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MOUTH-WATERING delicacies; quite a few pieces of traditional African, Indian and Chinese garments and other bric-a-brac; and oodles of rather interesting documentation are but a fraction of the mass of memorabilia assembled in the National Museum’s North Hall by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.
The occasion can best be summarised as an attempt by the agency to take us back a little over a century to the genesis of the Period of Indentureship here, for the fourth successive year.
Even Subject Minister, Ms Gail Teixeira, who declared the exhibition open Friday, felt compelled to flaunt a few keepsakes of her own from her Madeiran and Indian roots, in the nature of an exquisitely-woven figured green shawl and a red turban-like head-dress the old-timers called a ‘romaul’ which, according to her, has quite a history in itself and needs to be thoroughly researched.
For something Chinese, she chose a black miniature Chinese fan, which she had tucked away in her pocket-book, and which lent nicely to her black linen shift and matching pumps. Filigree gold jewellery, another throwback to her Indian ancestry, completed the ensemble.
Briefly wearing the hat of historian at the opening ceremony, Minister Teixeira, in the little time allowed her, chronicled the history of what she referred to as the “fourth wave of emigration to Guyana,” after the coming of the Indigenous Peoples, followed by the European colonisers, and thirdly, the enslaved Africans, said to be the largest mass of humans to have been shipped here in a period spanning two hundred years.
They came from Madeira (an island off the coast of North Africa); the Azores; Cape Verde (also called Cabo Verde) and neighbouring Brazil, all of which happen to be Portuguese-speaking territories; as well as the continents of India, China and Africa.
Over an 80-year period, she said, the number of immigrants brought here, then known as British Guiana and much later ‘BG’, was estimated to be in the vicinity of 350,000, with the Portuguese alone accounting for 36, 645 by the end of 1917.
The first to arrive were the Portuguese, and not the Indians as is commonly believed, on May 3, 1835, aboard the ‘Louisa Baillie’, followed by the Indians some three years later, on May 5, 1838, some 396 in number, aboard the now infamous HMS ‘Whitby’ and ‘Hesperus’. A replica of the latter is now ensconced in the Indian Monument Gardens on Camp Street in the city as a poignant reminder of that ‘Red-Letter Day’ 165 years ago.
From the Minister’s account, when the ‘Whitby’ left Calcutta on January 13, 1838 for Guyana’s Ancient County of Berbice, she had in her hold 249 persons, including men, women and children. When she landed 112 days later, she was five short.
The ‘Hesperus’ on the other hand, seemed to have fared even worse, as she only had 156 head of cargo when she arrived, 13 short of the original 165. By 1917, the Minister said, the figure would rise to 238,979 men, women and children of Indian descent who were brought her to work on the sugar plantations so as to satisfy the insatiable demand for sugar on the European market.
Incidentally, it seemed that the colonists had ‘a thing’ about the month of May, as the first batch of Indentured Blacks, which should not be confused with those who came as slaves, arrived on May 24, 1841. They came from Sierra Leone, on the West Coast of Africa.
By 1865, the Minister said, the number of Africans who had arrived here in this manner had numbered 13,000. “Most were liberated Africans who had been enslaved while en route to Cuba and Brazil, intercepted by British naval vessels and transported to either of the two British Colonies, namely Sierra Leone in West Africa, or the south Atlantic island of St. Helena,” she said.
Noting that the people who came from Sierra Leone are to date one of the most under-researched of the four ethnic groups which came here in ‘the fourth wave’, she said the foregoing bit of information most likely accounted for “a lot of the post-emancipation survival of Western and Central African cultures in our society.”
Another group of immigrants which, though they were not indentured, nevertheless fall into the same category of the under-researched, are those who came from the Caribbean itself during the early 1900s, particularly from places like Barbados and St. Lucia.
The Chinese, she said, some 647 in number and males only, came on January 12, 1853 on board the ‘Glantanner’ and were disbursed among Plantations ‘La Jalousie’ and ‘Windsor Forest’ on what is now known as West Coast Demerara, and ‘Klien Pouderoyen’ on the West Bank of Demerara.
In closing, she paid homage to women in particular - whether Amerindian, Indian, African or else - who, throughout the centuries, have conscientiously nurtured, preserved and conserved our various cultural and religious traditions.
Here she noted that recent studies carried out by a group of local researchers, including herself, have caused them to come up with a theory which might be able to shed some light on why certain aspects of the Portuguese culture were never passed down and were eventually lost by the time the second generation Guyanese of Portuguese extract were born.
Among the modern-day women she singled out as being worthy of commendation in this regard were businesswoman and philanthropist, Ms Marjorie Kirkpatrick, for “her undying love and labour of love” in dedicating the past 18 or so years to chronicling not only her own family tree, but those of other Chinese descendants like herself.
Evidence of her handiwork can be seen at the exhibition, which runs until May 31.
One of the wonderful things about Ms. Kirkpatrick, a quality sorely lacking in some intellectuals and professionals, the Minister said, is her giving nature; her desire to share her knowledge and research with anyone who could spare the time to listen, in spite of having to balance being a housewife, mother, grandmother on top of running a successful catering and security firm all at once.
Noting that the indentureship exhibition has come a long way in light of the skepticism and distrust which greeted the idea four years ago when it was first mooted, she seized the opportunity to call on “families out there who have artifacts” to support the venture in the future by making those heirlooms available just for the duration of the event.
“This is a tradition in the Ministry of Culture,” she said. “May is our month to celebrate and to honour those who came as indentured labourers. You have almost one whole year. You can photograph your heritage pieces; we don’t want them; we’re not expropriating them. You can lend them to us for the period of the exhibition … and we will give you recognition for the work you have been doing.”
Anything is welcome, she said, be it a piece of jewellery; a marriage or baptismal document; or even a rosary, crucifix, or the brass vessels that are used in Hindu ceremonies.
“We just want to show our people what we have, and to educate our young people,” the Minister said.