Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
October 22, 2006
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Some sixty years would elapse before a novel of similar feature was published. That novel, `THOSE THAT BE IN BONDAGE’ by A. R. F Webber, a Caribbean-born writer, was published in 1917. Another quarter of a century would go by before a Guyanese writer got into the act via `CORENTYNE THUNDER’ by Edgar Mittelholzer, 1941. In 1960, a Guyanese writer of Indian ancestry, Peter Kempadoo, added to this vein of literature with the publication of `GUIANA BOY’.
Furthermore, the writing and intent of Jenkins was described as a “marriage between the modes of literature and reportage…a writer inhabiting the important no-man’s-land between fiction and documentary writing.” That was saying a lot at a time when the novel was still novel.
A proud distinction in Guyanese Literature is that `LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO’ was the first book of fiction on Guyana, the first time Indians in British Guiana were subject matter for fiction and for the first time Indians in the Caribbean were featured in fiction.
That novel came out of the author’s need to make a certain research paper more accessible to grass root readership. That paper was labelled, `THE COOLIE, HIS RIGHTS AND WRONGS’, a monumental work that despite the inclusion of two woodcuts and a groundbreaking literary style did not convince Jenkins that his message got through to the lay reader.
John Edward Jenkins was born in 1838 in Bangalore, India, the same year that the first batch of Indians was shipped from India to the British Guiana as indentured labourers. He was the son of a Wesleyan Missionary.
From India, the family migrated to Canada where Edward Jenkins was educated, first at Montreal High School and then at McGill University.
During the 1860s, Jenkins moved to Britain where he later qualified as a barrister in 1864.
With a strong background as a social reformer, he soon became involved in a pressure group called the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. It was here his concern for the plight of the common people was made public when in 1866 he presented a paper to the association on the legal aspect of sanitary reform.
In 1870, Jenkins published his first novel, `GINX’S BABY, HIS BIRTH AND OTHER MISFORTUNES’, which became a bestseller, running into thirty six editions by 1876. The success of the book made Jenkins a controversial figure overnight because it was “a satire on sectarian religious education”. The book was said to have influenced the most important phase of social legislation at the time, the Education Act of 1870.
The year 1870 was when Jenkins set off for British Guiana “to investigate the coolie condition” acting on behalf of the Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society. That action stemmed from the establishment of the Royal Commission of Enquiry investigating the William Des Voeux’s report which was a complaint about the awful indenture system, a new system of slavery by another name.
That visit to British Guiana produced three publications namely, `NOTES OF A JOURNEY THROUGH BRITISH GUIANA’, 1871,
`THE COOLIE, HIS RIGHTS AND WRONGS’ 1872 and `LUTCHMIE AND DILLOO’ 1877.
Jenkins was a fortunate writer for at that time he belonged to “a group of socially committed authors, under the publishing house of Strahan and Company”. Alexander Strahan’s aim was supplying literature of “the wisest instructions in the pleasantest manner…in such a form that it will find its way to tens of thousands of British homes…”
In 1882, Jenkins published his second novel, `LITTLE HODGE’, about the horrible lot of agriculture workers in Britain.
`LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO’, according to its blurb, “begun in India, Dilloo and Hunoomaun’s rivalry over Dilloo’s wife, Lutchmee, is continued on a sugar estate in Guyana, where it leads to the planning of an armed rebellion among the indentured labourers and a tragic denouement”. It was recently republished by Macmillan Caribbean in a series of reprints of the early literature of the Anglophone Caribbean.
Sources: * LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO by Edward Jenkins, Macmillan Caribbean, 2003 * THEY CAME IN SHIPS edited by Ian McDonald et al, Peepal Tree Press, 1998