Guyanese Non-fiction Literature before Independence Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
May 14, 2006

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THE first published book on Guyana was an international bestseller. Published in 1596, it was translated into all major European languages at that time. The name of that historic book is the DISCOVERY OF THE LARGE, RICH AND BEAUWTIFUL EMPYRE OF GUIANA. It was written by the English courtier, adventurer, scholar and poet, Walter Raleigh.

A momentous book indeed for it ignited the imagination of European nations, influencing persons from all walks of life to come in search of El Dorado, the city of gold.

That led eventually to the colonising of Guyana. The main feature in that process was sugar/slave labour/indentured labour and attendant machinations.

Many of the books following in the wake of that first publication were welcomed with great interest and scholarship. For Europe was at the time caught up in an expansion fervour that was enabled by the invention and utilisation of printing, gunpowder and the magnet.

So much of the early literature of this country was written by adventurers, naturalists, missionaries and administrators. A great portion of that writing comprised mainly of journals, travelogues, ethnologies and histories – a recording of the exotic (places, peoples and events). Some books did capture the true spirit of this country.

The following examples are cited to show a cross-section of writers and their particular interests. In 1695, Adrian Van Berkel who was an administrator published his TRAVELS IN SOUTH AMERICA, 1670 – 1689. Dr. George Pinckard who lived in Demerara during the years 1796 and 1797 while setting up hospitals in Demerara and Berbice, published LETTERS FROM GUIANA in 1816. Thomas Staunton St. Clair, a military man, born in Edinburgh, came to British Guiana in 1805. In 1834, he published, SOLDIER’S SOJOURN IN BRITISH GUIANA 1806 – 1808, describing life mainly in Stabroek and Brickdam. Moritz Richard Schomburgh published his TRAVELS IN BRITISH GUIANA in 1847-1848 which was translated and reprinted locally in 1922-1923. Henry Kirke born in the UK, lived in Guyana between 1872 and 1897 where he was a Magistrate and Sheriff of Demerara, recorded those years in his book, TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IN BRITISH GUIANA.

Other interesting travelogues include CANOE AND CAMP LIFE IN BRITISH GUIANA, 1876, by Charles Barrington Brown, the first European to witness the glorious Kaieteur Falls and THROUGH BRITISH GUIANA TO THE SUMMIT OF RORAIMA, 1920, by Mrs. Marie P. R. Clementi, wife of Cecil Clementi, Colonial Secretary of British Guiana, 1913 – 1922. (Incidentally, Mrs. Clementi is numbered among the first women writers of our literature; the other two authors with publications surfacing about that same period were Gertrude Shaw and Helen Tee-Van.)

Another body of writing was the history books like those of Henry Dalton (THE HISTORY OF BRITISH GUIANA, 1855), James Rodway (HISTORY of BRITISH GUIANA, 1894) and A. R. F. Webber (A CENTENARY HISTORY AND HANDBOOK OF BRITISH GUIANA, 1931).

Other types of histories were studies of a particular people, time or place like Everard Im-Thurn (AMONG THE INDIANS OF GUIANA, 1883), Cecil Clementi (THE CHINESE IN BRITISH GUIANA, 1915), and Peter Ruhomon (A CENTENARY HISTORY OF THE EAST INDIANS OF BRITISH GUIANA, 1947).

The colourful and entertaining myths, legends and folklore of this land attracted the attention of numerous writers. In 1880, Rev. William Henry Brett published LEGENDS AND MYTHS OF THE ABORIGINAL INDIANS IN BRITISH GUIANA which was a metrical retelling of legends of the indigenous peoples. In 1881, Michael McTurk published the highly entertaining, ESSAYS AND FABLES IN VERSE, under the nom de plume, Quow. In 1915, Walter Roth published his AN INQUIRY INTO THE ANIMISM AND FOLKLORE OF THE GUIANA INDIANS.

Credit must be given to the newspapers of the period namely the Chronicle, the Graphic and the Argosy that facilitated the publication of many of the above titles. The journal, TIMEHRI, which was the official organ of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society, was another outlet for studies on various aspects of life in Guyana.

And there also some delightful books on the fauna of the country including THREE SINGLES TO ADVENTURE (1954) by George Durrell and ZOO QUEST TO GUYANA (1956) by David Attenborough.

Not all the books of that period were written by Europeans; many Guyanese got into the act as early as the late nineteenth century. Joseph Alexander Van Sertima published ‘AMONG THE COMMON PEOPLE OF BRITISH GUIANA, 1895, ‘SCENES AND SKETCHES OF DEMERARA LIFE, 1899, and ‘THE CREOLE TONGUE OF BRITISH GUIANA, 1905. James Graham Cruickshank in 1905, published NEGRO HUMOUR (being sketches in the market, on the road, and at my back door), and in 1916, BLACK CHAT (being notes on Negro Dialect in British Guiana), both books printed by the Argosy Company. In 1894, Joseph Ruhomon published his groundbreaking lecture, ‘India; the Progress of her People at Home and Abroad and How those in British Guiana may Improve themselves’. Ayube Mohamed Edun published the first book-length by an East Indian in Guyana, LONDON’S HEART PROBE AND BRITAIN’S DESTINY, just after his visit to Britain in 1928. In 1929, N. E. Cameron published his magnum opus, THE EVOLUTION OF THE NEGRO. In 1937, Edgar Mittelholzer self-published CREOLE CHIPS which he hawked from door to door in New Amsterdam and other parts of Guyana. Peter Ruhomon published CENTENARY HISTORY OF THE EAST INDIANS IN BRITISH GUIANA in 1947.

Of course, there are exceptions to some of the above categories of writing because many books straddle more than one grouping.

The scholarship offered by those books is fascinating and invaluable. However, it’s a pity that many of those books are rare and mostly out of print. Perhaps, it’s time for another ‘Guyana Edition’, reprinting some of those books.