Africans, Indians, Amerindians & others helped to build Guyana

Dear Editor,
All ethnic groups have historically helped to build Guyana, and we should treasure the contributions of each group, and not pit one against the other. Focusing on the historical contributions of only one ethnic group in our society does a disservice to the nation, as it leads to division of the society. For balance, we must focus on the contributions of all groups.
The Afro-nationalist Eric Phillips claims: “History has recorded that African Guyanese had driven back the sea and had cleared, drained and reclaimed 15,000 square miles of forest and swamps, equivalent to 9,000,000 acres of land. Meaning, all the plantations now turned villages and cities were built by unpaid African labour.” He adds: “The Venn Commission reported that, ‘to build the coastal plantations alone, a value of 100,000,000 tons of earth had to be moved by the hands of African slaves without machinery)’.”
These figures do not appear on any documented history, and contrary to what Phillips has penned, African labour alone did not clear all the land. (For the record, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese and Indians also cleared land). Nevertheless, let us assume that Phillips’s numbers are correct.
What is recorded is that, when slavery ended in 1834 (1838), there were about 100,000 (ex) slaves in Guyana. Phillips claim that over 400,000 lives were lost prematurely during slavery, plus others died from natural causes. So that would be in excess of 500,000 Africans during the period of slavery. They cleared 9,000,000 acres of land.
Contrast those numbers with Indians. They started coming to Guiana in 1838. By 1860, there were about 80,000 indentured labourers (including minors). Indian labourers were required to clear land to expand sugar production. By 1860, plantation acreage under cultivation had increased phenomenally — there were three times the amount of acreage under sugar cultivation, and much more land under cultivation of other crops (rice, fruits, vegetables, etc).
As the Africans did, the Indians had to build the coastal plantations to prepare them for cultivation of sugar cane. So they had to move more than 300,000,000 tons of earth by hands (as the Africans did) without machinery.
Contrasting the stats, over 500,000 Africans moved 100 million tons of earth, whereas 80,000 Indians moved three times that amount – 300 million tons of earth. Readers should also be reminded that Indians did not work in factories, or as clerks, or as security officers for plantation owners; they worked only on the land. They worked in what was called shovel gangs, and they moved a lot more earth during the indentured period (that ended in 1917, some 77 years) – over four times – than under the 200 years of slavery.
Contrast also production statistics. In 1830, some 20 thousand tons of sugar were produced, and sugar production began to decline especially during the apprenticeship period, rendering the plantations almost bankrupt. By 1860, with indentured labourers, 100 thousand tons of sugar were produced, plus hundreds of tons of other crops.
One can draw one’s own conclusion from those stats about land clearing, productivity, and contribution to economic development by various ethnic groups.
By 1917, when indenture ended, in addition to clearing an estimated 3.5 million acres of land for cane cultivation, Indians had cleared another 2 million acres for rice, coconut and other crops. And by 1917, in addition to producing over 100,000 tons of sugar, Indians also produced over 100,000 tons of rice and thousands of tons of coconuts and other farm produce; the colony started exporting rice around 1903.
While it is true that all groups did not contribute equally to the development of the state, all deserve to be treated fairly by the Government. They must also receive relatively equal benefits from the state.
One group should not be favoured over another; except in the hinterland and rural areas, where the population has been continuously neglected. The hinterland population deserves affirmative action for being marginalized by the colonial and all subsequent rulers.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram

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