Choosing of national heroes
- Trio of Jagan, Critchlow and Carter
The Rickey Singh Column
January 16, 2000
LIKE Trinidad and Tobago, but unlike Jamaica and, more recently Barbados, Guyana has not shown any official interest in identifying and legalising national heroes.
As in other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states, it has its own system of National Awards, the highest being the Order of Excellence (OE). Among the OE recipients have been the late President Forbes Burnham, the assassinated historian Walter Rodney, and former President Janet Jagan, widow of the legendary Cheddi Jagan.
With the exception of Cuffy, the revolutionary leader of the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763, there are no official national heroes of Guyana, the CARICOM state that was foremost in the struggle for national and regional independence in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Cuffy, the house slave of that unsuccessful rebellion of the 18th century died by committing suicide. He was proclaimed a National Hero of the Republic of Guyana with the unanimous approval of a resolution in parliament supported by the then governing People's National Congress and the then opposition People's Progressive Party.
It was the first time that African slaves in the Caribbean had rebelled against their oppression, and it came some 28 years before the only successful revolution by slaves in this hemisphere - the Haitian revolution of Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1791.
The social scientist and political activist Eusi Kwayana, credited with writing the official songs of both the PPP and PNC - with which he was once prominently identified at varying periods - was to place, at the time of Guyana's independence in 1966, the 1763 revolt in the context of "the first blow struck for Guyanese independence".
Now that the PPP, the first national movement in the modern history of Guyana against imperialism and colonialism is marking its 50th birth anniversary this month, there are some in and out of government who think it is perhaps appropriate that the party shows some interest in influencing its own government to initiate moves for a National Heroes project.
Following President Jagan's death in March 1997, and amid some orchestrated political controversy against renaming the international airport at Timehri after him, I recall an initiative in parliament by the WPA's representative for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to come up with proposals on how best to commemorate the memory of the late President.
Therefore, in this year when the party of which he was founder-leader from its inception up to the time of his death, is celebrating its golden jubilee, the suggestion is that the PPP/Civic administration should consider establishment of a national committee to identify those who in the popular consciousness of the Guyanese masses are already National Heroes.
Once recommended, the choice or choices could then be forwarded to parliament for approval to give legal status to such hero or heroes. In April 1998, the Barbados parliament approved the country's first 10 National Heroes.
Guyana, of course, does not have to go that route in choosing that many at the beginning of such an effort in the process of re-education and building of national consciousness and pride.
Nor does Trinidad and Tobago, should Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's government decide to institute its own system of legally establishing National Heroes - Eric Williams being an unavoidable first choice. Jamaica has been introducing its National Heroes in batches over a period of years.
National Heroes should not be confused with personalities of national stature, outstanding leaders in various fields of endeavour, politics, culture or else.
To qualify as a National Hero, the individual's outstanding contributions must at least have some measure of national acceptance without any attempt to falsify history or expediently ignore serious wrongs committed against the society.
In any objective and serious assessment of the social and political history of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, whose name is synonymous with the country's struggles for political freedom, democracy and social justice, can hardly be omitted from those whose credentials would readily recommend them as National Heroes of the country.
Likewise, in the field of trade unionism and culture Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, pioneer of trade unionism in the Caribbean, and the poet Martin Carter, clearly merit to be included in the first batch of National Heroes of Guyana.
The present generation of Guyanese seem to know little about Critchlow, even though more are acquainted with the poetry of Carter. Together, Jagan, Carter and Critchlow make an ideal trio of National Heroes.
Given the nature of divisive politics in Guyana, it is to be expected that there will be those who will also want to include Forbes Burnham, the founder-leader of the PNC and first Executive President as a National Hero.
It is reasonable to assume that while it would be most surprising to experience any controversy over the choice of Cheddi Jagan, Martin Carter and Hubert Critchlow as National Heroes, the same cannot be said with any seriousness in the case of Forbes Burnham.
Unless much of what went wrong, terribly wrong under his long years in power, a period involving unprecedented political repression, rape of electoral democracy and denial of press freedom, are to be conveniently ignored or rationalised. Much, of course, would depend on the criteria to be established for a National Heroes Project.
In a recent conversation with the lawyer Ashton Chase, author of `A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana', a protege of Critchlow and who, like Janet Jagan and Kwayana, is a surviving former leading figure of the early years of the PPP, remarked:
"Perhaps when we move out of our present internecine warfare we will begin to think of more liberal and appropriate ideas such as establishing our National Heroes..."
Critchlow, the poor dock worker who founded the first trade union in colonial British Guiana, the Guyana Labour Union, back 81 years ago this month, was elevated to the stature of a National Hero during the controversial third term of the PPP in the decade of the 60s with the creation of the first ever life-size statue to be erected to a Guyanese.
Though, unlike Cuffy, his National Hero status is not legal, Critchlow, whose statute stands in front of Parliament Building in Georgetown, is widely perceived as a hero of the working class, not only in Guyana, but throughout the Caribbean and beyond.
Of that fine human being, the poet Martin Carter, whose funeral took place amid post-1997 election disturbances in Georgetown, Sydney King (now Eusi Kwayana) in a foreword to Carter's first published volume of `Poems of Resistance' in 1954, the year after the British deposed the Jagan-led first PPP government, wrote:
"The imperialists know quite well the influence of artists. That is why Martin Carter was put in detention camp with a strange hedge of barbed wire and a gate of bayonets. That is why his `Poems of Resistance' were banned in Guiana..."
More recently, in the very valuable revised edition of `Martin Carter - Selected Poems', published by `Red Thread Women's Press' in 1997 and dedicated "to the memory of Dr Cheddi Jagan and the spirit of Guyana's Independence Movement", the West Indian writer, Ian McDonald, notes in the foreword:
"It is time - past time - for Caribbean people and a wider international audience to have easier access to the poems of a man whose stature as a great Caribbean, Third World, and indeed universal writer, becomes more firmly established as each year passes".
Lamming on Jagan
And of Cheddi Jagan, the other of my initial trio of choices as National Heroes, hopefully within the first decade of the 21st century, the noted Caribbean novelist, George Lamming, in a tribute on the death of the first freely elected President of Guyana, had this to say:
"The name Cheddi Jagan has acquired, for more than one generation, the feel of permanence and awe which time confers on certain historical monuments, and there was something monumental in the consistence of purpose and the unique kind of dedication which he brought to the public life of the people of Guyana."
Lamming, who had delivered the eulogy at the funeral of the murdered Walter Rodney in 1980 at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Georgetown, thinks that "there is no Caribbean leader who has been so frequently cheated of office, none who has been so grossly misrepresented and no one who, in spite of such adversity, was his equal in certainty of purpose and the capacity to go on and on until his time had come to take his leave from us..."
The question now is when will Guyana begin the process of officially identifying its National Heroes.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples