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by Dr Mellissa Ifill
The demand for reparatory justice for people of African descent has intensified over the past decade and there is increasing acknowledgement that Africans suffered and continue to suffer from grave structural disadvantages in every location they were transported, enslaved and dehumanised. The UN has acknowledged this by designating a decade 2015-2024 to seek equality, justice, inclusion and recognition of the lived reality of approximately “200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent” living outside of the African continent – in the Americas and in other parts of the world. This stance was adopted by the UN following multiple studies and findings by international, regional and local institutions that ‘whether as descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade or as more recent migrants, they constitute some of the poorest and most marginalized groups” and have restricted access to the quality of care and services and that they experience excessive “discrimination in their access to justice, and face alarmingly high rates of police violence, together with racial profiling.”
The articulation of the Black Lives Matter ideology at this particular juncture in our country’s history – in light of the chaotic 2020 elections and our deep ethnic cleavages has been condemned by some and derided by others as irrelevant to our particular environment. Indeed, the context of black lives in America in many respects is different from that of black lives in the Caribbean where most territories have majority black populations and black politicians hold political power. However, as noted these last two months in our sister CARICOM countries, the issue of non black domination – historically and contemporarily – of the economies of these countries, and the systematic exclusion of black people from the ‘real’ power – economic power – ensure the perpetuation of the structural inequalities that were present since the days of enslavement and colonisation and the continued relegation of the majority population of African descent to the margins.
These themes of economic marginalisation, state brutality and restricted access to power were precisely the issues raised by the African Guyanese community with the Special UN Rapporteur Gay McDougall who visited Guyana in 2008. She reported that the Afro-Guyanese experienced extra judicial killings of young men, ‘feeling excluded from having a full voice and stake in the national polity and equal enjoyment of rights in many fields of life including employment and economic participation. They reported stigmatization of young Afro-Guyanese males and entire African communities. Derogatory stereotypes of criminality colour wider societal perceptions of Afro-Guyanese individuals and communities.’
Ms. MacDougall further asserted that “Current anti-discrimination legislation and policies are insufficient to address discrimination, exclusion and ethnically based bias. A new and robust anti-discrimination and equality plan of action is required to be applied across all sectors of society to break down the barriers that have become ingrained in Guyana.”
Acknowledging that Afro descendants have experienced marginalisation and discrimination within the Guyanese context does not suggest that other groups might not have had similar experiences. Indigenous peoples in Guyana were enslaved though not on the scale and for the length of time as Africans. Indigenous peoples still experience internal colonialism from the independent Guyanese state, they are marginalised and constitute the poorest of the poor using western measurements of wealth. East Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, West Indians and some Africans experienced that brutish system of indentureship. However, indentureship, horrible as it was, was definitely not equivalent to the experience of new world slavery, which was the greatest crime against humanity. There appears to be a bid in Guyana to claim greatest victimhood. It is an unnecessary and strange desire manifested the counter calls ‘all lives matter’, ‘Indian lives matter’ and ‘Indigenous lives matter’. All are absolutely true, All lives do matter but there is no need for competition or attempts at minimising the BLM movement. The Black Lives Matter movement is a signal moment in global history. While this is not the first time a call has been made for justice, equality and reparatory justice for Afro descendants – this dates back centuries – it is certainly the first time there has been an almost global recognition of the historic and contemporary dehumanising experiences of Africans in the diaspora, including in Guyana.
Under colonialism, ALL ethnic groups were exploited for the benefit of the metropole and its capitalist class but in so doing, some groups were offered carrots while Africans faced the big stick. Take for instance the extremely contentious land issue. Africans have long argued that they were historically disadvantaged regarding land allocation by the state vis-à-vis the other ethnic groups in British Guiana/Guyana. The historical evidence appears to bear this out. Many are familiar with the African village movement in the post emancipation era. There was enormous land hunger on the part of emancipated Africans after 1838. The Africans had remarkably accumulated during slavery and apprenticeship, significant economic resources and purchased lands both on individual and community bases. By 1850, they had secured 16, 850 acres of land for which they paid in excess of $1 million. By 1848 some 32,717 people resided on freehold properties and the total value of property (included buildings and other improvements as well as land amounted to almost 2.5 million.
However planters, who controlled the legislature, sought to prevent or restrict access to land. They therefore enacted laws, regulations and rules all aimed at forcing Africans to remain as labourers on the sugar estates.
The regulations, rules and laws included those that:
- restricted internal migration;
- imposed taxes to pressure people into wage labor;
- criminalised free movement under vagrancy laws;
- criminalised the occupation of land without permission;
- established systems of police, magistrates and prisons to punish those who violated the labour laws;
- dramatically increased the price of crown lands and restricted the number of persons who could jointly purchase;
- offered lands for sale in undesirable locations and conditions (such as those that were not cleared or had easy access to transportation];
Africans’ desire for land and autonomy was nonetheless so enormous that they worked and accumulated the then astronomical sums mentioned previously to purchase land. This led to other actions by the colonial state and the plantocracy including:
- flooding the villages,
- denial of credit to improve the physical environment and engage in agricultural entrepreneurship,
- denial of request to fund village infrastructure although infrastructure on plantations was funded through the public purse and efforts at seizing control of village administration.
In other words, Africans were not compensated for the centuries of forced labour (though their ‘owners were compensated for loss of their ‘property’) and their efforts at self advancement were deliberately smashed to meet the labour needs of the plantation. The historic village movement
buckled under the weight of oppression and sabotage.
On the other hand the historical records show that the policy of the colonial state differed starkly when it came to indentured groups. In the post emancipation era, there were numerous discussions, debates and resolutions introduced in the Court of Policy regarding land policies in British Guiana dealing with repatriation, settlement, criteria for land access, criteria for distributing gifts of land and for establishing house schemes. Most of these discussions were directly linked to indentureship schemes to secure a regular and cheap supply of labour on the plantations and have surplus reserve labour for the labour intensive periods of the crop cycle. As the most enduring and largest of the Indentureship schemes, most of these discussions were related to conditions under which lands could be granted to East Indian immigrants to persuade them to remain in the colony after their terms of indenture had been concluded. Concretely, land in exchange for passages for East Indian indentured Indians started in 1880, paused in 1882, recommenced in 1897, and stopped again in 1903. Between 1880 and 1882, 49 residential lots and 69 cultivated lots were granted to East Indians. 2,711 Indians meanwhile received land between 1897 and 1903: 1,206 got land in Helena, 574 got land in Whim, 755 received land in Bush Lot, and 176 received land in Maria’s Pleasure settlements. The size of the lots were ranged between 5 to 10 acres – amounting to approximately 28,229 acres of land. During this period, in return East Indians forfeited about 5,550 of their return passage. There was a prior land settlement in 1865 for Chinese indentured immigrants. Hopetown village was established by the state as an inducement for these immigrants to settle permanently in Guyana. A grant from the local government was used to drain the land used for this settlement that was located, 22 miles up the Demerara River.
One colonial state. One overarching enduring aim – satisfying the labouring needs of the plantocracy. This state however used differing policies which had differing impacts on the different groups.
One final word. The colonial state at the time of independence made as a condition of independence, the resolution of Indigenous land rights in an attempt to correct a historical wrong. It was the right thing to do and efforts to retard the resolution of these claims are wrong. No such reparatory justice was ever considered for people of African descent. Meanwhile the impact of myriad colonial policies continue to reverberate. Black lives matter. The time for equality, justice and reparations for African descendants is now.
I don’t know the folks behind the painting of the BLM slogan in front of the Square of the Revolution but I dare say that Cuffy, our celebrated freedom fighter would have been proud.