A priority goal

Stabroek News
August 3, 2001

Even during the slavery period, both Africans and Creoles grasped the importance of literacy. The first formal attempt here to teach reading and writing was in 1738, when two German missionaries were hired by an absentee estate owner to teach the slaves on his two plantations - Groot and Klein Poolgeest - in the upper Berbice. Both he and the missionaries were Herrnhuters, nowadays known as Moravians, who believed in the need for everyone to have direct access to the word of God, i.e. the Bible.

The experiment lasted a mere two years, partly because of the open hostility of the the manager of Groot and Klein Poolgeest, partly because of the opposition of the Berbice planters in general, and partly because beyond a certain point the two missionaries could not agree on which language they should use for literacy purposes. They themselves were native German speakers, but they were acquainted with some formal Dutch. However, the lingua franca of the colony was not standard Dutch, but Berbice Dutch, a Creole with a far higher African lexical component than any other Caribbean Creole.

The Herrnhuters instructed the youngsters of the plantation - the manager did not allow them access to the adults - and they have left on record how when they were giving lessons in the evenings, the adults would come out of the fields to crowd around where they worked, and shed tears of joy that their children were being taught to read and write.

Eventually the missionaries decided that the institution of slavery was inimical to education, and they retreated up the Wiruni creek in 1740, to evangelize the free Amerindians. One of their number, Theophilus Schumann, was a linguist, and it was he who pioneered in this country the rendering of the Arawak language into written form, and the translation of portions of the Bible into Arawak.

The Herrnhuters were mostly artisans, and they helped support their settlement after 1740 by hiring themselves out to the plantations to do carpentry work and the like. We know that on these occasions they seized the opportunity unknown to the planters to Christianize those Africans and Creoles with whom they came into contact, but whether they made any attempts to teach literacy too is not on record. They do, however, write about a plantation slave who would arrive from some distance at their settlement during the nights asking to be taught to read and write.

Even if the Herrnhuters failed at Poolgeest, perhaps their presence still had an indirect influence in the Colony of Berbice in literacy terms. In 1763, Coffy, the leader of one of the Caribbean's greatest risings, inaugurated negotiations with the Dutch governor through the agency of correspondence, something almost unheard of in revolts of the period. Coffy himself could not read and write, but clearly understanding the significance of the written word, he dictated his letters to others, most of them European or Coloured captives. One or two of the letters, however, were penned by a revolutionary supporter named Prins from the plantation of Helvetia. Exactly how Prins became literate is not known.

The second and more sustained attempt at achieving literacy among Africans and Creoles, had come first with the missionary John Wray in 1808, who was based at Le Resouvenir, followed by John Smith in 1817. Again the literacy programme came out of the non-conformist belief that Christians should be able to read the Bible for themselves, so missionization and literacy went hand in hand. Wray subsequently went to Berbice, where he developed a politically correct primer from the whites' point of view. However, that did not really matter. Originating from societies with a rich allegorical tradition the Africans on the plantations wasted no time in investing stories like Daniel in the lion's den with the appropriate meaning.

Of course many of the planters attempted to prevent their workers from attending chapel where services were held and where some were also taught to read. Those who defied them risked a flogging.

However, by the time of the 1823 Demerara rebellion - another of the Caribbean's great risings, this time in numerical as well as geographical and political terms - some of the leaders were sometimes communicating with each other by letter.

Emancipation saw the dawn of attempts at mass education, and the generation which had emerged from slavery recognized its importance. Throughout the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth, no matter what the economic difficulties, African Guyanese parents placed great emphasis on education, and did their best to support the teachers in the instruction of their children. Their efforts paid off until the 1970s when Guyana could boast one of the best education systems in the developing world.

Nowadays, in contrast, a society corrupted by drugs, consumerism and 'get rich quick' values no longer takes education as seriously as it once did. Unfortunately, however, there will be no economic progress unless the educational levels of the poorest - of whatever ethnic background - can be raised. It is not just for the Government to do something about the education system, however, but it is also for parents to restore good schooling as a priority goal for their children. An emphasis on education not only represents an investment in the future generation, but it also honours the generations who have gone before, because even in the most adverse circumstances, they especially recognized its potential for opening horizons.