Old Hercules' spirit

Stabroek News
June 3, 2000

We are inclined to think of corruption as being a somewhat modern phenomenon, when in fact it has ancient roots in this society. In his Independence Day speech President Jagdeo announced that he had spoken with the Integrity Commission, the Commissioner-General of the Revenue Authority and the Auditor General, and that they had agreed to cooperate with the Government to fight corruption. "... I am impatient to see this happen," said the President.

In the early British colonial days, of course, there was simply a dearth of institutions of this kind, and it depended on the temperament of the individual governor as to how much was done to deal with corruption, or if anything was done at all. President Jagdeo might envy the latitude enjoyed by Lieutenant-Governor Carmichael, who was appointed to his post in 1812 and could indulge his impatience where corruption was concerned.

Hugh Lyle Carmichael, after whom Carmichael street is named, and who was also the main force behind the acquisition of the land which once carried his name - Carmichael Square, now Independence Park - is known to history by the sobriquet of 'Old Hercules'. He acquired the nickname, according to Charles Waterton, on account of his efforts at rooting out corruption in a fashion reminiscent of Hercules' labours in the Augean stables. Waterton was to write that when Carmichael first moved into his offices to take up his post as Lt-Governor, the stench from the litter and other waste matter so offended his nostrils that he felt quite ill, and he decided to sanitize his environment.

In the process of the clean-up campaign which followed, he appears to have cleaned up officialdom along with the refuse. Some "tenants of the different departments" he unceremoniously kicked out, while others "he frightened nearly out of their senses." It was a portent of things to come. Not surprisingly, he earned himself a remarkable number of enemies in a very short space of time. The historian James Rodway claimed that an honest official had nothing to fear from Carmichael; the problem was that there were so few honest officials in the Demerara of 1812.

Totally lacking in guile, the Lt-Governor regarded it as the gentlemanly thing to do to warn those about to fall under his scrutiny of his intention to investigate their departments. The occasion for imparting such news was invariably an official dinner, and there is a story of one official so warned, who promptly ran off into the bush, from where he refused to emerge until he had heard that nothing untoward had been found. These warnings, of course, were not necessarily in the best interest of Carmichael's anti-corruption campaign, providing as they did, time for renegade officials to cover their tracks.

Notoriously quick-tempered, Old Hercules' ire was aroused not just by corrupt officials, but also by Dutch lawyers, whom he regarded as dishonest to a man. It is Waterton again who relates the story of an Englishman complaining to Carmichael about a Dutch lawyer who had held on to monies which were rightfully his. The lawyer was duly summoned, and when asked by the Lt-Governor whether he had received the money for the Englishman, he acknowledged that he had. He could not reply, however, when his interrogator demanded to know why these had not been handed over. "Do you see that lamp-post in front of the window?" Carmichael is reported as saying; "I'll have you hanged on it by Saturday night if you do not refund the money." Needless to say, the money was refunded.

The anti-corruption drive ground to a halt with Carmichael's death in 1813. In an obituary which represented a masterpiece of diplomacy the Gazette wrote that "Perfection can never be synonymous with mortality, so if there are some who have discovered errors in any of his actions of government, others may be found perhaps who think that his name deserves a distinguished seat in the memory and affections of Demerary."

Even if his modus operandi would be unthinkable nowadays, it would be nice if Old Hercules' spirit still stalked the corridors of government.

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