The Emergence of Modern Guyanese Lifestyle
By Terence Roberts
March 11, 2007
A modern Guyanese lifestyle began to emerge in the late 19th century, almost at the same time as the concept of modernity was being born through leading European, North and South American thinkers and philosophers such as Descartes and Rousseau of France, Spinoza of Spain/Holland, Marx and Engles of Russia, John Stuart Mill of England, Emerson, Thoreau, and DeToqueville of North America, Andres Bello and Simon Bolivar of Venezuela, Jose Marti of Cuba, and later in 20th century Arthur Ramos and Gilberto Freyre of Brazil.
Of course, many of these thinkers were not totally correct in their theories and predictions on human development in their nations, continents, or the world. For example, Rousseau failed to foresee how some of his earnest opinions could later encourage dictatorial actions; Marx and Engels failed to foresee how the proletariat could fall in love with a less manual life introduced by industrial gadgets, and money as the highest objective; and Bolivar near the end of his life was not optimistic about the result of freedoms he had won with his South American revolution, because he feared that the non-whites seeking revenge for historical slavery would destroy whiter local creoles like himself. But this never resulted, since non-white and white Venezuelans realised they needed each other to build a modern nation, and therefore they put national ideas of modernity above racially divisive ideas, which later resulted in Venezuela being one of the most racially just and balanced nations in the world today. The same concept of modern nationality being placed above racial ideas exists in Brazil, where national culture is cosmopolitan.
The concept of modernity first emerged in Europe and its American colonies because European and non-European cultures and customs collided, merged, and learnt from each other. European civilisation was the last civilisation to emerge after parts of the world became aware of each other. Due to numerous voyages into parts of the world previously unknown to them, leading European nations such as Italy (first Rome), Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, and France, came under the influence of foreign natural products, medicinal cures, styles of arts and crafts, languages, and erotic interracial pleasures from diverse non-European places like Asia, India, Africa, the South Sea Islands, indigenous North and South America. The first stages of this contact was far less violent and abusive then later stages when Imperialism grew, fed by greed, arrogance, and racial superiority. Britain, one of the poorest feudal nations in 19th century Western Europe, would fuel its ideas of imperialism on delusions of superiority, and succeed in becoming the largest colonial empire.
Modernity however was defined by liberal and reasonable ideas, found in the thinkers mentioned above. Such ideas could not come from areas of the world where only unquestionable religious and insular social dogmas ruled, permitting no freedom of thought and lifestyle. Modernity was founded on exploring ideas of human freedom, human logic and reasoning, ideas of artistic expression and creation based on combined multi-cultural influences, and lastly ideas of agriculture, industry, trade, barter, and the exchange of human knowledge for the benevolent growth of a modern, and just, civilisation. This concept and enjoyment of modernity took root and bloomed in South America because of the excitement of new possibilities which emerged from mixing and learning, the influence of different races, creative skills, and cultural styles evolving into a cosmopolitan unity. In other words, diverse peoples began eating and learning to make each other’s food, began enjoying each other’s bodies wilfully, each other’s company and friendship, exchanging and using creative fashions and styles relevant to a tropical modernity.
Today, however, many people, especially younger people who follow as consumers, not as selective thinkers, confuse technical gadgets and scientific inventions dumped on them, as modernity. True modernity is really a state of mind first, a way of thinking applied to living. It is a philosophy of life based on literacy and education. Certainly technical inventions aid a life of luxury, but behind such outward show, it is important to have sound wisdom. Take China’s modernity today; behind its material progress exists the brilliant reasoning of non-Western Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Mencius, Lin yu Tang and others. Macao, the old Portuguese colony on China’s seacoast, quite similar to Guyana’s seacoast, has become the most modernised casino/tourist tropical riviera in the world, exceeding Las Vegas. Yet China remains traditional. One has to think modern to be modern, not simply crave the latest chair, show, dress, car, bicycle, etc. The basis of an up-to-date modern viewpoint can be had by studying the various books by 20th century thinkers like Octavio Paz of Mexico, Marshall McLuhan of Canada, Roland Barthes of France, or the journalism of America’s Tom Wolfe, or Krishnamurti of India, among others.
Guyanese modernity developed through thought and practical ideas rooted in Amerindian knowledge of nature, Dutch, French, English and other Western European influences, along with Chinese, African, and East Indian manpower and social skills. When Britain ruled Guyana they were well aware that Guyanese had the right to be influenced by other non-Anglo European cultures such as Dutch, French, Swedish, Danish, Italian/Maltese, Austrian, German, and Portuguese/Spanish, who all had an input in Guyana’s modernity. Up to 1916 one could have shopped in Georgetown stores where creole Guyanese girls spoke Dutch, French, German, Danish and Portuguese. Through translated literature, like Penguin Classics, colonial Britain allowed all Guyanese to foster their cosmopolitan roots.
The introduction of the cinema with classic and innovative Hollywood and European films since the 1920’s instilled in Guyanese an openness to freedom of expression and understanding of complex human behaviour. Guyanese modernity established its local or national identity in certain works of literature, visual arts, and everyday fashions. Local Mod dress fashions emerged strongly since the 1950’s because it relied on local tailors and seamstresses, rather than ready-made restrictive fashions; however, many Georgetown stores, especially Fogarty’s and Bookers Universal imported light tropical fashions and footwear worn on the sunny Mediterranean European coasts of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal; such fashions were accepted as far more locally authentic than shapeless baggy styles imported from North American ghettoes and lifestyles, which have no relevance to Guyanese. Ultimately, those Guyanese who educated themselves out of poverty to become skilled professionals, were not trying to be Europeans, or North Americans, they were simply being modern Guyanese.