That Independence Date

As a footnote to the hype around the Independence Jubilee celebrations was the observation by two letter writers Rakesh Rampertab and Swami Aksharananda that the date chosen for Independence, May 26, 1966 was at best, insensitive to the sentiments of Indian Guyanese. And at worse, an act to remind them in perpetuity of their humiliation.

Just two years before independence, between May 22-26, three Indians in the community of Wismar had been murdered, 38 injured, six women and girls raped, 220 houses and businesses burnt to the ground and 3399 men, women and children – almost the entire Indian community – evacuated.

The CoI into the atrocities concluded: “This was a diabolical plot, ingeniously planned and ruthlessly executed… politically and racially inspired.” The “ethnic cleansing” was in retaliation for the murder of an elderly African couple, the Sealeys, aback of Buxton  on May 21.

The murders were only the latest in a string of tit-for-tat violence unleashed after the PPP called a general strike in the sugar industry – overtly for “recognition” by the Sugar Producers, but actually a last ditch attempt to derail the imposition by the British and the Americans of Proportional Representation (PR) method of voting they knew would eject them out of office.

The Wismar ethnic cleansing “tit” of May 22-26 was followed by the “tat” of bombing of the ferry between Wismar and Georgetown, the Sun Chapman, on July 6 and killing 38 African Guyanese aboard. Even though the Inquiry was inconclusive, the PNC and residents of Wismar maintained the bombing was the retaliatory work of the PPP.

That evening five Indians were murdered and seven seriously injured from the approximately 300 who had either remained or returned after May 26.

Rampertab pointed out the PPP did originally object to the PNC’s choice of independence date (they had boycotted the constitutional conference in Nov 1965). But they objected more vociferously when the PNC downplayed the commemoration in favour of Republic Day, February 23 after 1970.

They placed it on the front-burner after returning to power in 1992. Rampertab also claims that in 1962 it was PPP Minister Cedric Nunes who originally proposed the May 26 date. Hamilton Green, who was at the 1965 London Confab, claims May 26 was a “compromise” between preference between Burnham’s choice of February 23 (Cuffy’s Revolt) and D’Aguiar’s August 1 (Emancipation).

But the suggestion by Rampertab that the date should be changed would seem academic since it is a matter of the historical record, an order of the British Crown, granted us independence on May 26th. One cannot undo that circumstance.

The other suggestion would be to “let sleeping dogs lie” about that period in the 1960s when there were enough atrocities committed by “both sides” to spread around. But there are some who believe otherwise.

One such person is President David Granger. In a 2003 paper, without ever mentioning the preceding Wismar atrocities, he wrote: “The most alarming slaughter of the ‘Disturbances’ was that of 40 Africans on 6 July at Hurudaia in the Demerara River as they travelled in a motor launch to Mackenzie.”

The following year, a “Son Chapman Tragedy Commemoration Committee”, with the PNC integrally involved, organised a 40th Anniversary event at the fatal spot at Hurudaia on the Demerara River. Robert Corbin, leader of the PNC said, “a nation that fails to record its history is bound to make the same mistakes.”

After Granger became the leader of the PNC he attended the Commemoration ceremony in 2011 and declared he wished more people would converge at the spot. The Motto on the Monument at Hurudaia declared: “Those who forget the lessons of history do so at our own peril.”

In 2013, Granger and the PNC initiated moving the commemoration to the centre of Linden so the people there “would not forget”. When the PNC took office they would construct the monument.

We cannot undo the past but I believe we can have a memorial for ALL the 176 Guyanese who perished in the 1964 disturbances and need restorative justice.