Wismar: Ethnic cleansing, bomb, and closure

Today we commemorate the “Independence” given to the PNC Government by Britain in 1966, after engineering the latter’s victory in the Dec 7, 1964 elections. But 1964, and specifically May 25-26, 1964, also marks the silencing of a rupture in the history of Guyana, and, more specifically, the history of the relations between African- and Indian-Guyanese, which needs to be bridged.
The political competition between the African-Guyanese- based PNC and the Indian-Guyanese-based PPP segued from “sweeping out the PPP with brooms” in the 1961 elections, through the burning and looting of Indian businesses in Georgetown on Black Friday, Feb 16, 1962, and the spread of tit-for-tat ethnic violence and arson across the Demerara Coast after the 80-day Public Service 1963 strike (April 18-July 5) and GAWU’s strike of 1964 (Feb 17-July 27).
The culmination was the ethnic cleansing of Indians of Wismar-Christianburg on May 25-26, following the murder of an elderly African couple aback Buxton.
According to the Harold Drayton COI, 220 Indian homes were razed, two Indians were murdered, several women and girls were raped, and almost the entire Indian population of 3000 was forced to flee.
Six weeks later, an explosion on the Sun Chapman launch on July 7 killed 43 of the all-African passengers headed towards Wismar from Georgetown. The retaliatory killing of five more Indians who had returned or stayed behind at Wismar was almost anti-climactic.
The Burch-Smith Inquiry into the bombing of the Sun Chapman found its causes to be “inconclusive”, while that into the Wismar Pogrom declared it to be well planned and “politically and racially inspired”.
I use “silence” above in the tradition of Rolph Trouillot: “…an active and transitive process…one engages in the practice of silencing.” But the rupture of the silencing of the history of the period needs to be rectified, if for no other reason than allowing the survivors of those events to express their grief about their experiences.
The reason for the silence about the period may be because the political leaders “wanted to move on”, but in the new millennium, there were some in the PNC who thought otherwise. One such person is David Granger, who refers to the inter-ethnic violence of the 1960s as the “disturbances” and “the troubles”.
In a 2003 paper, (Hurricane of Protest – The Impact of Civil Violence on African-Guyanese in 1964”) 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 leader of the PNC in 2011, he attended the now annually-observed Commemoration ceremony, and declared he wished more people would converge at the spot. The epitaph on the Monument at Hurudaia declares: “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”. The PNC kept this promise, and from July 6, 2020, annually did so without once mentioning the Wismar ethnic cleansing of Indian-Guyanese, as their national and regional representatives bemoaned the “pain and hurt” of the survivors.
But Dr Alissa Trotz and Red Thread had also interrogated the purpose of this commemoration, and queried the silencing of the preceding tragedy of the violence and ethnic cleansing of Wismar. They interviewed many of the relocated refugees from Wismar, living on the East Coast of Demerara. Like the survivors of the Sun Chapman, their loss is also palpable.
We cannot undo the past, but we — simultaneously, from our present — should have our eye on our future: a future we hope to create with the knowledge gleaned from the past. For me, it is a future in which all Guyanese can live in peace to create their progress, and not be manipulated to a return of that past. I have long proposed we should erect a memorial for all the 176 Guyanese who perished in the 1964 disturbances, and need restorative justice.