Roar of Ravi Dev
In Guyana, the question of an equitable distribution of economic goods has always loomed large. And history offers valuable perspectives on this condition; perspectives that should assist us in moving away from the finger-pointing stage (interspersed with gun-toting episodes) that we seem to be mired.
The concern over economic distribution should not be surprising in light of our origin as a colony founded on slave and indentured labour. As a non-settler European colony, the Guyanese economy was structured to produce primary products in agriculture and mining at the cheapest possible labour cost, for export to the metropole countries.
The movement for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, followed by the agitation in India for humane working conditions for the indentured labourers in the 20th century, left a legacy of sensitivity to the exploitation – economic and otherwise – of labour in Guyana. In fact, the trade union movement – founded to agitate for economic justice on behalf of workers – was launched here as far back as 1919, long before political parties appeared on the scene. It was the womb for most modern politicians. The ethnic organisations, formed contemporaneously by mostly middle-class elements, were also concerned about the economic status and progress of their members.
The historical development of the colony, by and large, led to ethnic economic specialisation and this was to have far reaching consequences. Within a decade of the abolition of slavery, the majority of Africans left the plantation and were channelled – by laws and other institutions – into becoming an urbanised workforce of lower civil service clerks, messengers, transport workers, dock workers, shop assistants, artisans, masons etc. The unbroken wave of rural to urban migration, continuing to the present, soon created a large African urban underclass, which could be used to depress urban wages and led to several riots. Some Africans gravitated into the hinterland to prospect for gold and opened up a new industry.
Those Africans who remained on the sugar plantations constituted the majority of skilled factory workers, who were inevitably separated from the mostly Indian field workers. When the bauxite industry was developed following WWI, the workers recruited were primarily Africans. The Portuguese and Chinese, small in numbers, also gravitated to the urban centres directly after serving their indenture contracts, with some remaining as shopkeepers in the newly formed villages. Some Portuguese became gold prospectors and soon became the large operators in that field.The majority of Indians, even after indentureship ended in 1921, were encouraged to remain on the plantations or to form rural settlements near the plantations so as to provide readily available seasonable labour for sugar – focusing primarily on rice and vegetable cultivation and cattle rearing.
Economic competition was sustained with the rural migration continuing as a constant feature of the colony’s development since the towns were promoted as the centre of “civilised” life and higher standards of living. As mentioned, rural African migration precipitated severe contradictions as the African underclass grew while opportunities stagnated. The early success of the Portuguese migrants in business, (even in the production of vegetables for the Sunday markets) which squeezed out many Coloured/African entrepreneurs, led to several African – Portuguese riots, notably in 1848, 1856 and 1888. The Portuguese were seen as unfairly moving ahead of Africans due to special treatment from the colonial powers.
It was the beginning of the movement of Indians into the urban-centred occupations after the end of indentureship in 1917 however, that precipitated the greatest stresses in the society – some of which are still unresolved. The Indians, building on their successes in rice, cattle rearing and petty retailing, began to open businesses in Georgetown by the 1920’s and also to enter the independent professions of medicine and law. These were very highly prized occupations in colonial society that helped to define status and when some Indians began to percolate into the Civil Service by the 1930’s, the Coloured/African elite began to feel threatened.
They felt that the Indians, with their immigrant drive for economic advancement coupled with their greater numbers (by the end of indentureship) would become so economically dominant even if they were to occupy only a proportionate share of the valued economic platforms, as to overwhelm them. This fear increased as the Indians slowly began to follow the path earlier trod by the rural African to the urban centres.
The fear actuated, and still actuates politics today.