1856 Angel Gabriel Riots set template for ethnic riots

In his essay, “Summarising the 1856 ‘Angel Gabriel’ Guyana Riots”, Dr Nigel Westmaas began his description of “The Riots”: “The outline of the riots is stark and involved all three counties. The anti-Portuguese violence, directed mostly at shops, was widespread and destructive. One report stated that “Creoles, sometimes accompanied by East Indians and African immigrants, broke the windows and door of shops, consumed or dumped barrels of liquor…”
I questioned the source of his assertion, since his phrasing suggested East Indians were involved in the “widespread and destructive anti-Portuguese violence” in “all three counties”. Nigel kindly supplied his source. It boiled down to a single incident in West Demerara, reported separately by two London Society Missionaries and cited in Monica Schuler’s, “Liberated Africans in 19th Century Guyana”. Nigel’s concession that it was a single incident changes the picture completely.
Whenever we look at the historical record, we are ineluctably seeking answers to questions posed by our present circumstances. Some ask, “What are the lessons of history?” but actually they are asking, “What are the lessons drawn by historians or social scientists who looked at the historical record?” In “summarizing” the Angel Gabriel Riots, which has always been seen as a Portuguese-Creole/African 19th century conflict, Nigel bootstrapped on a single incident to say:
“In this specific case/debate, there are two broad notions of African-Indian relations. One notion, which I would term the “optimistic” version, attempts to depict Black–Indian relations with the broad-brush record of complete amity, that is, modern advocates (which I suspect stems from tactical usage of the notion for present political purposes) who insist there was little to no enmity between Africans and Indians in Guyana until the modern period of the 1960s. The other train of thought appeals to the notion of incessant – if not endemic – conflict between the two groups.” The first tendency is exemplified by Dr Walter Rodney. Nigel says he straddles the median, but one wonders exactly how he segued from the Portuguese-Creole (with Indian support?) conflict to the present Indian-African one.
That is his choice, but I hope he accepts that whatever theoretical perspective adopted must address the historical record. If we play fast and loose with that record, our “lessons” will be flawed. Hence my objection to Nigel framing the Angel Gabriel Riots to suggest that East Indians participated widely and presumably for the same reasons as Creoles, who were resentful of the Portuguese displacing them in commerce and being favoured by the establishment.
Speaking from my present, my interest has been to unravel the dynamics of our ethnic relations in Guyana that have led to stunted political, social, economic and cultural development and periodic explosions of ethnic violence, with the aim of proposing initiatives to eliminate or at least alleviate whatever systemic contradictions have kept us in thrall. In my 1998 “Aetiology of an Ethnic Riot”, I made an explicit connection with the Angel Gabriel Riots: “If we look at our historical record, we would discover that (the ethnic riot) “Jan 12” is not unique in Guyana… As early as the nineteenth century, there were major riots between Africans and Portuguese in 1856 and 1889.”
I utilized the socio-psychological framework of Donald Horowitz to examine ethnic politics that may lead to ethnic riots to make the connection. It is summarized in the formula: group comparison + group legitimacy = a politics of entitlement. And it is here that I balked at equating the East Indians and Creoles/Africans participating in the Angel Gabriel Riots in a systemic manner. With reference to Horowitz’s equation, Brian Moore, in his “The social impact of Portuguese immigration into British Guiana after Emancipation”, wrote: “The Creoles developed a complex of oppression with respect to the Portuguese. “The Portuguese have come to take over our country”; “the Portuguese take away all our money”; “we poor Creoles have no chance”; “the Governor favours the Portuguese” Such statements were frequently mouthed by the Creoles in expression of their dissatisfaction over the favours accorded to the Portuguese. So disgruntled had they become by the 1850s that some openly began to agitate for ‘Black Power” in the colony? “ ‘Black ministers, Black shopkeepers, Black merchants, Black planters,’ in fact everything Black.” He quoted the same source as Schuler, but did not mention the one instance of East Indian “rioting”.
Substituting “Indian” for “Portuguese”, the parallels with our present ethnic dilemma hopefully needs no belabouring.