JONESTOWN REVISITED: A Peoples’ Tragedy, Lessons Learned – By Lear Matthews

Lear Matthews


Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.

None but ourselves can free our mind.

(Robert N. Marley)

November 18th 2019 marks the 41st commemoration of the People’s Temple tragedy in Guyana. Once again I would like to reflect on perspectives of that unconscionable disaster that has not been fully assessed in any known documentary on the subject to date.

Guyana has been in the news again recently, but this time for good reason. Stained by that horrific People’s Temple tragedy in the late 1970’s, according to Exxon-Mobil, oil discovery off the country’s northern coast will top 6 billion barrels by 2020, making it a leading oil producing nation in the region.         

The story of the People’s Temple symbolizes (a) the fallibility of persons whose path to the ‘American dream’ has been  frustrated because of  economic hardship, their political ideology or ethnicity (b) the rabid power/influence of a religious zealot over those seeking spiritual and perhaps material comfort (c) developing nations’ vulnerability to sundry international influences as they struggle to stymie conditions of poverty.  The responses or redemption by victims of discrimination and injustice vary from complacency to desperate group action such as forming or joining cult-like organizations. The latter characterizes the genesis of Jonestown.

That unprecedented event in which more than 900 lives were lost, occurred after members of a religious cult settlement were forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.  Reportedly a significant number of who perished were African Americans, and about a third of them were children. Although Jim Jones had adopted two indigenous Guyanese youths, no Guyanese were known to have been among those murdered.  Led by a controversial, self-proclaimed leader, Jim Jones, some of the members were reportedly shot as they attempted to escape. In the debacle leading up to the final days when California Congressman Jim Ryan attempted to investigate by personally visiting the compound, he was killed. Ironically, his then assistant, Jackie Speier who accompanied Ryan and survived, is currently serving as Congressperson in the same position as her former boss.

Lest we forget, the event set off an international furor, eliciting conversations about cults, the role of religion and politics in violence, terrorism, disenfranchisement and racism.  There have been lingering questions about the surreptitious nature of the Jonestown community and benefits incurred by officials from both the United States and Guyana. Unfortunately, the tragedy was for many North Americans and the rest of the world their unconventional “introduction” to the nation of Guyana, a country of 83,00 square miles with a population of less than one million. It is geographically in South America, but historically and culturally part of the English-Speaking Caribbean. Its major exports include gold, diamonds bauxite, rice, sugar, agricultural products, timber and shrimp, representing approximately 60% of the country’s GDP.

The actions of a megalomaniac, group dependency, geopolitics, and experimentation in nation-building characterized the Jonestown experience.  It was the brainchild of an idealistic foreigner, who was initially supported by officials in the United States. This article briefly examines the nature of a community development project gone awry and the psycho-social impact on a marginalized people. Some thoughts about lessons learned are offered.

Determined to implement its hinterland expansion program, and to overcome resistance to efforts at resettlement, the government of Guyana offered resources and encouragement for hinterland development, including in its policy the invitation to foreigners to settle in the interior. A group of Americans were encouraged to establish residence in the interior in 1974. Virtually unknown to most Guyanese, Jonestown became the largest and most advanced immigrant community in Guyana.  The group was given free reign to the interior partly because of the Guyana-Venezuela bordering dispute.  According to this view, Jonestown provided an American presence that Venezuela presumably dared not penetrate.

This surrealistic community was given the government’s blessing and viewed as a prototype settlement, representing the sort of activity instrumental in the transition to ‘cooperative socialism.’  In retrospect, that community was doomed to failure.  At a time when Guyana was experiencing shortages of basic commodities, Jonestown residents enjoyed special privileges and had access to resources restricted from distribution within that society. Not only were the CIA and the American embassy more informed about People’s Temple than were local military officials, but the latter were ostensibly prevented from investigating that ‘isolated community’ until after the tragedy.

Jones misled his followers by promising to take care of their basic needs.  It was an experiment in human organization, involving a people (some voluntary) searching for a better life and enticed by officials of a state struggling to conquer the problems of underdevelopment.  Many members believed that they could create a community free from the problems encountered in the United States. Although this north-south migration deviated from contemporary immigration patterns, like immigrants today, participants were after an elusive “dream”.

Religion was used for preliminary indoctrination, conversion and control, sustained by harsh discipline reminiscent of the slave plantation centuries earlier.

Duped by staged faith healing events in the US and Guyana, followers as well as officials in both countries, were manipulated into believing the authenticity of Jones’ project.  Not only were members encouraged to develop other worldly expectations, but to expect a utopia—a place free from the prejudices and other social ills in the United States.  Some of the members likely were mentally distressed, due to the confining, regimented structure of the community, while Jones displayed symptoms of anxiety and paranoia in the days leading up to the disaster.

The People’s Temple debacle emerged from three divergent motivations- the Jonestown residents’ desire to create a better world, the Guyana government’s plan to develop the interior, and Jones’ determination to re-establish a power base away from US soil.  What started out as a utopian experiment in community building, ended up an improbable venture, embarrassing to unsuspecting Guyanese, and a deadly alternative for hundreds of disenchanted Americans, who are often blamed for their own victimization. Four decades after the People’s Temple tragedy, there have been worldwide movements such as the Arab spring; The Occupy Wall Street Movement; rallies against racism, “ethnic cleansing”, the refugee crisis, and the challenge of global terrorism.

We have witnessed the emergence of organizations committed to building political and human rights awareness, seeking alternatives to structural failures, desperately embracing democratic values and calling for progressive changes. Recently, however these efforts appear to be overshadowed by a vitriolic stance against immigration by countries in the West attempting to institute draconian immigration policies. The government of Guyana has since entered hinterland and other resource development agreements with foreign states such as China, while the Brazilians have established a curious foothold in the country.

Although such transnational activities reportedly have the potential of exploiting the country’s resources and creating challenges for its sovereignty, benefits to the nation are anticipated. Ironically, a proposal to make the former Jonestown sight a Tourist Attraction can be viewed as an attempt to capitalize on an unprecedented, man-made disaster and submitting to human curiosity. However, in order to avoid similar tragedies, there must be vigilance, striving to overcome differences humanely, and adhere to human rights principles as an integral part of social justice and sustainability.


Notwithstanding consciousness regarding the negative environmental factors associated with fossil fuel, the nation (including civil society and the Diaspora) must support strategies to offset ecological damage. The nation’s stewards and stakeholders should exercise due diligence in spending the imminent gas and oil windfall wisely, turning impoverishment into prosperity. They must also ensure that the general population benefits from profits made and further protect the nation from corporate domination as well as “invasion” by characters like Jim Jones.

NB: A version of this article was originally published as a book chapter in Communities and Development in Guyana: A Neglected Dimension in Nation Building (Lear Matthews and George K. Danns.).s.).


“A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective” 

Eusi Kwayana: “A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective” is now available for order on Amazon Books, both in the e-book format and in paperback ($10.00 eBook; $19.95).

The 1978 Jonestown fiasco in Guyana is considered the greatest peacetime horror ever. Almost all of the 918 lives lost were Americans. Prime Minister Forbes Burnham called it “an American problem.” All the books on the subject are written by people from outside. This is the first by residents of the host country.

LOOK INSIDE and ORDER: Go to Amazon at this LINK

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  • Doreen A. Lovell  On 11/06/2019 at 9:50 am

    This took me down memory lane; the time of completion of my Social Work studies at U.G. Thank you Lear Mathews & G.K. Danns

  • Clyde Duncan  On 11/07/2019 at 5:12 pm


  • Trevor  On 11/07/2019 at 7:05 pm

    I have to digress…Credible pictures showed that a dog was laying among the dead…Did the dog also commit suicide?

  • kman  On 11/09/2019 at 9:00 pm

    Jonestown was aCIA project period.

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