Trouble in El Dorado
August 10, 2002
Guyana is going through yet another political and social crisis. Once again, outside observers (and Guyanese themselves) are asking why. From Trinidad to the Bahamas and distant Bermuda people scratch their heads, puzzled and alarmed that less than a million Guyanese living in a Caribbean territory the size of Britain, a people of almost legendary warmth and hospitality seem bent on self-destruction. Ethnic rivalry? Political ineptitude? Bloody-mindedness? None of these failings is unique to Guyana and none seems to offer a satisfactory reason for these recurring internal crises.
Perhaps the root of the problem lies in our own ignorance of Guyana’s history and landscape, both of which have been shaped by a great world myth: the myth of `El Dorado’. Cheddi Jagan, in the West on Trial (1972) begins his book with disenchanted references to the mythical ‘unspoilt Guyana’ of Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare and Milton: “the El Dorado ... to which my grandmothers were lured...” The reality of Guyana has always contradicted the myth. In many ways, Guyana is a contradictory land, in South America but of the `West Indies’ and still largely unknown even to those of us who were born here and live here.
The country has suffered Dutch, French and British occupation: the capital was first called ‘Stabroek’, then ‘La Nouveau Ville’, then Georgetown as it changed hands. Place names, like family names, reflect this hybrid cultural inheritance.
Le Repentir, Plaisance, Beterverwagting, Vryheid’s Lust, Buxton, Bachelor’s Adventure. These are names of conquest, however, and they are overshadowed by the sheer weight of aboriginal names (mostly, of course, in the interior) which serve to remind us of much deeper roots. Mazaruni, Essequibo, Tumatumari, Hosororo, Imbaimadai, Ayanganna, Guyana. This country’s first cultural imprint was Amerindian.
Guyanese live in one of the most remarkable corners of the New World. It is an area of land that has been the stage for an epic drama of discovery and high adventure as well as, at the other extreme, of tragic disillusionment and death.
‘Manoa’, interior city of gold, and Jonestown, interior city of God. Both were meant to be utopias, the dream of flawed men with a `pure’ mission, and both are related through the myth of El Dorado.
In fact, ‘El Dorado’ became the central myth of the New World. It powered the western colonial traditions of conquest and imperial adventure and led directly to the geographical fragmentation and boundary disputes still affecting us. It also led, indirectly, to the political, economic and social decline of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
No one would suggest that Guyanese are merely hostages to imperial history: but political ineptitude and administrative mismanagement and misdirection alone cannot be blamed for our country’s disastrous fall from desirable and admired standards of living. But a mythology, that is, a system of cultural reference, an attitude to oneself and to the world, can be inherited and can function (as religions often do) through insidious, psychological pathways to commit the believer to rash, even absurd positions.
This was and is the effect of the ‘El Dorado’ myth. For generations we have been told that Guyana has unimaginable, vast resources. Our social and political leaders never tire of reminding us of the potential riches of the interior in this `El Dorado’ of ours, this land of six peoples, of mighty rivers and mountains. Persistent urban and coastal problems like bad roads, flooding, poverty, pollution and crime should be seen (we’re told) in the context of the vast potential of the country’s interior. (“Man, we could fit Barbados into the Essequibo river with room to spare”). What did it matter, in the l940’s (or now in the new millennium) that Coca-Cola still comes out of our water taps?
The interior was awash with gold and diamonds. The mighty Kaieteur would never dry up. Our `first people’, the Amerindians (who actually live in the interior and are consigned to the bottom rung of the social ladder), are peripheral: exotics, an `eco-tourism’ resource, their native traditions largely ignored and frequently endangered by coastal-based mining, hunting and logging activity.
Development needs to go hand in hand with respect for the people and the land in which we live. Commercial exploitation can be dangerous and destructive to the land. The Kaieteur falls can dry up.
In speaking the native traditions, we need to remember that a mythology, a complete world-view, already existed in Guyana before Columbus’s `discovery’.
There was a complex Indo/Antillean ideology within the folklore of the earliest Amerindian peoples: the Siboney, Awawak and Carib. They had ideas about the world in which they lived that were far more `civilized’ and humane than those of their European conquerors. Raleigh himself described most of his men as `the scum of the world, drunkards, blasphemers and vagabonds’. And it was the early European religions - Calvinist, Lutheran, Catholic - which introduced such anti-humanist ideas as innate sin and human shame along with a vindictive, white and ferocious Jehovah/God figure.
In general, aboriginal societies were (and still are) peaceful societies at ease within their environment. As Denis Williams has pointed out: “the Amerindian legacy [of community living and adaptation to the landscape] is the element of our heritage that the Europeans neither discovered nor destroyed” [Pages in Guyanese pre-history, l995]. We ignore this element at great loss to ourselves. One of the attitudes that help Amerindian societies to maintain a strong sense of community is the concept of `mattie’ or respect for and kinship with others and with the land. Its opposite is what we call `eyepass’. There is too little `mattie’ and far too much `eyepass’ in our urban societies. Perhaps we should look more closely, without condescension or prejudice, at our Amerindian cultural heritage as we struggle to understand and find a solution to our present predicament.