Book depicting 19th century Amerindians back in print
- paintings by British artist who accompanied Schomburgk expedition
Stabroek News
February 23, 2003

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Reprinted copies of local historian Sister Noel Menezes’ book Sketches of Amerindian Tribes 1841-43 immediately sold out at its Thursday launching and orders are in for more copies.

The reprint, which was published in paperback and hard cover by Macmillan Caribbean, consists of watercolour paintings by British artist Edward A. Goodall, depicting Amerindian tribes some of which are no longer found in Guyana.

Contemporary nineteenth century commentaries by explorers, edited by Sister Menezes, accompany scenes and portraits in the book.

Speaking at the Castellani House launching, Sister Menezes noted that the illustrations were first published by the British Museum Publications in 1977 and had been unavailable for some years now. Copies of the first publication were destroyed in a fire at the government bookstore in Camp street some years ago. The current edition was launched in England in November.

Giving a background as to how she came to first publish the book in 1977, Sister Menezes said she had been doing some research in England when she came across 69 to 70 “marvellous” sketches done by Goodall, a young artist who had accompanied British surveyor Sir Robert Schomburgk on his second expedition from 1841 to 1843 into the interior of then British Guiana. Schomburgk had returned to Guyana to survey the boundaries of the country.

Sister Menezes said the artist who should have accompanied Schomburgk had fallen ill so Goodall had taken his place. She said Goodall’s diary was also very illuminating and told of his relationship with Schomburgk whom he described as a very irritable little man with a short fuse and a temper, but they had got along very well. She noted that Goodall had wanted to put a stamp on his paintings of the Guiana expedition “because Schomburgk, he said, was confiscating all his paintings.”

Prior to finding the sketches in the 1970’s, Sister Menezes said that while doing her PhD she found a letter from Schomburgk to the Colonial Secretary in which he said that Goodall’s “valuable paintings were excellently done” and suggested that the British Colonial Office buy them.

She said she had never heard of Goodall but had heard of the paintings of Charles Bentley. About a month later, she said she came across a letter from the Secretary of the British Museum to the Colonial Secretary thanking him “for the valuable paintings which would make a valuable addition to the collection in the British Museum.”

Sister Menezes spent three months in the British Museum searching. “When I found them, for researchers, you have once or twice in your life an exciting moment when you discover something like that. It was that exciting moment for me. Four folios of magnificent watercolours, very delicate.” So much so that the British Library in publishing them said they had had trouble with “the colour separation because the paintings were so delicately done.”

She said that this was “not my field really but I did sit down and write up a project.” When she got back to the University of Guyana, she had wanted to submit it to the Research and Publications Committee but she sat on that committee - “a little off to put forward your own work.” At the time everybody was submitting scientific projects “you know to make something out of nothing and I thought mine was neither here nor there. So I didn’t do anything about it.”

Luckily for her, Sister Menezes said, the Guyana Government had agreed to the setting up of the National Commission for Research Materials and she submitted the project to the commission. It was decided that the Guyanese artist, the late Dennis Williams would travel to Britain and look at these paintings.

She said that when Williams came back “he was agog with excitement.”

“Believe it or not”, she said, the Ministry of Information and Culture had funds at the end of 1976 and these were made available to publish the first book of sketches in 1977. Unfortunately many copies of the book were lost in the fire a few years later at the government bookstore.

She recalled that over the years former presidents, Dr Cheddi Jagan and Mrs Janet Jagan encouraged her to republish and the lead was taken through the Castellani Art Gallery. Others who gave support, including financial help were Barry Newtown of Booker Tate; former British High Commissioner to Guyana Edward Glover and his wife; the British Councils of Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela; Mrs Janet Jagan; Elfrieda Bissember, curator of the National Art Gallery; and businessman Ovid Holder and his wife of Universal Book Store.

Mrs Jagan, in her remarks, suggested the book would make a valuable gift and one people would want to make available for their children and relatives. She noted that the sketches gave a good picture of the lives of the Amerindians more than a century ago.

She also remarked that Sister Menezes had dedicated the book to “The Amerindians of Guyana to whom we all pay a cultural debt not yet fully appreciated.” (Miranda La Rose)

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