A common history

Stabroek News
July 23, 1999

Nothing was more symbolic of the divide in the society than when an unruly mob chased members of a procession which had assembled at the Square of the Revolution prior to making its way to the Le Repentir cemetery for the annual Enmore Martyrs' Day observances in June. The crowd doing the chasing was of African descent, and they let it be known that the Cuffy Monument site was their spot. Leaving aside the menacing tactics involved and the fact that the Square of the Revolution is a public place to which all members of the population should have unimpeded access, it must also be said that it should be viewed as a symbol of everyone's history, and not just that of a single ethnic group. In a similar fashion, the Indian Monument Gardens belong to the nation, and not to those of Indian descent alone.

In addition, what has become increasingly apparent in the last eighteen months or so, is that people have become more inclined to confuse the history of their own discrete group with the history of the nation. While each of the ethnic components of the society has made its own contribution to the national historical consciousness, the history of a part can never be the history of the whole. The past of this nation begins not with the coming of the first Africans, possibly in the second decade of the seventeenth century, or with the arrival of the first East Indians in 1838 (or with the Portuguese or Chinese, for that matter), it begins with the appearance of the first Amerindians within the boundaries of modern-day Guyana some eleven thousand five hundred years ago, or earlier. Other peoples came subsequent to that, but eleven thousand five hundred years ago (the date may yet be pushed back by archaeologists as we learn more) is really our current departure point. It imparts to this nation a dimension of antiquity which it could never have if we concentrated our focus on the historic period alone.

The earliest identifiable inhabitants of this land that we know about so far are the Warraus, who were occupying the North-West in places like Barabina some seven thousand years ago. They are an ancient people with an ancient past, and they constitute a critical living link in the chain of our history. Stop the man on the street and ask him when Guyanese history begins, and he might mumble something about the coming of the Dutch and/or the coming of the Africans. Ask him about the first people who lived here, and he would almost certainly answer 'the Amerindians'. But ask him when they came, and he would be at a loss. Ask him which was the first identifiable group to live here, and it is unlikely that he could answer.

To get ourselves in perspective, we also need to get our history in perspective. We need to recognize that despite the chronological sequence in which the various peoples arrived here, our history, going way back into the prehistoric past, is nevertheless a common history. Thirty years ago a useful little work entitled The People Who Came was used by most first-formers in the secondary school system. It covered in a simple, general way all the peoples and the cultures from which they derived who had settled in the Caribbean. Its problem was that it had a regional focus, and not a local focus, so that it dealt mostly with the Taino Arawaks of the Greater Antilles, for example, rather than our Arawaks.

We really should look again at the history and social studies curricula being used in our schools; we desperately need a local version of The People Who Came which could give our children a sense of the shared nature of their past and its ancient origins. This does not mean to say that each ethnic group might not find its own segment more interesting than that of the others - that would be quite normal. Nor would it mean that studies of particular ethnic groups were not in order - that would be patently absurd. It would mean, however, that at the school level - more especially where the younger age groups are concerned - the syllabus would encompass the whole gamut of the Guyanese historical experience. In other countries that is normally one of the ways in which a population acquires a sense of 'nation', and as such, therefore, it may have been a mistake for educational planners to have subsumed primary school history under social studies, thereby breaking up its natural chronological sequence, among other things.

Understanding each other means in part, at least, understanding each other's past, and recognizing the validity of that past and its contribution to the Guyanese identity. Most of all, it means recognizing that the history of each single group, is the common property of all.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples