The sugar that built me: Belle Vue elders reflect 62 years on
By Shemuel Fanfair
Located in the environs of the former Wales Sugar Estate is the breezy community of Belle Vue, West Bank Demerara (WBD), a village which was built on sugar and thrived during the heyday of sugar production.
In fact, the village celebrated its 62nd year in existence this past year and was said to be the first and only pilot scheme established by the Bookers Sugar Estate, which ran the industry from the colonial era up to 1970.
The ‘Belle Vue Pilot Scheme’ as it was then known saw 57 male sugar workers and their families from various estates across East and West Demerara being transplanted to the WBD village under a project that made them sugar cane farmers. It was felt that once workers cultivated their own produce that they would sell the cane to the estate and industrial conflict would be minimised as farmers would not strike against themselves.
However, two of the estate workers turned farmers dropped out of the scheme shortly after and 55 remained. Today, all of those 55 couples have passed away – save for one of the wives, 86-year-old Jamonee Mangra, who resides on Third Street, Bellevue.
It was a regular and calm early afternoon when I met up with the soft-spoken but sharp mother of nine. It was after her lunch period and she sat by her downstairs window taking in the relaxing winds emanating from the Demerara River, which runs adjacent to the community.
She reminisced about married life to her husband, whose only name was Mangra. He died in April 1990 and Mrs Mangra recalled with ease that she and her husband were among the first set of occupants that moved into the scheme in August 1956.
“When I came on this street, it only had seven houses complete and the other ones bin a build on the opposite side. The others come March 1957. People come from far and near and all ah we come and live; some come from Grove, Diamond, all about … Manager tell we leh we come here and he ah gie we house for live. People always used to talk to each other,” she fondly recalled.
The elderly woman, who had a somewhat restrained smile, said that when she first came from Wales, she helped her husband plant cane. Those were arduous days which began around 03:00h when she prepared meals for her household. Jamonee was born near the Mahaica market area and went to Vriesland, WBD, at six years of age as a result of her father’s death.
Mrs Mangra bore 11 children from which five sons and four daughters remain alive. The elder explained that she has about 30 grandchildren, and multiple great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren though providing the exact number was difficult. She, however, remembered clearly that all holidays in Belle Vue whether it was Christian, Hindu or Muslim would all be celebrated in togetherness.
“Ah we live together, we come together, ah we mattie … the world ah we own. All ah we come in this world as a family ‘cause God make ah we and who got passion got passion but me nah got passion,” the elderly woman stated with great fervency.
Today, she lives with her youngest child, who is in her 40s while her eldest child who lives overseas is in her 70s. Mrs Mangra said finally that she would most want to see cane being milled at the Wales Estate again as many of her children built their lives around the industry.
One of her neighbours, Ramnarine Ragaloo, 79, called “Uncle Aaron” was born in Grove, East Bank Demerara (EBD) and had many similar sentiments to Mangra regarding the unity that permeated Belle Vue. He said that at any time, neighbours or even strangers could visit various homes and be offered a meal. He indicated that as a teenaged lad, he was the last of his relatives to go over to Belle Vue shortly after the scheme was established.
Uncle Aaron said that while he lived at Grove, he worked at Diamond Estate throwing manure and started to plant cane at Belle Vue after he joined his parents, ‘Jasodra’ and ‘Ragaloo’. One of the amenities in these original 15 by 20 foot homes were indoor toilets and a sewerage system.
“When we come we had seven houses pun one line on the toilet system and every 20 minutes to half hour, the toilets flushed automatically,” Uncle Aaron explained, noting that there was an overhead tank that stored water, which also flowed to two stand pipes in every street.
When the scheme started there were no trees and the concrete two-storey houses included upstairs bedrooms that were 8 by 10 feet with a kitchen on the ground floor. Uncle Aaron saw the scheme as a developed place; however, he along with other residents said that many persons in the surrounding villages would aim remarks at them when they passed the villages on their bicycles, saying that Belle Vue’s inhabitants were living in prison.
“They would say ey! Belle Vue jail man’… people around didn’t like us much ‘cause them seh we feel we powerful more than them,” he recalled.
The father of six, who also has six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, told Guyana Times that in the colonial days, they were paid $20 per week which had to suffice for a family of six or seven.
“It (the money) ah do, but not to how you want them do. I had seven children, one die. We used to wake about 5 o’clock time, prepare, lef house 7 o’clock; take lunch 1 o’clock and when cane start cut sometime we come home 7 o’clock in the night. We used to get 75 cents a tonne cut and load,” Uncle Aaron noted.
He later explained that he got married to his wife, Lynette Rajbeo in 1961. “We married 57 years, married life been good; is how you treat am, she never worked on the farm,” he explained.
Uncle Aaron also pointed out that he grew up across the road from where he now lived and when he got married he went on the opposite side where he rented the entire house from Bookers Estate for $120 per year, which he highlighted could hardly buy a drink today.
He added that afterwards, the house went up for sale and he bought it for $350 from the Estate. He noted that his children would attend classes before helping on the farms in the afternoons. Uncle Aaron also said holidays were grand and unified.
“All holiday people ah come round – Phagwah, Diwali, Christmas. We used to live as one. Long time you only had to seh you head ah hurt yo and people used to come, but now yo dead and people nah even come,” he stated with a frown.
“You couldn’t cuss and tell lie,” he sternly said, adding “Now de young people ah beat you, them ah cuss. Respect ah carry this place very good. You always frighten de bigger man dem. The young people now watch and say, ‘don’t worry with you, old man; he gone dead’. You couldn’t tell a big man sa in me time,” Uncle Aaron added.
He recalled when he lived at Grove and he fought with his neighbour using expletives on the road from school, an adult male stopped them and administered six lashes each to the two teens. He added that he could not tell his father what he received the lashes for, since his father would have given him another thrashing.
His nephew, Balram Balkarran, who was born in 1952, came to the scheme as a young boy. He recalled fondly when the bulls would pull the sugarcane punts from the back dams to the middle walk dam, after which the Estate’s tractors would transport his family’s produce for milling.
“This was a very successful scheme; that is why they stopped it. They gave the farmers 20-year leases which contracted them to develop the land and sell cane to the estate and within seven years the farmers paid off their debts and Bookers saw this as a worrying trend,” the 68-year-old noted.
Balkarran said that his grandparents originally came from Port Mourant and Providence Estate in Berbice and they passed away in the 1970s. He recalled the stringent measures in the contract the elders signed which led Edly Khan from Sisters Village to quit and migrate to Suriname with his family and Mr Samaroo from Grove to migrate to England.
“So the Estate took back 30 acres of the cane land and gave it to the Estate,” the overseas-based farmer noted.
He explained that some of the contractual obligations were amended owing to the efforts of former Presidents Forbes Burnham and Dr Cheddi Jagan, who worked together in the original People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to “break off all those stringent things in the lease”. It was after 1966, that the then People’s National Congress (PNC) Government changed the pilot scheme into Belle Vue Cane Farming Marketing Co-op Society, which is one of the oldest in Guyana. The farmers were said to have been so successful that in the mid-1960s, they were racing to buy Vauxhall motor cars and Honda motorbikes for their children since they had been earning in the $7000-$10,000 range.
In the late 1960s, electricity was installed, but prior to that, the farmers used gas lamps. They were also given stoves when the scheme was started. It was in the early 1970s that clay-brick roads were installed replacing the mud dams which they had for streets. However, in what was described as unwelcomed move, the Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) which took over in the early 1970s condemned the sewerage system.
The composition of the scheme was 85 per cent Indo-Guyanese and the remainder were mainly Afro-Guyanese with a smaller group of mixed race persons. Despite this make-up, Balkarran outlined that there were no divisions in Belle Vue – even when there were race-based riots in the 1960s. He opined that this may have been owing to how Bookers designed the scheme with the 15 acres that each member had being divided into 10 parcels in a block of about six fields, which were sub-divided into 55 parcels.
“So it forced the farmers to work together, harvest together which created unity and togetherness,” the Belle Vue native posited.
He said that the scheme produced directors for the Guyana Sugar Corporation, soldiers for the British, and labour and trade union representatives. Today, with the Wales Estate having been closed in 2016, many of the younger residents are seeking employment outside of the Wales area. The nearby canal is always attracting young men who swim its waters especially during school vacation.
The community has expanded with the inclusion of a regularised squatting area, just north of the old scheme. Sundays are set aside for cricket competitions which draw eyeballs from near and far as the village continues to stand amid changes.