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Rather than attempting to create the conditions for a ‘national conversation on race/ethnicity’, Mr. Ravi Dev’s letter, (SN: 07/05/2023), is a stealthy attempt at ethnic political mobilisation on behalf of the PPP. He attempts to cloak his real intent in talk about ‘memory wars’, i.e. political disputes over the interpretation or memorialization of historical events. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) suggested that we must acquire ‘enough of the truth about our past for there to be a consensus about it’ (‘Memory Wars and Peace Commissions’ by Stanley Cohen, file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/03064220 108536869.pdf). But Dev’s intervention is a good example of why the ‘conversation’ he claims to want is impossible in the context of Guyana’s persistent struggle for political power.
The proceedings of the TRC are said to have revealed four notions of truth. Factual or forensic truth: an interpretation of facts that would at least erode any denials about the past. Personal or narrative truth: stories told by perpetrators and victims that provide an opportunity for the healing and reconciliation. Social or ‘dialogue’ truth: generated by interaction, discussion and debate of conflicting views. Healing and restorative truth: truth as a factual record is not enough: interpretation must be directed towards goals of self-healing, reconciliation and reparation. Ravi’s false narrative falls short on every count and thus obstructs the opportunities for healing and reconciliation as contained in the Opposition’s position.
The Opposition has stated that it supports ‘Arrival Day’ being renamed ‘Indian Arrival Day’ and Dev’s response is ‘This is quite anomalous in a society in which the Opposition is chock full of individuals who deploy ‘history’ as one of their main armaments in the mobilization of their base and their quest for a guaranteed “share” of government. …. While one wished this signaled a welcome increase of magnanimity towards the ‘other’, sadly it appears more prosaically an acceptance of the ‘facticity’ of Indians first arriving on that day, while insisting against the historical evidence that “Indian arrival” undercut the bargaining power of the newly freed slaves after 1838 and drove them off the plantations.’
Firstly, the above is not directed towards reconciliation. What is the problem with a group legitimately using history to argue for both shared governance and recognition of an Indian Arrival Day? On the contrary, the idea of shared governance is rooted in the fact that all of us have built Guyana and should equitably share in its operations and outcomes. But shared governance is the opposite to the ethnic/political dominance the PPP seeks and Dev is ‘dog-whistling’ to its supporters to not only oppose it but to see ill intent rather than an effort at reconciliation in the opposition’s position on Arrival Day.
Secondly, based on the significant contributions Indians have made to Guyana, there is no contradiction in someone accepting an Indian Arrival Day and at the same time arguing that, as the planters intended, Indian arrival did keep wages relatively low. So far as I can remember, I am not one of those who have ever taken a position upon the labour-associated consequences of Indian immigration, and it would have been good if Mr. Dev had told us who were “insisting against the historical evidence that ‘Indian arrival’ undercut the bargaining power of the newly freed slaves after 1838 and drove them off the plantations.”
‘The forsaking by the Negroes of the plantation and electing to work on them only when the most dire necessity compelled it may be understood. They had no gratitude to, and less liking for, the men who had placed a yoke on their necks for 100 years’ (ARF Webber (1931) ‘Centenary History and Handbook of British Guyana). Between 1831 and 1841, the population of the colony had hardly changed (98,000; 98,145). Slavery and apprenticeship were abolished in 1834/38 and in 1835 the planters estimated that they would need some 20,000 immigrants; 13,000 just to compensate for the loss of hours since the new free men had legal working hours, and 7,000 for the slaves who had decided not remain on the plantations. Total freedom was won in 1838, the same year Indians first landed in Guyana, and 4,646 Africans had already bought 7,000 acres of land and formed the village movement; by 1842 they had bought 15,000 acres for some $250,000. Africans were leaving the plantations voluntarily en mass: Indians did not have to chase them!
Thirdly, at the very least, the historical record presented by Dev is sufficiently questionable to be dubbed propaganda. According to him ‘It was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. While Portuguese and fellow Africans from both the WI and Africa were brought in as early as 1835, a strike by ex-slaves in 1842 was successful and encouraged the planters to expand their indentureship program. The ex-slaves called another strike of 1847 at a point of financial crisis for the planters as their sugar lost its preferential English tariffs in 1846. Encouraged at that point by the indentureship of 15,747 Portuguese, 12,897 Africans from the WI and 6,957 “liberated” Africans from Africa – a total of 35,601 – compared with only 8,692 Indians, they held off the demands for higher wages. After 1848, when more than half of the freed Africans had moved into villages and towns, by and large, they had decided to make their living off the plantations.’
The true story is much simpler. Remember that the planters wanted 20,000 immigrants but by 1938, when the first 406 Indians arrived there were only 5,926 immigrants: 429 Portuguese, 91 ‘liberated’ Africans and the remainder coming from the West Indies. Bad treatment of these immigrants led to a postponement of Indian immigration for a few years and in the meantime immigration from where continued but only reaching some 22,858 when in 1845 Indian immigration resumed and was never again significantly interrupted until it ceased in 1920.
As stated above, nothing is wrong with accepting that an Indian Arrival day is deserved and that Indians did help to undercut the wages of the new freemen, and the following should be noted. In 1947 ‘It was not uncommon thing for an able bodied labourer to earn $9 and $10 per week. The labourers were then landed proprietors: they could neither be coerced by whip nor circumstances …. Portuguese immigrants were earning $28 per month and East Indians $21’ (Webber, ibid). When Indian immigration ceased in 1920, some 340,000 of which 238,979 were Indians, 42,343 West Indian, 30,645 Portuguese, 13,385 Africans, and 14,189,Chinese had entered these shores. (Ibid)
Indian immigration began before any strike by Africans and over the entire period of immigration wages were kept at a profitable rate for the planters and low for the Africans who were leaving the hated plantations in droves to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
I believe the above is ‘enough of the truth about (this aspect of) our past for there to be a consensus about it’, but the PPP and its propagandists hanker after political/ethnic dominance so that consensus, peace and reconciliation will have to await another day.