We must craft a national narrative

In the runup to May 5th, the debate over whether the holiday now called “Arrival Day” ought to be officially acknowledged as “Indian Arrival Day” again rose to the fore. Ironically, unlike other instantiations of historical references in Guyana, that invariably have a political nexus, the Opposition supported the position of the majority of Indian-Guyanese, who are outside their base, while the PPP Government adamantly ignored them. This is quite anomalous in a society in which the Opposition is chock-full of individuals who deploy “history” as one of their main armaments in the mobilisation of their base and their quest for a guaranteed “share” of Government.
While one wished this signalled a welcome increase of magnanimity towards the “other”, sadly, it appears more prosaically an acceptance of the “facticity” of Indians first arriving on that day, while insisting against the historical evidence that “Indian arrival” undercut the bargaining power of the newly-freed slaves after 1838, and drove them off the plantations.” As we have repeatedly demonstrated: “It was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. While Portuguese and fellow Africans from both the WI and Africa were brought in as early as 1835, a strike by ex-slaves in 1842 was successful, and encouraged the planters to expand their indentureship programme.
The ex-slaves called another strike in 1847, at a point of financial crisis for the planters, as their sugar lost its preferential English tariffs in 1846. Encouraged at that point by the indentureship of 15,747 Portuguese, 12,897 Africans from the WI, and 6957 “liberated” Africans from Africa – a total of 35,601 – compared with only 8692 Indians, they held off the demands for higher wages.
After 1848, when more than half of the freed Africans had moved into villages and towns, by and large, they had decided to make their living off the plantations.”
This, unfortunately, is merely one example of the one-sided narrative we witness in countries with ethnic conflict. In fact, the phenomenon has been described as “memory wars”. A distinction is made between “history” and “collective memory”, in that while the former’s authors may be selective in their recordings and silencing of historical facts, the latter is even more distorted, being what is “memorised” and “memorialised” by groups and their ideologues. As one author suggests, “it might be useful to think in terms of different ‘memory communities’ within a given society. It is important to ask the question: “Who wants whom to remember what, and why?”
We have spoken about our Ethnic Security Dilemmas as structural factors that have to be actuated by an ideology that impels individuals to act as they do. And this is where the memory warriors come in, to “explain” the lived experiences of the people. In societies such as ours, leaders of some groups will argue for a greater legitimacy to the national patrimony – including or especially political power – because of prior arrival, greater acculturation to European values and practices, especially religion, etc. And this is where the memory war is fought – here by the PNC and now WPA – through a “politics of entitlement” by memory warriors so that the group “winning the war” becomes “entitled” to have all its interests satisfied – especially at the expense of the other groups.
But while all groups will inevitably recuperate their histories – which reverberate in the various communities as narratives that often clash on particulars – memory warriors are insistent that only their narrative is the TRUTH, to the exclusion of others. Contra they may be “memory pluralists” who accept there are multiple valid narratives. Then there will be some who will deny or even denounce these multiple voices, and that insist “all awe ah wan”: these are the “memory abnegators”. Finally, and rarely, there are “memory prospectives” who concede the multiple narratives but work towards the crafting of a common narrative that includes all. It is in this tradition that we believe we should go forward.
We have dubbed the politics of memory as a “war” because, even though it does not always lead to physical war, it is always accompanied by a psychic onslaught on the “other” that destabilizes society. We once again call for a national conversation on race/ethnicity in the hope that the memory warriors can become memory prospectives to build a Guyana in which all groups are equitably represented.