Our heritage is that which we have inherited from our past, live with in our present, and will transmit to a new generation into the future. As such, it shares much with the elements of “culture”, and is the transmitter of heritage, with the three aspects of a perspective, its products and its practices. Since we Guyanese were brought from such diverse spaces across the globe, practising even more diverse cultures, it should be appreciated that each of our “six peoples” has a heritage that may differ from the other. As such, for us to build a more cohesive nation, it is imperative that we expose each other to our various heritages, so we may better understand “where we are coming from”.
Over the last two years, however, after participating in several ZOOM discussions during the elections’ fiasco, I discovered that most Indian-Guyanese are very impatient about discussing the past. They forget William Faulkner’s aphorism, “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past”, and that much of the shenanigans then arose out of our past. As such, they were indulging their willful amnesia to their peril. Everything in the present was created out of our past, and there are always the traces influencing us. As one famous analyst pointed out, “Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their making”. The circumstances are all formed out of past actions.
As a people, we do not have an appreciation of the drag – or the liberating possibilities – of history, and that’s why we, Indians in the Caribbean, keep on repeating our tragedies as farces. Girmitiya labour saved the sugar industry, and as such saved this country as a viable proposition, but yet their descendants are not accorded the legitimacy to govern this country. Witness the violence around most elections, such as the beatings on West Berbice during 2020 in full view of the Disciplined Forces – two decades after the similarly witnessed beatings in Georgetown on Jan 12, 1998; and of murders, rapes and ethnic cleaning of Wismar on May 25-26 1964. Not even a CoI on the first two, and a silencing of the last – with no protests from Indian-Guyanese.
But how is it that we, as descendants of indentureds (Girmitiyas), do not appreciate our history and heritage? To a large extent, it is because — as anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has put it about his own Haiti — our history, our story, our narrative of our contributions have been SILENCED. Trouillot shows this is not an accidental matter or an oversight, but a conscious transitive act taken by those with power. And it’s always a differential in power that gives some narrative voice while others are silenced in any society – even when the group doing the silencing does have political office but maintains a cultural hegemony, as is presently the case in Guyana.
Going beyond the trite but true observation that “history is written by the victors”, Trouillot pointed out that a people’s history can be silenced at four critical moments in the process of historical production. First, there is the “making of the source” when the noteworthy act is performed; such as, say, the lighting of the National Diya last November. Was it reported in all the newspapers? Did they mention what was said, only by those considered “important”?
The second point of silencing is in the making of archives, where “facts” are assembled about “noteworthy” events, which can be retrieved later. Who makes these decisions? The third is in “making narratives” when the story of the event is retold. Who tells the story is important: “hunters always tell the story, the hunted never do”. Finally, there is “writing history” – the moment of retrospective significance in looking back. Will the gaps be filled, as some historians are only now attempting to do; or will the silencing continue, as in our textbooks? I studied “West Indian History” in high school when only 8 out of 300 pages were dedicated to Indian Indentureship”.
Therefore, Trouillot concludes, “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences”, which we must fill with the voices that were elided. Indian- Guyanese silenced history, including that of our heroes, is a metaphor of our lack of power to even define our existence. And if you do not know what you have contributed, then you will accept being, at best, tolerated by others.
Girmitiya Heritage Month is one device for recuperating the contributions of Indian Guyanese to the nation and its resilience.