Looking back…

…at the Portuguese Guyanese

Today, May 3rd, is Portuguese Arrival Day, with the first indentured batch from the island of Madeira having arrived on that day in 1835 on the good ship Louisa Baille. That first batch of 40, it should be noted, was brought right after the formal Abolition of Slavery on August 1st 1834, but before the ex-slaves actually obtained their freedom, because they were compelled to work on the sugar plantations as “Apprentices” until 1838.
If the Apprenticeship scheme was to transition the ex-slaves into a monetised labour arrangement, the question that arises is: Why did the planters bring in the Portuguese?? The answer isn’t so simple. The planters couldn’t have known that within a year the freed slaves wouldn’t remain in the cane fields. In fact, some Portuguese workers from Madeira had actually been brought in in 1834! One reason could be that the British wanted to change the racial balance in their favour, because they didn’t only recruit the “white” Portuguese, but some English, Scottish, Irish, German and Maltese farmers before the end of apprenticeship.
It was the beginning of a “divide and rule” policy that was to continue throughout the colonial period. But while the Madeiran Portuguese “survived” plantation life, they did so with a horrendous death rate. So why’d they keep on coming?? It was because, bad as these conditions were, the conditions in Madeira were worse. However, it wasn’t only the Portuguese and whites who were brought in before the end of Apprenticeship; even more came from the small WI Islands, where wages were less than those in Guyana!!
Eventually, more of the latter came as indentureds than the Portuguese, but it was the latter who made an indelible mark on Guyana and its history. They were hard workers, as can be evidenced by the fact that they earned on the average more than the Indian Indentureds, who were brought in from 1938. They saved their money assiduously, and at the end of their 2- or 4-year indentureship, generally went into business. They were so successful at this that within a few decades they owned the majority of businesses in the colony.
This caused resentment in the ex-slave population, and there were riots against them as early as in 1858, and then again in 1888. While the Portuguese were “whites”, the British rulers did not accord them status under the category of “European” in their censuses. It was an early lesson that “race” is a social construct!!
The Portuguese, however, through dint of sheer hard work and determination, pulled themselves up the social ladder and excelled in all spheres of life!
They should be a beacon to all Guyanese today.

…at trade unionism
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Trade Unionism in Guyana. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow formed the British Guiana Labour Union in 1919 to agitate for better wages and working conditions for stevedores on the Georgetown waterfront. This was a signal achievement, since while trade unions were recognised in Britain as early as 1872, none of the other workers in Britain’s Empire, on which “the sun never sat”, had the self-confidence to make this move.
It’s a pity that, over the years, workers in Guyana really never achieved their due under the Trade Union Movement, and most of this mediocre record can be traced to venal trade union leaders. Most of them sold out through the years, either to the businesses they were supposed to keep on their toes, or to the politicians, who offered them “connections”.
In the sugar industry, for instance, which continued to be the most exploitative into the present, the first unionists in the MPCA were bought out within a decade.
Workers are still “on their own”.

…at Venezuela
The Venezuelan crisis continues to boil, as once again Maduro stood down the latest push from Guaido. So we’ll continue to be flooded with refugees, including returning Guyanese and their children, who’ve brought back “Venezuelan ways”.
Will the quantitative soon change the qualitative?