Historian, archaeologist rebuke indigenous history misconceptions
By Paula Gomes
A renown local historian and an archaeologist have rebuked the misconceptions surrounding the history of Guyana’s indigenous peoples during the inaugural indigenous educational lecture series hosted by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MoIPA) at the Umana Yana on Thursday evening, as part of the Amerindian heritage month celebrations.
According to Project Manager of the Amerindian Development Fund, Omar Bispat, the ministry decided to embark on such a lecture in light of constant complaints received from visits to various indigenous communities to the effect that “their story is not being told”.
The lecture focused primarily on the origins of indigenous culture researched through archaeology and the interactions with early European settlers, through comprehensive presentations by renowned historian, Anna Benjamin and local archaeologist, Louisa Daggers.
Benjamin made her points by highlighting common misconceptions that which is taught in school by teachers of the day bracketing Guyana with the rest of those colonised in the Americas as well, hence distorting indigenous history.
The first presenter took the audience back in time to when it is reported in history that indigenous populace of the Americas and Caribbean suffered mass genocide and exploitation in wake of Columbus’ “discovery” of this side of the globe.
According to the speaker, “there was no genocide here”; Guyana did not suffer like the rest of the other countries during the time of the Dutch (who were the first official settlers of the country), rather it was not until the arrival of the British who infiltrated deep into the interior of the country that the indigenous peoples’ suffered deaths from diseases like measles and small pox.
Contrary to common belief that the indigenous populace relocated to the interior away from the plantations upon the arrival of the Dutch, Benjamin posited that the people in fact did not, as the group came in small numbers and could’ve been rid of by the indigenous, had they wished to do so. Moreover, these Europeans enjoyed extensive trading with the lands’ first peoples and developed a preference to them as opposed to the Spanish and other succeeding groups to the extent that they even formed alliances against the other groups who attempted to infiltrate the colonies. The Caribs were specifically involved in geo-political games upon observations of conflict between the Dutch, Spanish and the English, and were extremely adapt with firearm weaponry of the metropole and it was in their best interest to side with the Dutch to defend their lands from those who became to be known to them as threats; to ensure that the Dutch remained where they were for their own welfare and survival.
Referring to the Dutch as “hypocrites”, Benjamin alluded to letters which were sent from the local governor to the mother country of Holland indicating that they felt saddened when the Caribs brought back religious articles evidencing destruction of nearby Spanish settlements. However they did nothing to stop such invasions as it was in their best interest to maintain a stronghold on the colony.
The second point established by the historian alluded to the fact that the indigenous people had an economic role to play in the colonial days (again contrary to common perception of non-input/contribution) in supplementing the diet of the Dutch and slaves on the plantation including the market abroad through the local production of “anato” which came to be used in food production processes.
In a final point, Benjamin firmly contended that indigenous peoples were not the first to be enslaved by the Dutch, simply owing to the fact that when they first landed in the land now known as Guyana, they brought at least six African slaves, as such it would only be factual to say that African slavery co-existed indigenous slavery.
Second presenter, archaeologist Daggers, used her area of expertise in the study of archaeology as a tool to bring these stories to life, that which is not known to the public. She made a brief address via a slide share presentation on history covering the paleo, meso and neo-indian period, on how the indigenous peoples evolved overtime in adapting to the ever-changing environment and climate for mere survival purposes.
According to the speaker, extensive “indigenous knowledge” allowed these people to survive the harsh conditions of climate change and it is they who hold the keys to issues surrounding the present day issue of climate change and ethno medicine among others. She also spoke on the importance of preserving petroglyphs found in various indigenous communities across Guyana, in preserving that part of history which was the first known primitive means of (written) communication among the aboriginal peoples.
The gathering was entertained by the local indigenous cultural group dubbed the “riverside angels” and the floor was opened to discussions on the subject at hand following the presentations.