A history of the Guvanese Working People. 1881-1905. Baltimore, Md. : The Johns Hopkins University Press.