Guyana’s road to Independence on May 26. 1966 – 52 years ago

Guest Editorial – Guyana Chronicle – May 26. 2018

TODAY May 26, 2018 marks the 52nd Anniversary of our country’s attainment of political independence from Great Britain.

On this historic day in 1966 a new nation, Guyana, the only English-speaking one on the South America continent, achieved national sovereignty to become the 24th member of the-then British Commonwealth of Nations, thus bringing to an end several decades of British colonial rule.

Guyana’s road to political independence was indeed turbulent. For a brief period in the early 1950s its nationalist movement, the original People’s Progressive Party (PPP), under the leadership of the late Presidents, Dr Cheddi B. Jagan and Mr Forbes Burnham, enjoyed overwhelming support from the working class and the masses in general, as they pursued the noble objectives of national unity and internal self-government. Their resounding victory at the 1953 general elections under adult suffrage astounded many, including local reactionaries, the Colonial Office and more so the U.S. State Department.    

The mass-based party’s tenure in office was only short-lived as Great Britain, under considerable American pressure, suspended the Constitution and overthrew the legally elected government under the guise of preventing the establishment of a communist state in the-then British Guiana.

The ironical thing about it was that an interim government was imposed and it comprised many individuals, who themselves had suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the toppled nationalist candidates. As if that setback was not enough the nationalist movement itself became severely fractured in 1955 into Jaganite and Burnhamite factions of the PPP and the eventual emergence of the People’s National Congress two years later.

This development paved the way for the subsequent intense political rivalry between our two foremost leaders, Dr Jagan and Mr Burnham. Unfortunately, it was this split more than anything else which also led to racial strife and insecurity in the immediate pre-independence years.

Subsequent events such as political and social instability, including strikes and disturbances, which erupted as a result of the Kaldor Budget and the Labour Relations Bill in the 1962-1963 period, clearly illustrated the turbulent waters that this nation had to endure.

Loss of several lives, the destruction of properties and the severe dislocation of people to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars were the sad reality of life during this extremely dark period of our country’s history.

Under a new electoral system of Proportional Representation in 1964, Mr Burnham headed a PNC/U.F coalition government. As Prime Minister he shouldered the responsibilities of leading the country to independence while his former colleague and by then bitter rival, Dr Jagan, served as Opposition Leader. Political Independence was achieved on May 26, 1966.

With independence came the termination of more than a century and a half of British colonial administrative rule. At the twitching hour of midnight, thousands of Guyanese of all walks of life stood proudly and cheered lustily as the Union Jack was lowered and our National Flag went up to herald the birth of a new, ambitious and independent Guyana.

Among those who witnessed this highly significant and unique ceremony were the Duke and Duchess of Kent; Sir Richard Luyt, the first Governor-General of Guyana; former Conservative Colonial Secretary, Mr Duncan Sandys; and Colonial Secretary, Mr Anthony Greenwood and 62 delegates from 47 countries worldwide. Of added significance and to the tumultuous applause of all who thronged Independence Square was that comforting “bear hug” embrace between Cheddi and Forbes, the architects of Guyana’s freedom, only minutes before the attainment of nationhood.

That emotionally charged happening promised much at the time but in the final analysis realised very little.
As part of independence we saw the emergence of our new Guyana Coat of Arms. On it is seen the pride of our fauna life – two jaguars holding a pickaxe and stems of rice and sugar cane, and facing each other proudly across a painted shield on top of which rests a visored helmet topped by the feathered crown of an Amerindian chieftain. Beneath a scroll-like banner boldly proclaims the Nation’s Motto: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” while on the shield itself are found three barrulets of azure blue symbolising Guyana’s watery

Guyana Flag after Independence in 1966

nature and its water potential.

This Coat of Arms justifiably accords pride of place in our national minds and reminds us of our unity and sense of purpose as an independent nation. The Coat of Arms was selected on the recommendation of the National History and Arts Council and approved by the College of Arms, England. It was accepted by the House of Assembly on February 25, 1966.

Independence brought with it our National Flag, a slender Golden Arrowhead set proudly on a background of green and red and stands as a striking symbol of Guyana’s journey into the future. The lush green colour symbolises the fields and forests of Guyana’s assets, of which the country is richly endowed. The red triangle represents the zeal and dynamic nature of nation-building that lies before the young and independent nation, while the deep black border stands for the endurance that will sustain the forward thrust of its people. Finally white symbolises our rivers, waterfalls and our hydro-electric potential of this ‘Land of Many Waters’.

Our new National Anthem is a popular aspect of our Independence. Reverend Archibald Luker wrote the words of ‘Green Land of Guyana’ in response to the nation-wide competition, sponsored by the-then National History and Arts Council while our distinguished Guyanese educationist and musician, the late R.C.G. Potter composed its music. The title of our National Anthem is appropriate and expressive of colour, vitality and land fertility.

On the morning of the May 26, 1966, the National Assembly witnessed all the pomp and pageantry and ceremonial aspects of Westminster. In the historic Public Buildings, the Duke of Kent handed over to the country’s first Prime Minister, Mr Forbes Burnham, the Constitutional instruments conceding to us the dignity and pride of Independent Nationhood on behalf of her Majesty the Queen and the British Government.

Undoubtedly, the expectations of all Guyanese were very high at that point in time and they had every right to be. Our then Prime Minister Mr Forbes Burnham expressed great optimism when he said: “Thus our journeyings to Independence have ended. We face, however, the harder but more emotionally satisfying and definitely more self-respecting tasks of making Guyana great among the nations – the task of building a free and just society.”

What can we say 52 years after gaining independence? We certainly share the joy, pride and dignity of being an independent nation. Our expectation was that with political independence we would have enjoyed greater political stability, national unity and social and economic progress.

Unfortunately the stark reality is that today our nation is still struggling to fully achieve these desired goals. In several aspects we have fallen short despite the best efforts of many. While much progress has been made on the social and economic front the nation is still to completely rid itself of economic dependency on international financial agencies.

Foreign debts, despite write-offs and debt rescheduling, continue to stifle us while we experience fluctuating and sometimes depressed world market prices for our products.
We are still to fully accelerate our production and productivity drives. We continue to suffer from migration and consequential ‘brain drain’ and capital flight. We are feeling the devastated effects of the European Union sugar reforms and a decline of the sugar industry. On the positive side our Green Economy strategy is gaining prominence on the international arena. Unfortunately we are plagued with blame-game, insensitivities and controversies which do us no good. We need to focus attention on the challenges which are likely to be associated with the emerging oil and gas sector.

Only last year in his independence address entitled ‘Diversity and Destiny’ His Excellency President David Granger aptly stated, “Society needs to be strengthened in each occupational sector, in each geographical region, in each community and in each social structure…The cohesive state can be realised only by respecting the differences and the diversity of society and the removal of anger, hatred, ignorance and poverty. It can be created by mutual respect for each other’s cultural and religious differences.” As we reflect on Independence, let us show a greater sense of purpose and maturity and greater mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of all Guyanese if we are to survive as a nation. Let us put nation first at this critical juncture of our country’s history and in the face of an increasingly harsh and oppressive world environment in this twenty-first century of ours.
A Happy 52nd Independence Anniversary to one and all! Long live the Co-operative Republic of Guyana!

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  • Ram Jagessar  On 05/26/2018 at 7:42 am

    Somehow this editorial forgot to mention that on May 26,1964 a huge mob of Africans attacked the Indian residents of Wismar and Christianberg and carried out ethnic cleansing of some 2,000 people. Yes May 26 is the anniversary of the Wismar Massacre when hundreds were injured, at least two killed, at least 8 Indian women raped, at least 230 homes and businesses burned, and Indians cleared out of the area. To our knowledge, none of the Africans in the villages sheltered their Indian neighbours from the mob who were shouting “kill the coolies”. Instead, many joined the mob. None of the all African police force at the police station protected the helpless Indians, who included hundreds of children. Two ships later took 1200 Wismar “refugees” to Georgetown where they were jeered and pelted with bricks by another mob of Afro Guyanese.
    News of this Wismar Massacre ran through the Indian community like an electric shock, causing many to realize they were not safe anywhere in Guyana. Thus began the exodus of half the country, including the majority of the Indians, and thus ended the dream of El Dorado Guyana. The country became a fourth world wreck, and has never recovered. Those Guyanese who fled are now celebrating the independence of Canada, the United States, Britain, Venezuela and many other nations where they now feel safe.
    How come this editorial forgot that Forbes Burnham deliberately chose May 26 for Independence Day to “teach the Indians a lesson” in case anybody forgot Wismar and other scenes of violence against Indians and Indian owned businesses? After a long period of silence, some Indo Guyanese in the diaspora are starting to boycott Guyana Independence celebrations and are instead holding Wismar Massacre Memorials. And if you wonder why they remembering an event that happened long ago in another country, ask the Jewish diaspora why they remembering the Holocaust which happened long ago and far away in Germany, Poland and other countries.

    • Narine  On 05/27/2018 at 6:25 pm

      Good article you wrote. I was a 10 year old. Most of the people from Wismar came to Miss Phoebe, Port Mourant. Everyone help them settle in the open areas such cricket grounds and gave them clothing food etc. I remember my father gave brand new towels and shirts and I help him collect pots and pans.
      Burnham used May 26, to perpetuate the hate into history as if the Africans were the only victims. No attempt were made to educate the Guyanese public about the CIA’s involvement in the beginning of the demise of such a paradise.
      Poor judgment from those who call themselves great leaders.
      What a shame!!

  • Ron Saywack  On 05/26/2018 at 8:40 am


    May 26th, 1964, blood-stained and ashen-driven, is a date that shall forever live in shame and infamy, its scars deeply etched in the souls of many of Guyana’s frightened sons and daughters who were alive then, and who can still remember.

    For these survivors, and their descendants, May 26 is not a day to celebrate and be excited about, but rather one to rue, to mourn and to regret, sadly.

  • panbrowne  On 05/26/2018 at 12:59 pm

    A massacre where TWO people died? Wow,499 murders with the PPP government

  • Albert  On 05/26/2018 at 3:41 pm

    Never mention is that the disturbance occured because of a bomb which was planted in the SS Chapman, a launch which carried African Guyanese workers on Sunday nights from Georgetown to Wismar, and over 45 were killed from the explosion. That sparked the disturbance in Mckenzie.

    We had terrible political leaders and both races did evil things to each other. How to repair the historical damage. That is the question.

    • Emanuel  On 05/26/2018 at 4:56 pm

      Albert: I was not born at the time of that ferry bombing. All I know about it is what I read about.

      When you say that the ferry bombing caused the Wismar riot, you show that you don’t understand history too well.

      You’re wrong and should go back to the library and read up some more.The SS Chapman happened after the inferno, rapes and beating in Wismar.

  • Albert  On 05/27/2018 at 10:02 am

    Okay, so I screwed up. But it showed the tit for tat nature of the two races during those period.

    • Emanuel  On 05/27/2018 at 6:05 pm

      Albert, Your previous comment is reckless and irresponsible, in my view,
      since no can knows for certain who was behind the ferry bombing.

      My grandfather who was a learned man said that he believed the bombing was accidental and not intentional.

      But by your comment, you seem certain that it was done by the Indos hence the Wismar rampage,

      I think it is better to know the facts before posting.

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 05/27/2018 at 4:22 pm

    Albert: Yes! you screwed up; and so did a top, long-time PNCite but he wittingly less than a year ago made the same claim (to shift blame on Indians) as you did. For the records: Sun Chapman explosion occurred Jul 6/64 and Wismar ethnic cleansing, May 24-26, 1964.

    ‘Tit for tat’ you say? Would you also classify the Rwanadan genocide as ‘Tit for tat’ ? One group of Guyanese has always held and exercised physical power and brutality on the other, from the day the Indians were mostly inveigled to leave India for ‘Demerara’ (as I will reveal in my upcoming book and surprise everyone). And they, the powerful ones, led by the likes of Burnham has sought to keep Indians ‘in their place’.

    Two official symbols were enshrined about the area where the ‘cleansing’ occurred, to validate my point.
    1) May 26, the culmination of the ethnic cleansing date (even though 5 more unwary Indians, who were given assurance of protection and returned, were killed on news on the Sun Chapman explosion) was immediately made the date of Guyana’s Independence; and
    2) Mackenzie, the big sister town of Wismar, became Linden (Burnham’s name).
    So, the powerhouse, Burnham, has enshrined them for all to see and especially be etched in the minds of Indians, about his (and folllowers’) power in a geographical area and in the constitution, that they, Indians, DARE NOT STEP OUT OF LINE! WATCH YO STEP’.

    Some other just 1964 facts you don’t seem to know about. The violence accompanying the 1964 sugar workers’ strike started with, on March 6/64, a black fellow (scab), Felix Ross, recklessly drove through (as if through garbage) and on top of striking Indian women on a bridge in Leonora, SEVERING one, KOWSILLA, into two parts, and breaking the backs of two other women. The several other women had to dive into the trench to avoid further injury.

    On Jun 11/64 Jagan’s Perm. Secty, Arthur Abraham, and 7 children perished in a house fire (seemingly from an accelerant) just 150 yards behind the main GT, Brickdam police station, housing a fire engine, and less than a mile from GT main fire station (ostensibly to blame ‘communist’ Jagan)

    On July 10, RIO Cinema which showed Indian movies was bombed and 4 Indians died with of course multiple other injuries.

    Yet (Premier) Jagan continued to call on Burnham to join the two parties as before the split and avoid the divisiveness and attendant violence (mainly on Indians), and so were to meet on July 17/64. I worked at the Treasury at the other end on Public Bldgs, across from Jagan’s office. I stood outside the Treasury, near the washrooms and saw Burnham’s car pull up and he went up for the meeting. I waited there with bated breath hoping for a breakthrough. They probably hardly sat down; then BOOM!, I heard in the distance followed by another BOOM! less than 5 minutes apart. Jagan’s party, Freedom House was bombed. An employee, Michael Forde, saw the suspicious package in the bookstore and ran outside with it (across from Metropole Cinema, on Robb St), and was killed! But, as a martyr, he saved many other lives. The second bomb was two hundred yards away on Regent St, at GIMPEX – known as the party’s trading arm (supposedly with goods from the Soviet Union). Again, it was part of the plan to blame the ‘communist’ Jagan and ensure the ‘powerhouse’ and grand vacillator, Burnham, won’t be put on the spot to wiggle out of a deal with Jagan.

    On Aug 9, 1964, police finally zeroed in on a PNC activist (likely tired of running after imaginary PPP radicals) Emmanual Fairbairn (Batson) and found him in a rooming-house with arms, Ammo and explosives. That became an revealing case (as to who were really behind the violence blamed on Indians ad the PPP) as he quickly claimed Janet Jagan gave him the stuff (all part of the plan). The top cops in that matter were either suspended or reassigned. Truth, like the PlanX13 which indicted numerous anti Jagan PNC, etc big-shots, was not allowed to surface.
    So, all this fits into your ‘tit for tat’, eh Albert? The truth: Indians have been and are sitting ducks in Guyana and suffer far more from what you call ‘tit for tat’.


  • Albert  On 05/27/2018 at 5:53 pm

    Veda look at it this way, I lived through it and may forget the sequence of many events from memory because I was in a position to see and know the end results of many of the atrocities by both races. If you had seen the many rotten corpse with slash wounds or burnt like roast pigs you would not have want to relive those experiences. Don’t tell me one race was better than the other because you do not want to know how many black people were burnt out from places like Port Mourant and Black Bush Polder where they were a small minority.

    One thing you fellows made clear was that Cheddi was honest but politically naïve. I could not see Cheddi giving orders to burn people’s home but there were underlings who did the dirty work.

    I would write this again, both races did evil things to each other. What is the point of going over it again.

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 05/28/2018 at 12:12 am

    Albert: You miss the point. As Emanuel said you (like the PNC brass) imply Indos set off the bomb that killed dozens of Afros, setting off the ‘ethnic cleansing’; then say both are equally responsible for killing the other.

    It is most important that history be stated correctly (so for example someone who is now only hearing of the problems in Guyana in the 60’s would know who were the culprits who started the racial violence and continued it year after year, 1962 -64, for their personal aggrandizement).

    That same party is again in power and Indians are worried, esp when the published final worksheet tally of the last elections didn’t balance and the head of state claimed ‘God gave him and Guyana a new day’. In other words, God is on his and his party side when the results are suspect.
    That is dangerous stuff to cite God! Leaves open: any wrong can be done with God’s sanction. Indians are afraid when May 26 is celebrated with great pomp and are told they are equally to blame for the violence that has sent hundreds of thousand of Indians out of the country, including myself.


    • Seeta  On 05/31/2018 at 10:28 am

      I really hope that all Guyanese can move forward from this point. It is indeed good to know your history. There is unrest all over the world……. and this will continue! Those who were responsible for the injustices of the era in question, have died so many years ago. The question is, do we continue to avenge each other, or do we move forward and try to rebuild our country (Nation) together. PEACE and LOVE.

      • Emanuel  On 05/31/2018 at 10:06 pm

        What Veda is saying is the significance of the dates which is not easy to just brush under the carpet. I agree with you that we should move on. But how do we as a people get past this sore point? That is the million dollar question.

  • Ram Jagessar  On 06/01/2018 at 7:58 am

    Emanuel has a point. Guyanese have to move on.
    One point of view is to just forget about all this unfortunate racism, violence, rigging of elections, mass migration, and start on a new page with none of the old baggage. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
    Okay I was just joking. Ignoring the past is the same as forgetting the past, and as the man said, those who forget the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them.
    It’s just like the pastors saying all you need is love, love everybody and love will find a way. Well good luck on that one too.
    South Africa found a way to deal the horrible history of their country, with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. People from all sides came up and confessed their wrongs, admitted it was wrong, and promised to take another way. They escaped prosecution for even the vilest of deeds because that was a better way than prosecuting hundreds of thousands of people for deeds sometimes many decades ago. Which would have devastated the country, of course. And it worked. It was painful but the South Africans did it, and now they are moving ahead as a country once more.
    Canada is trying the same approach with a commission looking at the treatment of the natives Indians and Inuit.
    Now how about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Guyana? Now that cannot work if all parties continue with their policy of no admission of wrong, all the racism and violence is coming from the other side. That’s only for those resident in Guyana, by the way. What about the million or so in the Guyanese diaspora? Will there be hearings in Canada, US, Britain, Venezuela and other places with significant numbers of Guyanese?
    I have a feeling that if this commission idea is put to the ruling coalition in Guyana it will get a dropkick out of the park. Just like the old turkey of shared governance.
    Now if somebody has a way of moving forward that is more than just pious mouth talk, spit it out. Forget and run just ain’t cutting it.

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