Retrieving a legacy
August 1, 1999
Those who crossed the great divide of Emancipation in 1838, redirected the destiny of this country. They changed the face of the coastlands and redistributed about half its population in a massive internal migration unequalled in the Caribbean. According to Alan Young, by 1850 about 44,000 people had relocated from the sugar estates to villages up and down Guyana's coast. It has to be remembered that prior to 1839, Guyana had been a plantation society pure and simple. There had been only two small towns, and aside from Winkel Village and a hamlet at Mahaicony, only two true villages.
It was not just the demographic shift which is remarkable; Young has estimated that the labourers had paid out by 1848 the staggering sum of over a million dollars in order to purchase land for the establishment of their villages. In addition, he says, the improvements to that land cost a further half million dollars or so, while the ten thousand houses which were built represented another million dollar investment. And these sums came from a people which had been held in bondage for over two hundred years.
They did something else too. Long before education became compulsory in 1876, they laid stress on schooling for their children, so that the next generation produced first catechists and schoolmasters, then lawyers and ministers, and finally doctors. Advancement in the civil service was blocked to Creoles for the whole of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, but the next generation seized whatever avenues they could to utilize those skills they had acquired, often at the cost of considerable sacrifice on the part of their parents. All in all, it is a story of courage, single-mindedness, commitment to family and community, hard work, thrift and forward planning - and all that in circumstances where their economic advancement in key areas was deliberately stymied by the plantocracy.
Today we have a society undermined by drugs, with family networks destroyed through emigration, and where unemployment, a socialist experiment, dependence on remittances and low wages have eaten away at the traditional work ethic. We have a collapse in the education system and a younger generation which has been seduced by the advertisements beamed from metropolitan consumer societies. With their minds attuned to a different universe, many of its members see their salvation in emigration and/or finding conduits to fast wealth. The values represented by those who filled the churches as free men and women on August 1, 1838, appear to be going out of vogue.
Yet our survival as a society depends in part on recovering some of that spirit of industry and self-reliance which characterized the early nineteenth-century villagers. Rebuilding a society, of course, is not something that any government can decide consciously to sit down and do. At the micro level, individual communities can choose to initiate changes from the inside, but no large entity can impose change in a deliberate way from the outside and succeed.
If there is anything at all that can be done at the macro level, it is surely in the field of education. As we move into the era of the unforgiving global market place, the nation's future will depend on the level of skills of its population. A people which can hold its own in the technological era will in the process recover some of that resilience and initiative which characterized the village pioneers. And an emphasis on education is something of which they would have approved strongly.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples