Remembrance Day: A Guyanese Hero of the First World War – By Francis Quamina Farrier

Gershom Browne in military uniform in this 1914 photograph
Photo: Gershom Browne in military uniform in this 1914 photograph

By Francis Quamina Farrier

HIS name is Gershom Onesimus Browne. In his later years, many looked up to him in awe as he marched in his 90s and became a centenarian. He used to ride his bicycle along the Bagotville public roads when he was well into his 90s. A physical and mental titan he certainly was. The last surviving Guyanese veteran and hero of the First World War, and like others of his generation, Gershom lived through the years of both World Wars.

The thing about elders is that youngsters hardly ever pause to wonder what those elders were and what they achieved when they were youngsters. In this article, we will reflect on what Gershom, who lived to the ripe old age of 102, did and achieved when he was a youngster and also in his mature years.       

It is a hobby of mine to ‘sus-out’ such trivia. For example, I know that Gershom Onesimus Browne of Bagotville, West Bank Demerara, Region Three, was not only the last surviving Guyanese veteran of the First World War, but he enlisted for the military even before reaching the stipulated age of 18. Born in 1898, he passed at the age of 102 in 2000. As such, he lived across three centuries.

Since I had the opportunity of knowing him and interviewing him on many occasions over many years for both radio and television, this report is based on facts garnered directly from the man himself. In this 2020 Remembrance Day article, we will follow a bit of the life of that Guyanese hero and centenarian, Gershon Browne, including his service in the First World War where he saw action in North Africa and Palestine.

The Cenotaph at Main and Church Streets, Georgetown (Photo by Francis Q. Farrier)

As a youngster, I knew some veterans who served in the First World War. However, it was not until I had established my radio programme series The Eighty Plus Club in the early 1980s, did I actually have extended and in-depth conversations with World War One veterans. There were many young men from British Guiana who volunteered and served in that war in which 16 million men, women and children were killed globally. I had the opportunity to interview three Guyanese veterans of the First World War when they were in their 90s. Our conversations were recorded and broadcast on The Eighty Plus Club. Over some years, I kept in touch with Gershom because he was more accessible than the other two veterans. He lived at Bagotville on the West Bank Demerara, Region Three, and I visited with him from time to time. I also interacted with him on most of his many visits to Georgetown.

Gershom lived in a home which faces the Canal Number One which was dug by enslaved Africans. At the time when the First World War broke out, he was officially too young to enlist at 17 years of age. Volunteers had to be 18 or older to be accepted. Gershom was so fired up to go to war for King and country that he forged his age as 18 and was accepted. “I did not let my mother know that I was going to volunteer, because she would have stopped me,” he admitted. Travelling from his Bagotville home to Georgetown, the youngster was all excited about going to far-away lands. He also spoke of an English woman based in Georgetown whose job it was to officially put out encouraging appeals for young men to join the military and to go overseas and defend Great Britain from her enemies.

When Gershom informed his mother what he had done, she was overcome with anguish, worried that he could be injured or even killed. She also knew that she would not hear from him for a long time. Those were the days long before instant communication as is known and taken for granted today.  Gershom was part of the British West Indies Regiment which was made up of Guianese, Trinidadians and other volunteers from the British West Indies.

Gershom first saw action in North Africa. When his ship sailed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea and approached a port in North Africa, the enlisted young men of the British West Indian Regiment experienced a culture shock. What they all thought were scores of women milling around on the shore, turned out to be men. The attire of the Arab men in that part of the world deceived them. ‘Gowns’ from shoulders to feet made the volunteers of the West Indian Regiment think that the people they first saw after weeks at sea, were women. They had never seen men wearing the thawab before. Gershom was laughing as he related that experience of so many years previously.

During his service in that First World War, Gershom Browne found himself in many hot battle zones both in North Africa and Palestine. He spoke of some of his comrades being killed. Fortunately, he was never injured but he did put his life on the line for his country and the rest of the British Empire. At the end of the war, he opted to return to his home country. On his return after almost three years in foreign lands, he got down to being a productive citizen. He first worked in the hinterland, but the inner calling to agriculture brought him back to his home village of Bagotville. “My ancestors are from the Loko tribe in Sierra Leone in Africa,” he told me with a measure of pride during one of our interviews. “We are a people who excel in agriculture. A man in the Loko tribe who has a good knowledge of the ramifications of agriculture is highly respected.” He also told me that the Loko language was spoken by some of the older people of Bagotville up to the 1950s.

Not only was Gershom a successful farmer and family man, but also a village leader and served for many years on the Village Council. During a visit with him when he was in his mid-90s and already retired, two neighbours from the village who had a land dispute came to him to arbitrate the matter. Both parties laid out their case as Gershom Browne listened attentively. After a brief summary which was also based on his detailed knowledge of the village, its history and culture, he handed down his decision. That decision was accepted by both neighbours who left fully satisfied, and with no rancour. As an observer, I was immensely impressed with how Gershom so quickly settled what could have been a serious and long-drawn-out issue between two village neighbours.

At many of the observances of Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in Georgetown, Gershom always attended and laid a wreath. Official attendees and on-lookers always responded with a round of applause as he walked on steady feet to the Cenotaph to lay his wreath. Born in 1898, at age 102 he marched off triumphantly into eternity in 2000. He was one of the few Guyanese who had lived across three centuries. Before he left, and already a centenarian, Gershom wrote a book on “The History of Bagotville.” He is likely the only Guyanese who has written a first book after becoming a centenarian. An official plaque to his honour has been placed on the house in which he lived. “Caribbean, where are your heroes?” is a well-known song by Guyana’s Dave Martins. One answer is, World War One Hero, Gershom Onesimus Browne, of Bagotville, Region Three, Guyana.

Dave Martins and the Tradewinds: Caribbean – ‘Where Are Your Heroes’

From Bajanbloom Bloom YouTube entry:

There is no doubt in the pride of being a West Indian in such Tradewinds classics as “Caribbean Man”, “Boyhood Days”, “Where Are Your Heroes” and “We Are The Champions”. Other compositions such as “Cricket in the Jungle”, “Civilization” and “Copycats” make you step back and reflect on the Caribbean way of approaching life, at home and abroad. Other very popular songs, written by Martins, include “Mr. Rooster”, “Wong Ping”, “You Can’t Get”, “Not A Blade of grass” and the 1997 release “Gie Dem Shiv” which is a tribute to Guyanese-born West Indian Cricket star Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

See YouTube comments here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhbLB4ycnYI

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On November 10, 2020 at 12:38 am

    Monte Griffith wrote:

    Dear Uncle Francis:
    That’s a magnificent story of our elder Mr. Gershom Onesimus Browne of Guyana and WW I.

    Were he an upper class British Officer after the war and had 1K Pound in assets he could have gotten 1,000 acres of land in Kenya which belonged to over 3-million natives and 23,000 Indians in the colony. The land included those belonging to the men who served in the King’s African Rifles.

    It wasn’t until June 1,1963 – Madaraka Day (Self-Rule) under the Burning Spear ( Jomo Kenyatta) that the ship was righted and Kenya did NOT become a white British colony as was the case with Australia, New-Zealand, South-Africa and Rhodesia .

    Kwaheri.

  • Clyde Duncan  On November 10, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Joseph D’Oliveira wrote:

    Wow! To live past a century after serving in the military and in war zones.

    Did his experience in battles help him to survive so long from his experiences?

    God Bless him on his next journey.

    I hope i Live that long since I served in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately I have too many ailments from my tour of duty but I am still battling at 78 going on 79.

    • kamtanblog  On November 10, 2020 at 3:57 am

      My friends…we are the lucky ones to still
      still be arround today to tell the tales of
      our journeys. Most of our generation
      served the military in their wars…. many
      the sacrificial lambs that never returned/ survived.
      On 13th January 2021 begin my 77th year on the planet …my legacy…my biography for my next generations.
      Life goes on….
      Every day a bonus !
      Enjoy !

      Kamtan uk-ex-EU

  • guyaneseonline  On November 15, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    Comment from Lester Fernandes:

    Hi Francis,

    G.O.B was my father’s schoolmate and best friend.

    On the first Sunday of every year in my time Q.C (1946 to 1954), the Fernandes family visited the graves of our relatives in the graveyard of Bethel Congregational Church in Vauxhall, stopping on the way at the homes of the Vaniers in La Grange, the Brownes and Andersons in Bagotville, and my father’s aunts, daughters of Thomas Layne who lived next to the Bethel church. I remember the ginger beer, mauby and black cake which we were served in each home.

    The Vaniers and Andersons are cousins. On those yearly visits, we sometimes met another cousin, Fred Case, another grandson of Thomas Layne and father of Hamley and recently deceased Gordon about whom you recently wrote.

    My father Thomas Augustus Fernandes, 1899 to 1969, was a diamond buyer.

    Best regards,

    Lester Fernandes

    The following photo was submitted by Lester Fernandes:

    PHOTO: Gershom Browne (with the hat) showing HRH Princess Margaret a parcel of rough diamonds during her visit to Guyana in 1958.

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