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Historical and Theoretical Explanations of Guyana’s Ethnic Conundrum

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By Professor Mellissa Ifill, PhD

Analyses of Guyana’s ethnic contestation and the violence it repeatedly generates primarily tend to emphasise the historical development of British Guiana as the major contributory factor. The analyses, centre on theories of race, ethnicity and cultural pluralism and dominated the pre and post-independence discourse and were used extensively to explain the country’s socio/political reality.

Walter Rodney (1981) argued that the evidence did not endorse the popular perception that there was a prevalence of racial conflict in Guyana. He noted: ‘… the case for the dominant role of racial division in the historical sphere has been overstated, and that scholarship on the subject has accepted without due scrutiny the proposition that Indians and Africans existed in mutually exclusive compartments. The problems of interpretation lie not only in the marshaling of the evidence, but, more fundamentally, in the historical methodology that is applied (Rodney 1981: 188).

Rodney (1981) made reference to the commonality of purpose that was realized among working class individuals of different ethnic groups during the 19th and early 20th centuries and he noted that this realization and consequential cooperation were also exhibited in the immediate pre independence era in Guyana.

Rodney however was forced to conclude that the latter process was short lived and was followed by increased separation along racial lines. Thereafter ethnic identification largely destroyed the prospects for working class solidarity based upon an anti-imperialist ideology.

Rodney’s fairly optimistic perception of ethnic/race relations in Guyana was not shared by other scholars, particularly those who utilised the plural society methodology and who have argued that Guyana is comprised of groups that have fundamental cultural differences, and that while fragile unity exists, it must be evaluated within the context of dominance by one group.

M. G. Smith (1965) and Leo Despres (1969) examined 19th century British Guiana and highlighted a number of prominent features that characterise a plural society. First, it emerged as a result of an external, frequently foreign minority defeating the inhabitants and conquering the territory and its residents on its sovereign’s behalf; second, the plural society was forcibly constructed of differing ethnicities and cultures; third, there existed both an occupational division of labour along with a residential segregation among the differing ethnicities notwithstanding their interaction in the local economy; fourth, a general social spirit due to the occupational and social segregation was lacking; fifth, the foreign minority ensured that stability and order were maintained by using a range of tactics including coercion, divide and rule and cooption and; sixth, since the society experienced recurrent conflict and discord, social stability was continually in jeopardy.

George Beckford meanwhile (1972) argued that British Guiana was fashioned into a typical multi ethnic plantation society which economically was defined by: the dependence on one principal crop and can therefore be regarded as monocultural and; the presence of a number of social race categories. Beckford theorised that the plantation society showed traits of cultural pluralism through the resettlement of different ethnicities and cultures, the placement of these groups in a common production structure and the restriction of each group to specific tasks and geographic locations.

Robert Moore (1970) meanwhile addressed one of the more prominent features identified in most cultural/ethnic pluralism theories, that is, the use of divide and rule tactics by the hegemonic European powers that controlled the state. He noted that throughout the colonial era, the real, perceived and constructed differences between the groups were deliberately manipulated/ exploited thereby generating racial antagonism among the subjugated groups. The ensuing conflict between groups was then used by the dominant European group to maintain its hegemony. Examples of the divide and rule tactics employed by the colonisers during the 18th and 19th centuries in Guyana include the use of Indigenous peoples during slavery to suppress uprisings and to recapture runaway enslaved Africans thus creating conflict and enmity between the two groups; the use of indentured Indians to police Africans and protect Portuguese businesses during the 1856 Angel Gabriel Riots, which moved the adversarial nature of the African-Indian engagement from the economic and labour realm to direct physical conflict; the use of African, Chinese and Portuguese communities to police Indian immigrants and protect European employers when the Indian immigrants demonstrated against the plantocracy. Such examples reinforce Moore’s argument (1970) that ethnic groups were adroitly used to subdue unrest by a different group.

Ralph Premdas’ (1992) proposes two useful sets of factors that fostered ethnic conflict and violence in the pre independence Guyana that coincide with the analyses above: predisposing factors and triggering-igniting factors. Premdas identifies predisposing factors as cultural pluralism, disunity and the primary values and internally shared beliefs of the different groups. He contends that in circumstances where predisposing factors are used to advance ethnic exclusivity, ethnic conflict may result and in the process, divide groups that had up to that time cohabited. Premdas identifies triggering-igniting factors as colonial manipulation, mass politics, competition over resource allocation and the political institutions imposed/adopted at the time of independence.

Clive Y. Thomas (1984:83) contended that racial disunity hindered the objective unity of the Guyanese working class. He links this disunity to the importation of indentured groups after the emancipation of the enslaved and the ethnicized division of labor on the plantations with Africans in the factory and Indians in the field. Thomas also links disunity to residential segregation whereby distinct African and Indian settlement areas were produced. Similarly, Percy Hintzen (1994) argued that division along residential and occupational levels underscored economic separation.

Brackette Williams (1991:154) in a similar vein contends that the relations among the subordinated non-European groups during the establishment of Anglo-European hegemony “set the terms of the politics of cultural struggle in contemporary Guyana” (Williams 1991: 154). Williams evaluated the ways in which the conflicting ideologies of egalitarianism and hierarchy operated socially in the day to day existence of residents and discussed the manner in which the various “racial/ethnic groups” were integrated into the hierarchical ordering of colonial society. She stated that:
“formal policies and informal practices of both the dominating Anglo-European elite and the subordinated diverse elements of the non-elite population combine to form a framework of objective and ideological constraints within which the racial/ethnic groups developed different adaptive strategies for subsistence and social mobility (Williams 1991:148). Williams’ conclusion therefore is that the relations among the subordinated non-European groups during the period of Anglo-European dominance “set the terms of the politics of cultural struggle in contemporary Guyana” (Williams 1991: 154).”

The preceding historical and theoretical frameworks are widely cited when examining the root causes of divisions and antagonisms in contemporary Guyanese society. The analyses, to one degree or another, point to the historical division between ethnicised groups along political, religious, geographic and occupational bases, fuelled by European hegemons’ divide and rule tactics and by stereotypes and myths constructed about differing groups, as the bases for the conflict and contestation between groups.

Beckford, George. 1972. Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World. London: Oxford University Press.

Despres, Leo. 1969. ‘Differential Adaptation and Micro-Cultural Evolution in Guyana.’ South West Journal of Anthropology 20.

Hintzen, Percy. 1994. ‘The Colonial Foundations of Race Relations and Ethno-Politics in Guyana.’ History Gazette 65.

Moore, Robert. 1970. East Indians and Negroes in British Guiana 1838-1880. Dphil Thesis, University of Sussex.

Premdas, R.R. 1992. Ethnic Conflict and Development: The Case of Guyana. Discussion Paper No. 30, Geneva: Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Rodney, Walter. 1981. A History of the Guyanese Working People 1881-1905. Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Smith, M. G. 1965. The Plural Society in the British West Indies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas, C.Y. 1984. The Rise of the Authoritarian State in Peripheral Societies. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Williams, Brackette F. 1991. Stains On My Name, War In My Veins. Guyana and the Politics of Cultural Struggle. Durham: Duke University Press.