eric phillips

dear editor

The March 27 Sunday Stabroek editorial entitled ‘First-comers’ is a step forward in discussing the inconvenient and hidden thrusts of Guyanese history. For too long we have had much of our history hidden from us, mainly for political reasons. I grew up in Mahaicony, the grandson of an African woman, Agnes Adams, and an Amerindian man, Herman Coates, who named their child and my mother, Zereda Coates. My grandmother Nurse Joyce was a midwife and her house at Dundee, Mahaicony where I grew up was full of Amerindians, Indians and Africans who had difficult pregnancies. Some would spend as many as 3 months in my home as she took care of them.

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I write about this because the Sunday Stabroek editorial suggested my letters on African Guyanese rights to land as reparatory justice will turn Amerindians against Africans around the issue of who came first. The editorial says: “The most recent pseudo-historical debate being carried on in the letters column of this newspaper relates to African land claims as reparations for injustice, and in part sets the Amerindians against the Africans in terms of who was here first and when, and how that relates to entitlement.”

My letters congratulated the nine Amerindian nations on achieving 13.8% per cent of Guyana including the 3 nations who came after the first Africans and who are really of Brazilian origin.

Hence, I question how does this truth about the first Africans arriving here 100 to 200 years before three Amerindian nations turn Amerindians against Africans? These are historical facts.

I wrote about the Wapishanas arriving 100 years after Africans who came in the 1620s only because the Wapishanas recently asked for an extension of land in addition to what they will receive out of the already decreed 13.8% based on being ‘first’ in Guyana. The Sunday Stabroek editorial did not address the essence of my letter about Africans and their just claims for land.

My central point of argument and question was a simple one. Why should 3 Amerindian nations who came to Guyana 100 years after the first Africans, receive lands, when the claims of Africans for reparatory justice are not recognised, when they were here before the Amerindians and who worked free to build Guyana under a criminal system (United Nations Declaration) for 200 years during which period there was their genocide? It is a just claim, given the numerous global awards of land for reparatory justice that is an internationally and legally recognised process.

The Sunday Stabroek editorial conveniently left out the 200 years and thousands of lost lives as a reason for reparatory justice given that lands have been given to three Amerindian nations.

Moreso, as we look at the issue of the Government of Guyana awarding lands in Guyana, the Sunday Stabroek did not share with the general public the following facts about the Government of Guyana granting lands to indentured Indians while denying the same right to Africans who were here 200 years before indentured Indians.

As Odeen Ishmael illustrated in his book The Guyana Story: From Earliest Times to Independence there were many settlements funded by the British government.

In 1885 the government appointed a commission headed by the Attorney General J W Carrington to determine how a land settlement scheme could be established for Indians in compensation for their return passages to India. The commission met with plantation owners, groups of Indians and other interested persons, and visited a number of places suitable for settlement. The commission subsequently established a Return Passages Committee in September 1896 to obtain the sites and to select the settlers.

In 1896 Helena, an abandoned sugar plantation on the west bank of the Mahaica River, was purchased by the government. It was then surveyed and divided into lots, and the old drainage canals were also cleared. The distribution of house lots and cultivation plots to the selected settlers began in April 1897, and by the time this process was completed, 1,206 persons were in possession of land in the settlement.

The Whim settlement started in September 1898 when land for housing and cultivation was allocated to settlers. By March 1899, land was shared out to 574 persons. The settlers cultivated mainly rice, but also planted coconuts, coffee and fruit trees. With their earnings from the sugar estates they were able to erect better houses than their counterparts at Helena.

A third settlement for Indians was established at Bush Lot in West Berbice. The area was an abandoned estate which was heavily indebted to the government for rates, and the proprietor sold it to the government for $1,200. Comprising an area of 1,306 acres of which 463 acres were waste land, it was handed over to the Return Passage Committee in March 1897.  The early settlers of Bush Lot experienced the problems associated with the drought of 1899 and their rice crop was severely affected. Even though house lots and cultivation plots began to be distributed from 1899, it was not until February 1902 that Bush Lot was officially declared an Indian settlement. A sum of $40,000 acquired from the immigration fund was spent on laying out the settlement and the digging by shovel-men of a canal, over three miles long, to the Abary River to obtain a water supply.

Maria’s Pleasure on the island of Wakenaam started in 1902 when 168 lots were distributed. However, only 40 persons built homes and rice and coconuts were cultivated. But since most of the new landowners could not be found, not enough rates were collected.

In 1912-13, the government purchased the abandoned estates of Unity-Lancaster on the East Coast Demerara from their owners and improved the drainage and irrigation canals. The land was then divided into one-acre plots which were sold for $20 each.

Around the same period Clonbrook, another abandoned estate just a mile to the west of Unity-Lancaster, was also purchased by the government and divided into house lots and cultivation plots. Each house lot was sold for $30 while a cultivation plot cost $20.

On the West Coast Demerara, Windsor Forest and La Jalousie, with a combined area of 3,000 acres, was offered for rent at a rate of one dollar per acre for the first year, and six dollars for each subsequent year. The tenants had the option of purchasing the land by paying $8.50 per acre for 25 years. A nearby estate, Hague, was also leased out in lots and offered under similar terms.

Indo-Guyanese were empowered. Similarly the Chinese and Portuguese. The Portuguese were allowed to break their indentureship contracts with impunity and were further helped to set up businesses through support from Madeira and from good commercial credit terms from the British.

But Africans were never empowered. Today, the economic, social and cultural inequalities are evident.

I hope the Stabroek News writes an editorial which makes the just argument for reparatory justice in the form of lands for Africans. In the meanwhile, I still call for the Government of Guyana to freeze the granting of lands to foreign groups such as Bai Shan Lin and others until Africans in Guyana receive lands as reparatory justice. Anything else would continue the historical injustices against Africans and would be anti-social cohesion.

This is our 50th anniversary. The time for truth is now. The time for justice is now.

Yours faithfully,

Eric Phillips