Ptolemy Reid: The last hard man

Stabroek News

September 7, 2003

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Dr Ptolemy Reid, former Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of the People’s National Congress, died on September 2.

Of the Cabinet Ministers appointed by People’s National Congress Leader Forbes Burnham when his party entered office after the December 14, 1964 general elections, only Dr Ptolemy Reid was still standing two decades later. The others - Neville Bissember, Eugene Correia, Winifred Gaskin, Llewelyn John, Robert Jordan, Rudyard Kendall, Claude Merriman - had demitted office for various reasons or died.

Positional politics

Sheer endurance seemed to be most distinguishing characteristic of Dr Reid’s political career. Hence, his sudden departure from the centre stage of government on August 15, 1984 while serving as Prime Minister, a year before Burnham’s death on August 6, 1985, was as unexpected as its consequences were unplanned. It was that departure which facilitated not only Desmond Hoyte’s promotion to the Prime Minister’s office but also his accession to the Presidency.

Playing the pivotal role of mediator and kingmaker, Reid, at that time the PNC’s Deputy Leader, declined to exercise his right of succession to the leadership position. Instead, he deftly stepped aside and cleverly engineered Hoyte’s election to that office.

The rest is history. Hoyte’s seven-year presidency (1985-92) was greatly strengthened by his occupancy of the party leadership, enabling him to embark with confidence on a programme of political and economic change which turned out to be a reversal of much that Reid had stood for in the Burnham era. Had Reid done otherwise, Hoyte’s reforms might not have been realized and Guyana would have been much different.

Ptolemy Alexander Reid’s political strength was based largely on his unassailable position as PNC one-time General-Secretary and Deputy Leader. In an era when constituency representation had been destroyed by the proportional representation system, Reid still enjoyed the genuine support of the African-Guyanese in his home region - the Pomeroon-Supenaam - more than could be said for many other PNC politicians. Deeper than that, however, was his unquestionable adherence to the party line and unquestioning loyalty to the party leader, Forbes Burnham.

It was taken as axiomatic that Ptolemy Reid would support any position that Forbes Burnham took, and vice versa. Although five years older than Burnham, Reid seemed serenely satisfied with his status as permanent junior partner.


From the time of his entry into active politics as a failed candidate for the Pomeroon constituency in the August 1961 general elections, he was regarded as part of the troika - Burnham, Green, Reid - which wielded real power in the PNC.

It was no surprise that, given the grim security situation that existed in the aftermath of the communal violence of 1964, Reid was appointed First Deputy Premier (later Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister of Home Affairs. Charged with responsibility for public safety and enforcing regulations under the state of emergency, the stern Reid was regarded with awe by the opposition of the day, many members of which were held in detention without trial. He was responsible for introducing the draconian National Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act which remained in force for over two decades until it was repealed under the Hoyte administration.

Dr Reid was cast in the role of Forbes Burnham’s principal plenipotentiary for problematic portfolios and assignments, presumably because his proven loyalty, personal integrity and political rigidity seemed to promise efficiency and to preclude reckless adventurism. He was, therefore, to serve as Minister of Trade (from January to September 1967); Minister of Finance (1967-1970); Minister of Agriculture (1970-1972); and Minister of Agriculture and National Development (1972-74). In October 1980, when Prime Minister Burnham became the country’s first executive President, Reid was appointed Prime Minister in his place.

But steadiness under fire was not sufficient to rectify some of the economic errors which became evident in the post-1970 period when the PNC’s nationalisation experiments started to unravel. The shocks of the petroleum crisis after 1973 had triggered worldwide instability, and Guyana’s economy started its slow slide into stagnation.

Reid’s performance, even in the field of Agriculture, where as veterinarian he was expected to excel, was earnest but unexceptional. After ten years in the Cabinet, his hands were gently pried loose from the economic levers of power and he was steered out of the mainstream of government and back into the runlets of party administration.

In the wake of the PNC’s 1974 ‘Declaration of Sophia’ which promulgated the contentious doctrine of party paramountcy, Burnham settled Reid in the Office of the General Secretary of the People’s National Congress and Ministry of National Development (OGSPNC&MND). For his second decade in the Cabinet and the last years of his active political life, Reid presided over this mega-ministry, functioning less as Minister of National Development (MND), as the official title of his portfolio implied, and more as General Secretary of the PNC (GSPNC), as the party leader intended.


Still, Ptolemy Reid was a paradox. There was little in his life to suggest that he had ever embraced the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism and theory of co-operative socialism with which the young zealots in the party were infatuated. He seemed to be driven not by a strong intellectual and ideological impulse as by the ordinary expectation that enthusiasm and effort would eventually produce good results. This did not often happen.

No bearded revolutionary, his few speeches - recorded in pamphlets such as Our Rice Industry: Its Future and Our Agricultural Revolution - match neither Forbes Burnham’s incisiveness nor Desmond Hoyte’s decisiveness to change the situations in which they found themselves in 1965 and 1985, respectively. Rather, his few writings were plain manuals which made little impression on the country’s unresponsive agricultural community, politically conditioned to ignore any initiative from the administration of the day.

Reid may have seen himself as a practical, rather than a philosophical, political agent. For this reason, he came to be associated with the sensible, but only semi-successful, ‘Feed, Clothe and House’ (FCH) programme and the entirely unsuccessful policy of placing many consumer items under licence (effectively ‘banning’ the importation of goods such as canned foods, flour, potatoes and pulse) in the misguided hope that local farmers, fishermen and manufacturers could meet the national needs for food.

Reid’s approach was one of autarky, a radical but unrealistic resort to self-sufficiency which resembled the DPRK’s ‘Juche Idea’ rather than the enterprising ideals of the emergent Asian tigers. Times were changing and Guyanese, including his own party colleagues, were impatient with practices regarded as both uncomfortable and unprogressive. Unsurprisingly, many of his pet projects such as attempting to convert a derelict omnibus into a horse-drawn wagon; establishing the Knowledge Sharing Institute (KSI); and promoting the use of rice flour became sources of good-natured amusement rather than models for emulation. Unsurprisingly, too, much of what he espoused was quickly dumped by his protege Desmond Hoyte during the ERP.

Hard ball

Untypically, Ptolemy Reid seemed content with retirement from active politics after his resignation in 1984 and, moreso, after Forbes Burnham’s death in 1985. This retirement was interrupted by his participation in the defenestration of Hamilton Green from the party’s leadership.

Green’s restlessness had first become evident at the PNC’s 1991 Biennial Congress and Dr Reid, by then the Party’s ‘grand old man,’ was recalled from retirement to orchestrate a compromise to stop Green’s disruptive challenge to Hoyte for the Party’s leadership. After Hoyte unceremoniously dropped Green from the parliamentary list when the PNC suffered defeat in the 1992 general elections, party unity was threatened by factionalism and, ultimately, Reid was to preside over Green’s grisly expulsion to save the PNC from schism.

Personal life

Born on May 8, 1918 in the poor African village of Dartmouth on the Essequibo Coast, in what is now the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region, Reid retained his rustic demeanour all his life. Shunning ostentation and bombast, he spoke and wrote as a schoolteacher, trying always to reduce complex theories to simple, some would say simplistic, techniques. He seemed to feel that politics had to be made comprehensible to the common people. In this regard, it was surprising that he never developed a strong relationship with any trade union. This might have been because he was closer to the peasantry than to the proletariat.

Ptolemy Reid’s countrified character seemed to contrast with, rather than complement, the suave, urbane Forbes Burnham. But the two remained fiercely faithful to each other, neither revealing a trace of rivalry or rancour. As a result, the PNC hierarchy enjoyed a sort of stability, if not solidarity, during the Burnham-Reid dispensation of 1964-84, a rarity in Guyanese party politics.

In dirt-poor Dartmouth, Reid served as Secretary of the Village Committee of Management (1941-49); Secretary of the Essequibo Branch of the British Guiana Teachers Association (BGTA, now GTU); and President and founder of the Dartmouth Eye-Opener Consumers’ Co-operative Society (1943-49), most likely the precursor of the similarly strangely-named Knowledge-Sharing Institute (KSI) which he founded 30 years later.

He never attended high school. After leaving Dartmouth Anglican School, Reid became a pupil teacher at age 16, a typical step for literate rural males in those hard days. He attended the Government Teachers’ Training College and returned to work for eight more years as a schoolteacher (1941-49) before leaving to study at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, USA (1949-55) and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons of London University, earning the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and qualifying as a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS).

Dr Reid worked briefly as a veterinary surgeon in the Health of Animals Division, Canada (1955-56), and in private practice in Milestone, Saskatchewan, Canada (1956-57), before resettling at home to become the Veterinary Officer of Booker Sugar Estates (1958-64) and the local branch of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). He preserved his professional interest through membership of the British Veterinary Association; Canadian Veterinary Medical Association; and the Tuskegee Alumni Association.

He was awarded the Order of Excellence (OE), Guyana’s highest honour, for his political service. The 8th of May (Reid’s birthday) Community High School at Dartmouth, and the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre in Georgetown, were so named in his honour.

Ptolemy Alexander Reid, the last hard man left standing in the PNC from the dangerous days of the 1960s, a student of the school of hard knocks, and a survivor of the hard times, died quietly in his sleep at the age of 85 years on September 2, 2003.

His passing was a short, soft ending to long, hard life.

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