SHORT STORY: The Impact of an English soldier on a colonial boy! – By Geoff Burrowes

– By Geoff Burrowes

In today’s world he would probably be called an imperialist and an agent and a defendant of imperialism. He was, in fact a soldier who was an original thinker, one prepared to adopt his enemy’s strategies and the lessons of the people indigenous to the region.

His name was Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout Movement.             

He was born in 1857. He joined the British Army after school and fought in India and Africa.         

Robert Baden-Powell

He wrote several books on scouting and reconnaisance for the British Army. He had a heart for the boys of his native country, Britain and decided to teach them the hard-won lessons of his military service, in the belief that they would enrich the boys’ lives. His books immediately sold and he held a camp for boys at Brownsea Island in 1907. British boys responded enthusiastically and he was encouraged to start the Boy Scout Movement which immediately swelled in popularity in Britain and then throughout the world!

Even in British Guiana. The only English speaking nation in South America adopted the Scout Movement which grew rapidly as it had in other countries.

I wasn’t attracted by the noble ideals of scouting but purely lucked out as, after a rubber gun, cowboys and indians gunfight, I overheard  boys who I thought were ‘cool’ talking about fielding tennis balls for the Davson Cup, a tennis trophy fought for by BG, Trinidad and Barbados. It was being held that year in Guiana at the Georgetown Cricket Club. It sounded like fun and I asked if I could help and they said I could if I joined their scout troop, Troop 39!

I thoroughly lucked out as I was to find out after.  The fielding balls was fun as there were many larger than life characters competing: Dr. Derek Phang, Winston Philips, Ian Macdonald and Edgar Readwin, an Englishman, representing BG, who was not the most patient of people and who would bark “Get moving boy!” if you  were slow off the mark. We ‘got moving’ quickly!

After the tournament I applied for membership of the Troop 39 Boy Scout Troop and was accepted. Our troop met in a wooden building on the old Scout ground, a big pasture on the north side of Palpree Dam just East of the East Indian’s cricket Club, behind the Teacher’s Training College and opposite the Golf Club. Our wooden pavillion was one storied on top on tall stilts, like many Georgetown buildings, to mitigate the effects of flooding, from the Atlantic Ocean, which foamed against the the Seawall, right across Seawall Road on the North side of our ground.

I climbed the steps to the pavilion where our scoutmaster, in an open-necked white shirt and baggy khaki shorts sat on the bench on the open verandah. I discovered that he always came to meetings early to get the meetings off on the right foot. He was slim, bald and sported a prominent nose. I was to find that he was a well respected scout leader who took seriously the tenets of the Scout Movement and in addition he was an experienced bushman who taught us how to thrive in the bush. I couldn’t have asked for a better Scoutmaster and mentor!

Click to enlarge

I was also to discover that he cared little for spit and polish but expected us to live up to the Scout law and promise in our daily lives. The promise, which is a summary of the law, expected us to be Trusty, Loyal, Helpful, Brotherly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Smiling and Thrifty, Pure as the rustling wind. He felt that that made a scout and not the snazzy uniform or being able to march well! During my scouting days I absorbed the culture and though I was not always able to live up to the expectations I feel they made me a better person.

Then I discovered Lord Baden Powell’s books, starting with “Scouting for Boys” and found that I wanted to live according to his ideas. They lit a fire in me that was never extinguished!

My Scoutmaster was Dicky Driver and he had been blessed to take part in the 1929 Jamboree at Arrow Park, in England, with my dad Tommy Burrowes, renowned headmaster “Pirate” Alexander, and Dr. Leslie Evan Wong.

Our Assistant Scoutmaster was Desmond Belgrave, who rejoiced in the nickname “Birdie” and our troop leader was Mr. Driver’s eldest son Richard while Eddie Driver, my friend was a Patrol Leader. Our meetings were always fun as we learnt to play Kim’s Game, where a number of small items were placed on a table and after looking at them for a few minutes we then had to remember as many of them as we could. That helped keep my mind sharp for the rest of my life. We had to memorize the Scout Law and the promise. We learnt to tie a number of knots and then used them with our scout poles to construct bridges, walkways and other neat stuff.

Often at the end of our meetings, after the adults left we would play games like “British Bulldog” in which two scouts stood at the midway point of a strip of grass while the rest of the troop ran as fast as we could from one end of the strip to the other. The two in the centre would intercept and tackle a boy and lift him clear of the ground chanting “British Bulldog 1,2,3,” at which point that boy would become a tackler. It was rough, it was fun and was good preparation for those of us who went on to play Rugby.

Then there was the camping! The Redwater Creek rally happened shortly after I joined the troop and was my first camping experience. Rallies were held every year by the Scout Association and were an opportunity for all the Troops from all over the country to get together in a tent city, exchange Scout lore and just have fun. The Guiana bush was the perfect place for this and Redwater Creek was the perfect site. It was 25 miles South of Georgetown and the camp site was centered around a beautiful swimming hole with the creek flowing through a white sand beach . Redwater Creek was aptly named as the water was Coca Cola coloured by the vegetation that dropped into it, in its long journey through the bush. It was also cold and refreshing, perfect in the heat of the Guiana day. The Scout Association had cleared camp sites in the bush right around the creek. and a number of Troops had already set up their tents when we arrived.

We had cycled up the East Bank Road. Mr. Driver had brought our tent and food in his Ford Prefect. We were busy off loading when our scoutmaster told us to stop as he went to talk to the site manager. They came back together, the site manager looking really irritated. Mr. Driver was saying ” Look Neill this site is on the side of a hill and we’re about to have a major rainstorm. I want a campsite on the top of the hill! The site Manager gave in grudgingly and said “Driver you can camp at the top of the hill but I don’t have any body to help you get your gear up.” So we sheepishly gathered up our gear and trekked it up to the top of the long hill, while the Scouts who had already set up camp laughed behind their hands at us., We then set up our camp in  a clearing on the edge of the bush, where we dug in our tents forked poles and erected the tent, dug trenches around the tent, quietly cursing Mr. Driver as we laboured, then we built a trulli covered benab to act as a cook shack .

To shelter our food we built a table to keep the food off the ground. The camp cook was a Patrol Leader called “Piddles” Armstrong who we found out could rustle up a tasty meal out of meat, rice and potatoes. While he did this we dug two deep holes in the sand as latrines and placed a branch on two forked sticks, as a seat, with a straining stick, vertically in the ground ahead of it to give the user something to hold on to while doing the deed and make sure he didn’t fall into the hole. All the comforts of home! I mention all these details as this was how we set up camp each time we camped.  We also stretched a ground sheet inside the tent to discourage ants, scorpions and other creepy crawlies.  Using our haversacks as pillows  went quietly to sleep. That is until there was snoring in the tent and some of the older boys snuck over to one of the younger boys and began applying shoe polish designs on his face. I escaped that fate as I didn’t go to sleep for a while. In fact I was still awake when the lightning began to flash outside and the thunder rolled and the rain began to pitter patter on the tent’s canvas.

When we woke up next morning we were pleased to see that the rain had drained off in the trenches we had laboured on the previous afternoon and that the food was dry under the troolie roof of the cookshack we had built. When we went down to the creek to wash our faces and clean our teeth we found that a number of the camp sites down the hill had been washed away in the deluge that resulted from the rainstorm and the Scouts who had laughed at us were now glad to share our dry food.

When we mentioned it to Mr. Driver he said with a twinkle in his eye “Anyone can be uncomfortable in the bush but it takes a bushman to enjoy camping out.” We took that to heart the many times we camped after that.

The year of 1957 was an exciting one. The Jubilee Jamboree was being celebrated in England, 50 years of scouting around the world. No one could deny the effect that the Boy Scout movement had had in societies that allowed it. Generations of boys who were respectful. loyal, who helped others and enjoyed themselves tremendously at the same time! Boys who had a purpose in life and who made good citizens. By this time Lord Baden-Powell had died, but his wife was closing the celebrations. In far outposts like BG the contingents of scouts were preparing to travel to England. I knew I wasn’t one of the lucky ones because we couldn’t afford it but I was caught up in the excitement and wanted to help the lucky boys who were going. One of the fund raising events was a Ralph Reader play called “Leave it to Pete” an adventure play about a young Sea Scout, full of hearty songs and laughter and I was picked to be in the chorus. It was a time of great camaraderie and heart-stopping terror as we rehearsed and prepared for opening night. As it turned out it was a great success and large audiences filled the QC auditorium, and clapped and cheered and laughed at the jokes and we were richly rewarded for our effort by the audience’s enthusiastic response. We had started out by agreeing to give up our time and considerable effort and ended up having the time of our lives and making great friends in the process.

A friend of my Mum and Dad, Barbara Sutherland, whose son, my friend Donald, had died of Blackwater fever after a holiday in Rupununi, advanced my Dad the money for my fare and expenses and I was able at the last moment to make the trip and enjoy the Jamboree!

It would take a book to recount the tale of that glorious trip but one of the people who went to the Jubilee Jamboree is still my friend today in faraway Canada, an accomplished Guyanese named Jai(narain) Naipaul, whose eyes still crinkle when he laughs and who blesses his friends in so many ways. My friend Ed Driver who was one of the ‘cool’ boys who attracted me into Scouting in the first place also lives in Toronto with his wife Joy and their children and grandchildren. He cracked me up as a youngster and still does today.

I will always be grateful to his Dad, my Scoutmaster and the others who enlivened my time in Scouts and of course the English soldier whose unique views resulted in the Boy Scout Movement, Lord Robert Baden Powell.

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  • Zandra Murray Tibbitts  On 02/06/2021 at 10:52 am

    This is a wonderful story. My brother Mike (1950-2020) received his Queen’s Scout Medal from H.M herself; on her visit to B.G

    • geoffburrowes  On 03/05/2021 at 1:00 pm

      All scouts must have looked up to your brother!

  • peter.willems.willems  On 02/06/2021 at 5:26 pm

    Hi Geoff, Just read your short story,and I thoroughly enjoyed it.It is filled with so many interesting facts, and humour.I knew most of the people mentioned in it, but the name Drivers,stuck with me.I knew Sam Driver quite well, as his friend was Robin Fowler, who was one of the lads, that travelled with me to Lodge school,in Barbados.I knewSam’s brother, but he was older and not in our circle. Yes indeed, Sam always had a joke to tell,that always cracked us up.Geoff, is Sam, Eddie, or another branch of the Drivers?I was a Cub for a very short time before going to Lodge School,and being a horrible,spoilt little brat, I behaved so badly at Cubs, that I was banned from Cubs, much to my satisfaction. Of course going to Lodge School as a termly border, set me right,in just the first term.I still sucked my thumb, although I was eight and half years old,and nothing anyone could do,could stop me. The very first night in the dormitory, with 20 other boys, of my age, and a couple of years older,all sleeping,on camp cots,I was sound asleep sucking my thumb, with my balled up sucker cloth, when the prefect turned on the lights, to count numbers, a nightly ritual I knew nothing about.I slept, but some of the boys closest to me woke up, and saw me sucking my thumb. My life turned into a living hell, from the next morning on, as the word of my thumb sucking spread, and my nickname instantly was, “suck a thumb Willy”.Never in my entire spoilt life,was I ever teased as  much as I was then.To cut it short, I stopped sucking my thumb, cold turkey,in one week after almost nine years.I then was given a new nickname,” Jungle Pup”,as I tried to get back some respect, by telling tales of my adventures in the jungle,in BG. Most of which was true, if a bit embellished.  Granny Ursula Willems, took me with her,when ever she went up to Kaow Island, by train then steamer,and then on to our forest logging operation, Bara Bara, by launch then ballahoo. No roads,no trucks, or jeeps, in those days, as logs were transported by slinging them alongside ballyhoos, down the big creek,to the Mazaruni river,where they were towed by a tug to the Kaow Island Sawmill for processing into lumber,or stored as piles.Of course these trips, were huge adventures to me,and thoroughly enjoyed,until trailing my hand in the creek as I sat in the ballyhoo, I was bitten on my palm by a venomous water snake, a hymarally,  if memory serves. Granny panicked, I thought I was going to die, but old Mac the aged Amerindian  Forest manager,just whipped out his knife and a small bottle of an evil looking liquid, slit the bite, with everyone holding me down, and me screaming enough to scare all the fauna for miles around. After sucking out some poison,and declaring it not to venemous,something to do with the lips,and mouth,not going entirely numb,he then made a poultice,from his evil smelling lotion, and then forced some down my throat. It was,an Amerindian snake cure, that was floating in a enough high wine to render me drunk and unconscious, weird, herbs and bark, and spirits of ammonia.I did not wake for almost four hours, and other than a fever,and some pain in the area of the bite,I was fine.  I was given a yearly supply of the same potion,when I became forest manager, and it saved more than one life, but never mine again,as I was never bitten again, although had some close shaves, but those are different stories,including, my attempt,to get to the bottom of, and analyse the content of,the snake cure bottle, that too is a fascinating story, half bush lore, half science.To end,I am glad you did so well at Scouting and attended the Jamboree in the UK,all unforgettable,wonderful,memories for you.I joined the Cadets at Lodge, when I was 13 plus, and then for the first two weeks of summer holidays,got trained in an Island wide Barbados Diciplined forces,and Cadets training programme,run by the British Army,with some really tough Sargeant Majors. So for five years I followed the military training, which then lead me into joining the Special Reserve Constabluary,in BG, as a part time volunteer,which led to my call up for the troubles, in the early sixties,then my recall in a part time, special unit volunteer,for the next ten  years. Geoff, I wish I had followed your way,in joining the Scouts,then I would not have seen, or done, the terrible things I did. All legal,but when one  has to counteract brutality,with equal force, to preserve law and order and save lives,very bad things happen,and the opposition screams extra judicial killing,j when it is in fact,just deadly force, being neutralised by deadlier force, with no quarter asked,or given. Just really bad memories,outweighing, and hiding the good memories,that preceded that dark period.Sorry to go on so long, but your memories are the good ones, and I thank you, as it allows me to remember,good times also.Take care, my friend, be safe, Peter.Sent from my Galaxy Tab® A

  • geoffburrowes  On 02/07/2021 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks Peter
    Entertaining stuff! As I mentioned I was sorry not to experience Koaw Island with you. You must get these memories down in writing as they add to the wonderful memories that go to make up the mosaic that was BG.

    • wally n  On 02/08/2021 at 1:53 pm

      I think Koaw Island was a stop on the Bartica Route (THD) long time ago, still a good read.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 02/07/2021 at 10:08 pm

    Our Assistant Scoutmaster was Desmond Belgrave, who rejoiced in the nickname “Birdie” and our troop leader was Mr. Driver’s eldest son Richard …..

    Richard Driver is up here in British Columbia – I saw him volunteering at the Vancouver International Airport quite a few years ago – I don’t know if he is still around.

  • geoffburrowes  On 02/08/2021 at 1:41 pm

    Yes he is and I’m sure if you got in touch with him he’d make it worthwhile by cracking some jokes! He’s still got lots of those

    • Brother Man  On 02/08/2021 at 2:59 pm

      A little off topic. May I remind everyone that tomorrow (February 9) marks the 11th anniversary of Guyanese Online.

      Thank you, Cyril.

      Brother Man.

      • geoffburrowes  On 03/05/2021 at 1:18 pm

        Cyril Bryan is a scholar and a gentleman I am very grateful to him for providing a forum for Guyanese of every race, colour and political persuasion to express ourselves.

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