Guyana: The January 1969 Rupununi ‘Uprising’ recalled – 50 years later

The Rupununi ‘Uprising’ recalled, 50 years later – The events of January 2 to 4, 1969

Unprecedented! That was a word on the lips of Guyanese when, fifty years ago this Wednesday, January 2, the Rupununi region hit the news headline with a bang; in fact several bangs. They were gunshots, reverberating throughout the country, echoing from neighbouring Venezuela and across the Takutu into Brazil; shaking the complacency of many urban Guyanese to whom that sprawling locale was little more than an isolated adjunct to our coastal communities. When the dust had settled, literally, at least six persons lay dead in Lethem, including five police officers.    

Secession! That was another word, this time on the lips of a handful of big-time cattle ranchers who envisaged the region as a state separate from the rest of the country – the Republic of the Rupununi/Essequibo Free State, complete with President in the person of one Valerie Hart. The 27 year-old had been a Member of Parliament, sitting with The United Force Party, which had enjoyed considerable success politically in the region.

The vast Rupununi district, over 22,000 square miles in area, was then home to three Amerindian tribes, and a small group of semi-white ranchers. The latter were descendants of Harry Melville, of white Scottish-Jamaican ancestry, Basil ‘Ben’ Hart, an American, and a few others who had settled there just before the beginning of the last century, and later. Valerie Hart was one such descendant.

Intermarriage, between and among the Melvilles, the Harts, Brazilian women, and native Wapishanas, subsequently produced a clan of relatively wealthy ‘mixed-blood’ ranchers who in the nineteen-sixties, may have seen themselves as privileged aristocrats (at least by Guyanese standards) disdaining interference from those they saw as outsiders, and the central government.

The events of January 2 to 4, 1969, are still partially veiled (and conflicted) even after five decades, so one has to proceed with prudence in such a brief and less-than-comprehensive reconstruction. Some information for this article has been culled from reports filed just days after the uprising, and from internet sources, including an historical article authored by David Granger in 2009.

Valerie Hart

Additionally, some specific incidents alleged to have occurred have been contested over the years, including reports of harassment, violence, and murder perpetrated on hundreds of Amerindian residents by Guyana’s armed forces during the quelling of the uprising, and the level of involvement by certain foreign governments. Allegations against the armed forces were denied by both the Burnham administration and the Guyana Defence Force.

The reports which emerged during and after the incident, spoke of a plan hatched among the Hart-Melville clan and other ranchers, supported by some Amerindian inhabitants, to turn the Rupununi district into an independent state.

They quite likely also intended to have it annexed to Venezuela, whose military had assisted with a crash course in weapons-training to ranchers and their Amerindian employees the week leading up to the insurrection.

Our western neighbour was of course claiming the entire county of Essequibo, including the Rupununi, and it was reported that Valerie Hart had treasonously urged the Venezuelan government to assert its ‘rightful claim’ to the region. One of the reasons for this secessionist move had been the alleged mistreatment and discrimination meted out to Amerindians there by the Burnham administration, and opposition to the demarcation of indigenous lands. Hart allegedly told Venezuelan authorities that Rupununi residents had also been attacked without provocation.

Raising these charges (especially with regard to the lands matter) the ranchers were able to gather support for their cause from a number of Amerindians, including those who subsequently travelled with some ranchers to Venezuela for a seven-day military training blitz in late December 1968. They returned to Guyana on Thursday, January 2, and lodged at the Harts’ Pirara Ranch, from which the abortive attempt at secession was launched.

Shortly before midday, Lethem, the region’s administrative township, came under heavy bazooka and automatic weapons fire from the ‘rebels’, centred mostly on the police station there manned by 12 officers and some civilian employees. Policemen rushed out of the building, and were gunned down. Five officers and one civilian were killed, and radio communication from the station to Georgetown was immediately disrupted. The township’s most senior police officer, who was at the District Commissioner’s office, was shot and killed there.

Other locations were attacked, including two police outposts at Annai and Good Hope, where officers were tied up and trucked away. In Lethem, residents were herded into the local abattoir, where they were held captive, while some were locked into their homes. The rebels then blocked the main airstrip before doing the same to four smaller others, even as machine-gun posts were set up at strategic positions.

Lethem and surrounding areas were thus virtually isolated from outside intervention. However, a grass strip at Manari, a few miles away, was left open, most likely for the rebels’ use with light aircraft. Despite radio communication being knocked out, news of the uprising had reached the capital, and by Thursday evening members of the Guyanese armed forces had begun arriving in the area via a Guyana Airways airlift which landed at Manari. By Friday morning there were enough troops and supplies for a major engagement.

It never happened, (although there were reports of a confrontation and injuries to Guyanese soldiers) because by the time the troops began to fan out the next day, the rebels had fled to neighbouring Brazil and Venezuela where some were granted asylum. Earlier, as the drama unfolded, hundreds of Amerindians had also fled, across the Takutu River, and sought refuge in the Brazilian town of Bom Fin. Others headed for the bush and hid there, while some sought higher ground.

Over the next 18 hours a three-phase operation was carried out, first to capture Lethem, then to secure rebel positions, and finally to restore central government authority to the district. It involved the deployment of three companies drawn from the Guyana Defence Force Second Battalion, and headed by Captains Desmond Roberts and Vernon Williams, and Lieutenant Joseph ‘Joe’ Singh. They freed captive residents and recovered the bodies of those killed.

By the evening of Saturday, January 5, all locations and buildings were said to have been secured and retaken, including the airstrips and savannahs, with little resistance, as the armed forces met several empty settlements. Ranch houses at Pirara, Good Hope, and Sunnyside were razed by local forces. At the Brazil border, Brazilian army officials had taken responsibility for security there, but refused to hand over rebel fugitives, even as refugees were urged to return home.

In the aftermath of the uprising, a number of mostly Amerindians were arrested by the police on suspicion of involvement in the rebellion. Twenty-two of them were brought to Georgetown to face trial; ten of whom were charged with the murder of the five policemen and two civilians. Charges were later dropped.

Some of the supposed political and social intrigue has been left out of this article, mainly because of unclear ‘facts’ and dissimilar interpretations. What I have written I believe has been generally accepted as close enough to what actually transpired over those three days in January, 50 years ago.

I end it with only a nominal tribute to those who died during this period of subversion and whose deaths have been clearly verified. They are police officers, Inspector Whittington Braithwaite, Sergeant Benedict Sukra, Constables James McKenzie, William Norton, and Kendall Michael, and civilian Victor Hernandez. Other casualties which may not have been documented in a verifiable manner are also worthy of remembrance, and it is to all of them that this recollection is dedicated.

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Comments

  • Laurence London  On December 31, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    Oh God blessed my Dad and Mom – Howard and Constance London who were the Headmaster and Head Mistress at St Ignacius school for alerting the agencies of the impending insurrection. Well if you want the whole story she is still alive and I will get it just for historical purposes. Mom and Dad were the pioneers in the region from 1956 to that period of time. I grew up and knew all of the principal instigators. This happened because we were basically ignored in the Rupununi.
    The peopole involved were good people who were integrated in the community.
    Mom was aware of the date and time (40th moon) by a letter sent by an ex janitor who quit and sent a letter detailing the info to the retired janitor who took the letter to Mom to read it. (I was at McKenzie High School at that time). Dad took the letter to Burnham and as a result he was transferred and my Mom quit and followed him to West Berbice.

  • dhanpaul narine  On January 1, 2019 at 3:45 am

    Thanks Laurence, I want the whole story. Please email me at doclse007@aol.com thanks and Happy New Year.

    • Emanuel  On January 1, 2019 at 11:34 pm

      Dr Narine,

      Please share this story with us if or when you get it, thanks.

      Emanuel.

  • Francis Quamina FARRIER  On January 5, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Quick reaction by the Central Government in Georgetown, and the heroic work of the GDF solders was responsible for keeping the Rupununi still part of sovereign Guyana.

  • C A.Griffith  On January 6, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Laurence, while a resident at St.Ignacius, did you know Mr.Hohenkirk at the Abattoir,and also the American missionary pilot Elmer Riser ? In your narrative to Mr.Narine do not forget to mention the police station at Lethem was attacked leaving five (5) policemen dead . The true story can be found in the Foundation of the Guyana Defense Force authored by a Soldier of Valor, Lt.Col. Compton Hartley Liverpool formerly of Alexander and Robb Street,Lacytown of the 1950’s.

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