Recognising four Afro-Guyanese grassroots women
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
July 28, 2005
In four days time the annual gathering of the Rastafari movement in the Caribbean will open at the President's College auditorium. The theme for this tenth annual gathering is "Historical Awareness, Spiritual Upliftment and Economic Develop-ment". The immediate purpose of the conference is to bring the Rastafari nation together for spiritual rejuvenation, to discuss issues of economic development and to raise awareness of the peoples of the host country in respect of the goals and values of the Rastafari movement. Each year, the Rastafari brethren select individuals from the host country to honour. This year, four Guyanese women will be honoured. They are Aunt Bella/Belinda of Victoria, the Tigress of Tiger Bay, Daisy the Centipede Queen and Dorothy Rice of the Ruimveldt Riots. These women's lives span the period beginning with from the struggles of peasantry in the immediate post apprenticeship period to the working class protests in the last decade of the 19th century to the first decade of the 20th and culminated in the 1905 Ruimveldt Riots.
The article will first examine some of the basic tenets of the Rastafarian beliefs and culture and discuss the ways in which the lives of the women reflected those beliefs and so influenced the decision to honour them.
The word Rastafari is derived from the name Ras Tafari, son of the Ras Mallonnen of Harar who in 1930 was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, as 'Haile Selassie, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God and Light of the World.' His ascent to the throne led to the renewal of the cry for repatriation to Africa.
This was and still is the ultimate goal of the Rastafarian brethren. Horace Campbell posited that the Rastafarian culture is a combination of the histories of the children of slaves in different societies, the response of an exploited and humiliated people and resistance to white racism and community fetishism. It could be regarded as a significant link between the resistance of the Maroons, the Pan Africanist appeal of Marcus Garvey, the materialist and historical analysis of Walter Rodney and the defiance of reggae. The Rasta, he averred, is one who never forgot that he is an African and is prepared to unite with the poor masses to assert their own culture and black dignity. More importantly, it was and is a "culture of resistance". It is undoubtedly the stubborn resistance of those women against the continued attempts of the white plantocracy and colonial elite to dominate their lives economically and to pressure them into transforming themselves culturally by assimilating European mores and practices that has some empathy with the fundamental tenets of the Rastafarian culture and has caused them to be singled out for recognition by the brethren.
WBelinda of Victoria
On November 2, 1939 eighty-three ex-apprentices from five estates - Douchfour, Ann's Grove; Hope, Paradise and Enmore pooled the monies they had earned during apprenticeship and before to purchase the nearby plantation of North brook for approximately ten thousand dollars. The purchasers made an initial payment of two thirds of that amount. The other third was paid off within three weeks. The new proprietors petitioned the Queen and were permitted to name their village Victoria. Victoria was the first of the dozens of Communal villages that were to be established by ex-apprentices in British Guiana. Rawle Farley posited that the rise of the village settlements in British Guiana was a manifestation of a continued revolt against the plantation system by the free labourers or in the words of Woodville Marshall "a negative reflex to enslavement, mass production mono crop dependence and metropolitan control.
The villagers of Victoria defiantly flaunted their independence from the sugar economy, which had enthralled them for so long by cultivating ground provisions instead of sugar cane.
However, the nearby plantation owners, in their attempt to coerce the Victorians to return to work on the plantations flooded their own plantations which were higher than the village and broke the dams. This resulted in the destruction of the crops and livestock of the villagers. They reacted by constructing a bell which would summon everyone when the village was flooded to repair the breach in the dam. Unsuccessful in their bid to cow the villagers, the planters took advantage of the superstitious nature of the villagers to spread ghost stories. Consequently, many villagers were afraid to come out at night to help repair the breached dams. The story is told that Aunt Belinda/Bella bravely volunteered one night to guard the dam. The next morning she was found dead by the villagers. She had been strangled with her own scarf. Legend has it that after her death the village never flooded again. Aunt Belinda became a martyr to the cause of independent development.
Because of their own struggle for independent development, Aunt Bella's defiance in confronting the machinations of 'Babylon' resonates with the Rastafari brethren.
The Tigress of Tiger Bay
Brian Moore in his work Cultural Power, Resistance and Pluralism in Colonial Guyana stated that in the decades after emancipation, one of the ways in which the Afro creole resisted complete cultural domination was that in defiance of the Victorian social norms of modesty, dignity, orderliness, productivity and decorum, they exhibited counter values of gregariousness, bravado, loudness, ribaldry, rowdiness, aggression and even coarse vulgarity. This manifested itself in the practice of 'cussing' and 'buseing' which he contended was a manifestation of their poverty and deprivation. While both men and women indulged in this practice it was the women of the ghettos like Tiger Bay for whom this yard culture provided the means to resist white cultural dominance and to fight back against social injustice and racial discrimination. The Tigress of Tiger Bay epitomized this reality. Henry Kirke in his book: 25 years in British Guiana reminisced thus:
"The black women are as strong as the men, taking the average I should say they were stronger and quite ready for a fight at anytime. I remember one woman who was called the Tigress of Tiger Bay was a match for any three policemen and was a terror in the neighborhood."
Rastafarian beliefs and culture emanate from Africa where the lineage is mainly matrifocal. Strong women, physically, mentally and spiritually, represent a stable force, are creators of life and nurturers and protectors of the family. It is not surprising, therefore, that the aggressive Tigress of Tiger Bay has been singled out for recognition by the Rastafari Brethren.
Daisy, the Centipede Queen
The last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th saw significant depression in the economy of British Guiana. The main mechanism used by the planters and commercial class to weather the storm was reduction of wages. This led to increased unemployment, poverty and disease among the poorer classes many of whom had been migrating from their stagnating villages to seek employment in the city. The frustrated and voiceless slum dwellers exhibited their pain and powerlessness by involvement in vice and crime. It also spawned the Centipede gangs. According to Dr Nehusi, Centipedism was a "reaction syndrome to lower class reality" - unemployment, poor wages, and atrocious living conditions. Each gang was made up of groups of mainly unemployed young men and several women one of whom was regarded as the queen. One of the ways in which the men asserted their manhood and eased the pain of their frustration and powerlessness was to fight with sticks and knives over queen of the band. Taking away the Centipede queen from her current protector in his own gang, or better still a rival gang, helped to restore a modicum of self respect, pride and dignity to young men who felt emasculated by the system. The Rastafari Brethren certainly empathise with those feelings and recognize the symbolism underpinning the control of Daisy, the Centipede queen.
Dorothy Rice of the Ruimveldt Riots
The disturbances of 1905 which spanned the period November 28 and December 6 1905 and culminated in two days of bloody rioting on November 30 and December 1 was a culmination of the disaffection of all classes of the society but particularly the lower classes on and off the estates. It was a reaction against the deplorable socio economic conditions which had continued to deteriorate during the last decade and a half of the 19th century. It began with a strike for equal pay by the 'boys' at Sandbach Parker wharf on November 30. The next morning workers of Ruimveldt factory confronted the manager with demands for increased wages, which he refused and reacted by sending for the police. The police in their attempt to prevent the striking Georgetown dockworkers from crossing the Ruimveldt bridge to link up with the striking sugar workers of the East Bank, read the Riot Act. When the crowd failed to disperse they opened fire, fatally wounding four persons. Dorothy Rice was one of the very few Afro Guyanese women who still worked in the cane fields. She was the only woman in a delegation who spoke on behalf of the workers of that estate at the subsequent enquiry. She graphically described the longer hours of work she and her daughters had to put in for a continually shrinking day's pay. While she worked on a sugar estate, her testimony gave some indication of the harsh conditions and poor wages of urban women.
She represented the voice of all working class women of the time in a situation where women's voices were seldom allowed to be heard.
The connection between all of these women is the non-traditional roles, or more precisely their participation in activities, which did not accord with what, at that time, was perceived as fitting for women. More importantly, they resisted the economic, political but especially the cultural domination of the ruling class. That they have been singled out for recognition by the Rastafari Brethren is not surprising since the culture and spirit of resistance against the machination of 'Babylon' is the bedrock of their movement.