During my time as an Eccles Centre U.S. Visiting Fellow I was able to access rare first-person accounts from eyewitnesses to the turbulent history around the struggle for independence in Guiana, the former British colony in South America, writes Gaiutra Bahadur.
During my month at the British Library as an Eccles Centre U.S. Visiting Fellow, from June 8 to July 8, 2016, I was able to access rare first-person accounts from eyewitnesses to the turbulent history around the struggle for independence in Guiana, the former British colony in South America. The most important was an interview available only at the British Library, as part of the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical Project.
During my fellowship, I worked on a biography of Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the first American woman to serve as a head of state anywhere in the world. Born in Chicago to a middle-class Jewish family, she met and married Cheddi Jagan, one of Guyana’s future independence leaders, while he was in the United States studying to become a dentist during the Second World War. Back in Guiana, she worked by his side in the fight to overthrow colonial rule and was very much his equal as a co-founder of a multiracial socialist party, the People’s Progressive Party. Ultimately, in the late 1990s, she succeeded him as president but for many decades the couple was in the political wilderness, ousted from power through a U.S.-British alliance opposed to their Marxist politics.
Trevor Carter, a Trinidadian immigrant who was a member of the British Communist Party, saw first-hand the campaign to destabilize the People’s Progressive Party in the early 1960s. In interview sessions spanning 18 tapes and roughly 20 hours, he provided vivid storytelling. I learned how he came to be recruited to work in rural Guiana by Janet Jagan, at a party in London thrown by a Communist Party member, a Jewish emigre. His observations on her character and persona, like his observations on politics in Britain and the West Indies, were honest, evocative and astute. She recruited him to work in Guyana at a rural college, where he taught members of the PPP the basics of Marxism and party organization. Going to Guyana, to do the work of the Communist Party at a time when comrades were being jailed in Malaysia and India, was an adventure for him.
He went, and from 1961 to 1964, in a political world he evokes as one of guns and guayaberas, and a social world he describes as one flowing with women and alcohol, he saw plenty to shock and disturb him. He witnessed some gruesome violence between Indians and Africans in the country during strikes that U.S. labor and intelligence figures played a role in inciting. A grenade attack on a bus taking white children to school, blamed on the PPP, happened right outside the party college where he worked. He was present in Freedom House, the PPP headquarters in Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, during a bomb explosion that martyred a party member. The immediacy of the material he provides is matched by their analytical value. Carter provided key insights into some of the leading actors in the independence movement: not only the Jagans and their chief rival Forbes Burnham but lesser known figures such as Moses Bhagwan and Ranji Chandisingh. As a black man in a party that had become largely Indian in a place that was becoming ever more racially polarized, Carter also provided unique insight into those tensions. Furthermore, he reflected on splits in the West India Committee of the British Communist Party and the Caribbean Labour Congress which turned on racial tensions in Guyana. His oral history interview is invaluable not only because of its unvarnished eyewitness content but because of Carter’s style, very much a no-holds-barred raconteur’s style. As my book will be narrative history, the details he offered (embedded in plot and setting, with attention to character) will deeply enrich my work.
While at the library, I was also able to listen to oral history interviews with John Platt, a barrister who represented both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham in cases spanning decades, some involving the racialized political violence of the early 1960s. An interview with Bookers executive Jonathan Taylor, who visited Guyana in 1959 with chairman Jock Campbell, provided some important context on how the politics of Guyana changed the nature of this British multinational, which made its fortune in sugar plantations in Guyana. Taylor’s job was to help steer the company to a much more diversified future; its fears of the nationalization of the sugar industry in Guyana did later come to pass. Taylor’s interview provides some insight into that process, as important a shift for Guyana as it was for Bookers.
While much of the significant headway on my project was made through oral histories archived at the library, I was also able to read pamphlets and articles by both of the Jagans and their rival Burnham, who was effectively placed in power by the Anglo-American alliance in 1964. The library holds one of the few existing original copies of “Beware of my Brother Forbes,” a caustic election-year attack on Burnham by his sister Jessie during his bid for prime minister in1964. She warned of Machiavellian tendencies and stated: “I do not want to see my country become a police state state, where a power hungry man can sacrifice our liberty for his personal gain.” Another rare text I read during the fellowship was London’s Heart Probe and Britain’s Destiny, a very unusual travelogue by Ayube Edun, a man born on a sugar plantation in Guyana who went to England to study in 1928. The book is a sort of Plato’s Republic for Guyana, envisioning an ideal state and its components, including “Manpower Citizens” who worked with their hands rather than their heads. Edun, who would go on to serve in the colonial legislature, also founded a sugar plantation workers union in Guyana called the Manpower Citizens Association. It was this union that the Jagans, when they first emerged on the political scene, tried and failed to lead, and it was this union that was later used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as a counterweight to the Jagans. While Edun’s treatise, an odd combination of Anglophilia and revolutionary idealism, was published two decades before the Cold War events I will focus on, the plantation workers’ union he first dreamed in its pages played a critical role in Guyanese politics and in the fate of Janet Jagan and her husband. It provides rich subtext and important background.
Outside the library, I was able to interview one of the two founders of the People’s Progressive Party who are still alive: Eric Huntley, who was jailed for a year by the British government in the mid-1950s. Huntley left Guyana in 1957 and became one of the key figures in Black British anti-racist struggles and movements as well as the co-founder, with his wife, of the groundbreaking radical black publishing house Bogle-L’Ouverture. As an elder of the party, his memories of the struggle for independence, the Jagans and the fight from abroad against Burnham’s repressive rule are pivotal. I spoke to him over two sessions lasting in total eight hours. I hope to continue the conversation with him on subsequent trips.