Episodes in the life of Rory Westmaas – Letter by Nigel Westmaas

Episodes in the life of Rory Westmaas

My Uncle Rory passed away on January 24, 2016. He meant a lot to his family, to his many friends and to Guyana. As we offer our solidarity with Rory’s children Peta, Blaise, Storm and Wilde, I thought I would compose some brief quotes on episodes and vignettes from his often larger than life political contribution and experiences.

He was an independence movement titan and a passionate shooter from the hip against colonialism, classism and race. But he was also a fun uncle to have, always engaged in his legerdemain bag of tricks. He often made one or more of his fingers disappear in front of our eyes. I recall one time when he made a marble “disappear” from his hand and end up in a shoe across the hall. To this day I can’t figure out how he accomplished that feat.  

How did he become Rory? He explains,

“My mother used to read more, but she read novels. That is how I got the name Rory. Rory apparently is a well-known Irish lover. I went to Ireland several times, Southern Ireland, but I never went to Northern Ireland. I know that when I went to a pub for a drink and they asked me my name and I said Rory, they would say ah, Rory L Amor is a dirty old whore. “The ferocious anticommunist editor of the Guiana Times magazine of the 1940s through to the 1960s, Percy Armstrong, closely followed the political activity of Rory and his other contemporaries including Martin Carter and Sydney King (Eusi Kwayana). In April 1953, with his usual mixing of hype and fact in his garrulous and often humorous prose, Armstrong wrote:

“Rory was dispatched from London by King Street commies to pep PPP. He brought with him funds from HQ to bolster up campaigns, a huge consignment of commie literature and a few gramophone recordings by leftist people – in particular Paul Robeson. Customs men seized a pile in some boxes, but had they probed a little deeper they would have discovered hundreds more of pamphlets concealed by architectural and other magazines. They arrived in time to replace depleted stocks seized or burnt … Soon after his landing security men tailed him about for a while but soon gave up… Rory’s first job after reporting to PPP HQ was to team up with Buxton’s inimitable commie school teacher Sydney King … Next he converted his old man’s Queenstown bottom house into a Peace committee HQ and invited a number of young frustrateds and non-workers for regular confab. Each night he gave them lessons on Marxism and history…”

In another magazine piece Percy Armstrong penned: “Westmaas…was a brilliant landscape artist who couldn’t think of selling his talents for profit. He preferred walking about spitting curse words on Bookers and [the] British…”

Armstrong even implied that Rory was involved in the destruction in 1954 of the colonial symbol of Queen Victoria. Just to be clear, Queen Victoria’s marble head was blown off. In Gemma Robinson’ bookMartin Carter: University of Hunger there is a footnote that states: “in May 1954, the statue of Queen Victoria outside the Law Courts was blown up. Nobody was charged for the crime, although Carter and Rory Westmaas were implicated.” The report does not say how and when they were, so this has to be one of those mysterious rumours that stalks Guyanese history.

Wilson Harris, Guyanese writer supreme, also regales us with Rory’s performance with the famous but crazy Anira Street, Queenstown group:

“The group which assembled at Martin Carter’s house discussed everything under the sun (politics, art, literature, philosophy…) A serious group but not without its black humour… Rory Westmaas came on occasion. He was a stern advocate of socialism at the time but possessed of a ribald and fiery sense of humour (Martin and he were later to be involved in a hunger fast when the British Guiana constitution was suspended). Rory sometimes cast himself in the role of a people’s judge. Jackson – another member of the group – idolized Rory but was terrified of him. He was sentenced to hang on a Monday morning should he backslide. What a way to start the week! Indeed Rory’s joke was a reflection on the lot of labour – condemned to strangulation wages ‒ in a planation economy. Jackson saw the moral in the metaphoric sentence but was uneasy nonetheless.”

The late David de Caires chipped in with his own recollection, noting that Rory often “delighted in singing a song from the Spanish Civil War.”

Eusi Kwayana once told me that Rory had predicted that the PPP could win the 1953 elections. Most people did not hold up high hopes at the time. Cheddi Jagan himself didn’t think they could win. In an interview I conducted with uncle Rory he told me the following:

“I went straight to Martin, fortunately he was at home. We sat down, had a drink and we talked. He knew I was coming and we got talking about the situation. But the next two weeks elections were coming up. I made a listing of all the different candidates of every party and I wrote Keith Carter in London telling him what my observations were, who would win and who were going to lose and I arrived at 17 or 19 seats, what party was going to win. I had learnt that Cheddi Jagan said they were going to win 6 seats, you know we won 18.”

After the 1953 elections the constitution was suspended and activists like Rory were restricted and jailed. According to a report inThunder, the newspaper of the early PPP:

“On Monday, August 9 [1954] Rory Westmaas, one of the nineteen persons restricted by the Governor was brought before Magistrate Khan on a charge of violating the Orders inflicted under the Emergency Regulations. Westmaas, repeating himself, told the court ‘this is a case of imperialism versus the people of the colonies. The Emergency Order is an imperialist law designed to suppress the aspirations of the people for independence…we are forced to respect a flag that is not our own – a national anthem that is not our own and incidentally a governor we never elected. Imperialism is attempting to build – an iron curtain around the colonies. Your position is that of a warder in the vast prisons of the colonies.” He was fined $150 in default three months imprisonment.”

While Rory was in prison the Guiana Times testified that “Westmaas and company got booked for two more charges of disorderly behaviour and destroying property belonging to the inhabitants of the colony, to wit – a toilet bucket…”

But Rory was more than the bright spark of the political firmament of those great days of the 1950s. He was also an architect. He worked and taught at the University of Guyana for over thirty years. In his own words he described that time:

“I have been there for thirty years and I was there when Denis Irvine was Vice-Chancellor.

I feel that Irvine was the best Vice-Chancellor we ever had. Irvine was a man who listened to everybody and picked up whatever lines he thought were made. That is how he appeared to me. A very assiduous, I do not know what it is. He married a white woman, right, and he used to have receptions in Kitty. I used to go to them and he was easily acceptable. He is a very presentable person, you can meet him and talk with him. He is the only Vice-Chancellor I have seen walking the University, walking around UG to the different departments and faculties.”

I can go on and on about his career. Rory was a father, uncle, acquaintance, comrade, and friend to many. We will miss this outward, bright and thoroughly decent and principled man. I leave the temporary last word on Uncle Rory to the poetry of his great friend and comrade Martin Carter:-

  • Dear Comrade,
  • If it must be
  • you speak no more with me
  • nor smile no more with me
  • nor march no more with me
  • then let me take
  • a patience and a calm
  • for even now the greener leaf explodes
  • sun brightens stone
  • and all the river burns
  • Now from the mourning vanguard moving on
  • dear Comrade I salute you and I say
  • Death will not find us thinking that we die

Yours faithfully,
Nigel Westmaas

  also read:

Guyana: Architecture…Building under our sun

Architecture…Building under our sun Part 1 of 2 April 29, 2010 · By Stabroek staff ·  Comments    Part I  – If there is a distinctiveness in contemporary Guyanese architecture, it is to be found in the radical departure from the good taste and from what the writer of this article,  Rory Westmaas, calls “the many [Read more]

Student Architects: Rory Westmaas of British Guiana (centre) with Courage Tobogo (Ghana) and Kwok Choo Soo (Malaya) winners of the Daily Mail Evening News competition for the best new design for the Piccadilly Circus. (Feb 1961).

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • De castro  On January 29, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Very very interesting read and saddened in the loss of one of Guyana’s greatest leaders.
    Maybe the new kids on the block should honour him by replacing Victoria’s statue outside law
    courts in GT with one of Rory. Not wishing to erase history Victoria can be re-erected next to
    Cuffys …. irony.
    Thanks to Nigel for sharing that bit of truthful historical facts about de father/motherland under
    colonial rule. How different a world today ….50 years later….post “independence”.
    26 may 1966 re-incarnate of Guyana’s struggles to independence.
    Once again thanks for your contribution to Guyana’s history post independence.
    RIP Roary lover of the guyanese people.
    Bless him.!
    Kamtan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s