OPINION: A kind look at the complex issue of race in Guyana – By Geoff Burrowes

– By Geoff Burrowes

I was born into and grew up in a multi-racial society. There were black people who were the descendants of slaves who had been sold to slave owners and treated as chattels or the owner’s property, to be used as the owner pleased. Most had worked on cotton or sugar plantations in dreadful conditions and after generations of freedom, still bore the scars of that experience.   

After slavery was abolished the British instituted indentured labour and brought a number of different racial groups into British Guiana to provide their labour for the sugar barons! Chinese from Hong Kong, Portuguese from Madeira and Indians from India. The original inhabitants were indigenous tribes, Caribs, Arawaks, Akawaios, Macushis, Wapisiana and deep in the Amazonian bush on the border of BG, the Wai Wai!

The Dutch and later the British colonists had apparently tried to enslave these tribes for agricultural labour but they sickened and died in captivity so eventually were left alone in their villages in the bush. The descendants of the British, Dutch and French also became Guianese. So by the time I came along, in 1942, the 5th generation of my family of Guianese, the country had the original inhabitants as well as Black, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese, Indigenous and mixtures of all  the foregoing living side by side!

As a child growing up it was impossible not to be aware of racial differences. But black or brown skin was just a characteristic, like brown hair or blue eyes, tall or short, thin or fat! We were people together, neighbours, family, friends and not, all Guianese, although as a rule we didn’t think of ourselves as such.

That’s the good news! However it ignored the realities of race in our midst. Race was compounded with class! There were very clearly defined class issues – and they tended to run parallel with racial ones! Rich people were privileged and received special treatment in their interactions with the Government, police, courts, banks, commercial businesses and society generally. Poor people generally got the short end of the stick in their lives in our society. They were unfairly treated in their daily lives as were poor people the world over!

In BG however poor people tended to, historically, follow racial lines.

The Black descendants of slaves had had little opportunity to better their living conditions, as had the descendants of the indentured labourers from India, China, Madeira and the Azores. However by the time I came along there were wealthy and influential people from every racial grouping. Like advantaged people in every part of the world they were not in a hurry to share their privilege with their less fortunate brethren!

Over the years there had been a certain amount of intermarriage between the races and there were people of every mixture: Douglas, mixture of Black and Indian. Boviandas, mixtures of Black and Indigenous. Red, Black and White mix. There were also unions of all the above!

I was at school with every race and mix and can tell the world that White people had no monopoly on brains, class, common sense or athletic ability. At school in Georgetown we had exceptional boys and girls of every race, colour and creed.

We were all however trapped in a society, that while it had excellent values of honesty, integrity, love, hospitality, laughter and generosity; also had the disadvantages of small-mindedness and false superiority based on race, class, wealth and power!

Unfortunately as politicians like Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham and other forward thinkers like Walter Rodney and Eusi Kwayana sought to better the lives of the underprivileged, racial divisions hardened and became solidified and people who had lived together in an uneasy harmony began blowing up and slaughtering one another. Terms like Indo Guyanese and Afro Guyanese came into being and defined the way we felt and thought about one another!

We can only hope that the qualities that have traditionally defined us: love, laughter, hospitality, intelligence, common sense, generosity, brotherhood and good food and the best rum distilled anywhere will overcome all the ills that face every civilization and that Guyana will become the country that every other country, big and small will look up to!


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  • Jo  On 04/29/2021 at 4:59 pm

    This version, true for so many of us, rings hollow for the younger generation who were exposed to the strife in their younger years.

  • Chris  On 04/29/2021 at 5:33 pm

    It is human nature to see ourselves as them versus us- historically in every societ. It is wishful thinking that a society, divided by race, class, wealth or titles will suddenly embrace egalitarianism.

    • Dennis Albert  On 04/29/2021 at 7:27 pm

      It’s oil money my friend…Oil money…50 billion barrels of oil at stake…

      Jamaica doesn’t have this massive level of Trinidadian and Guyanese racial divide; the Indo-Jamaicans are less likely to get involved in “race politics”, though the Indian businesspeople from India tend to bring their problems to Jamaica.

      Oil money does no good if the PPP gives it to the clique, while excluding the rest of Guyanese.

  • detow  On 04/29/2021 at 7:53 pm

    Chris I could not agree with you more. Guyanese are living a lie but hoping for redemption.

  • Jo  On 04/29/2021 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t totally disagree with the naysayers given the troubles of the last 50 years. But I don’t agree with Chris that by nature we’re antagonistic to each other. When the PPP led the way for Africans and Indians, I distinctly understood the desire for a better life for those at the bottom. We were not blind to the ideals that Cheddi espoused. It was the machinations of the US pressing on Britain to betray that desire as exemplified in Cheddi’s embrace of a “communist” system. The Catholics fell in line, hating the godless Communists. God forbid that we think of government for the poor. The British Governor did not read the situation as did Kennedy. To this day, the USA has its knee on the neck of Cuba, a fraction of its size and wealth. All else flowed from that interference..sending in the CIA and pitting African against Indian. The USA has sown death and destruction wherever others dare to dream differently. It promotes arms sales far and wide to destabilize those they disapprove of. That’s why China keeps its doors firmly closed. Now the world is awash in weapons of violence. The chickens have come home to roost in the USA itself. It reaps what it sows.

    • the only  On 04/29/2021 at 9:34 pm

      So true, please tell us more about how the USA messed up Guyana.

      • Dennis Albert  On 04/29/2021 at 11:15 pm

        This was what a PPP Minister learned to do what she did during a session in Parliament:

        Priya Manikchand screamed rape when confronted with questions.

  • Jo  On 04/30/2021 at 11:25 am

    For ‘the only”: You probably can’t get access to the book: “US Intervention in British Guiana..A Cold War Story” by Stephen Rabe. Kennedy was obsessed with BG and made it his business to get the British to undermine Jagan using the tool of proportional representation. Ramphal was shocked when they realized how Jagan and reps were set up. Burnham had probably made his deal with them as he tagged along. All this is written history..not made up by me. Anyway, Iraq, Guyana, Chile, Iran, Palestine,..we deal with the effects of US incursions, arms sales and intrusion supporting their safer bet for capitalism..to hell with other people’s desires for a better future for the masses. All I have left of my country that Geoff and Godfrey China wrote about is the memories of a good place to have had my young years.

  • detow  On 04/30/2021 at 5:06 pm

    Jo On:

    You are bang on with your analysis of what got BG to the state that it is in today however, I have a problem with the concept of Guyanese being intelligent and resourceful people who now know what part the Americans and English governments played in disrupting life in BG but are not smart enough to figure out that continuing with the great divide hurts no one but them. The really smart ones were the British who only granted independence to Guyana, and many of their other colonies, once they were convinced that they had created a perfect SNAFU situation in each and are now amused that the natives cannot undo the lack of trust that they created between the races. At this point in time not even GOD can help Guyana. The PPP and the PNC will make sure of that.

  • Jo  On 04/30/2021 at 5:15 pm

    Detow: Have no argument with you there. The Brits are beyond caring..they’ve moved on to being Europeans and now too good for the Europeans. (The Brexit saga.) However, Africa is on the move as is India..despite deep challenges to poverty to overcome. I’ve given up hoping anyone can make a difference since they really don’t want us back to help unless we have deep pockets of money to use or give away. Anyway…we haven’t come to blows through this forum. A good sign..(smile.).

    • Ram esh  On 05/01/2021 at 12:37 am

      Jo on:

      Your understanding of the tumultuous history of Guyana under foreign occupation and foreign exploitation is good.

      The modus operandi of the British was to conquer and divide. They accomplished that well in Guyana. In the lead-up to independence, two ambitious young leaders ( Jagan and Burnham) fought an ideological battle in what each considered to be best for the captive, exploited people of the country.

      Cheddi wanted economic equality for all that. It wasn’t Communism, per se, as the Americans and British feared. It was a form of social justice. In other words, he didn’t want wealth to be held by a few while the masses suffered.

      He wanted an equitable distribution of wealth. That concept sent the Americans into a state of delirium. They interpreted that as communism. They unequivocally stated that they didn’t want another Cuba in their backyard.

      So, they went all-out to turf Jagan and install their Burnham. Burnham outwitted Jagan by keeping his cards close to his vest and that played out to his advantage in the end. Jagan was out and he was in!

      The racial divide had started after the end of slavery and the beginning of indentureship. Burnham and Jagan didn’t do a stellar job at uniting the races during those early days. Burnham was especially divisive. At one point, when he was the opposition leader of the PNC, he called for his supporters to take the fight to the rice fields. Everyone knew what that meant.

      Those two leaders have been gone now for decades but the damage remains. It up to the the current and future generations to chart a course toward unity. As they say, a house divided cannot stand.

      Now with the discovery of oil, the Americans, British, other foreign interests are back. The country must be on guard to not allow foreign powers to continue to play their dirty tricks. History must not be repeated in Guyana.


  • brandli62  On 05/01/2021 at 6:47 am

    Many thanks to Goeff for sharing his recollections of growing up in multiracial BG, as my mother did. My teenaged children, multiracial with roots in Vietnam, Guyana and Switzerland, enjoy growing up in Zurich, Switzerland. They have encountered very little racial prejudice and they go to school with children from a diverse range of ethnic and national backgrounds. Many are multiracial and the numbers are growing rapidly. Race and having to identify with a specific race is just not an issue. In fact, they would have a hard time, if they were forced to choose! Are they White, Black, Jewish, South East Asian or all of the above?

    • Max Hinds  On 05/01/2021 at 9:21 am

      brandi62, so glad that you’ve steered the conversation back from the knee-jerk “The colonials and the Americans caused this mess” into the points the writer raises, which deal with the complexities of race relations in a multi-racial society like Guyana. Like Switzerland, young people in Guyana are certainly exposed from the earliest age to the adage and practice of “Live and let live”. It is unfortunate that our natural desire for harmony, or at least tolerance, is constantly assaulted by a vocal few, who appear to see personal benefit (usually political dominance) in perpetuating a climate of suspicion, resentment, fear, victimhood, you name it. Which one is winning? Which one do we Guyanese want to win? Logically we should go for harmony and tolerance, and the examples of the rewards for pursuing this are many. However, as is the case with individual “Freedom”, it will require constant organizing effort and vigilance to maintain a collective and progressive peace among the race groups. This will have to be the responsibility of individuals, rather than leaving it solely in the hands of the politicians who have their hands full with other national issues. There is absolutely no good reason why what you, and Burrowes have related should not continue to apply in our daily dealings; I for one would like to see our communal energies directed at alleviating the depressing poverty that plagues too large a percentage of our countrymen. A national priority has to be imparting enough skills to the youth to transform them into productive citizens as they come of age. It was done in Singapore; I would also argue that it was done in Guyana between 1900 and 1970, with tragically the beneficiaries being North America, and the Caribbean and Europe as we migrated in droves. Tragically also, with oil coming on stream in 2015, we could not bring ourselves to abandon confrontation in favor of preparation; the people, especially the poor, will not receive a fair share of what should rightfully be theirs. It is not too late, other threats and opportunities loom on the horizon e.g Venezuelan aggression and the danger that a neglected group(s) may see an attraction in siding with, or even inviting in, the aggressor. So we have choices. “Live and make sure that our brothers and sisters also live – so that we in turn will continue to live.”

  • wally n  On 05/01/2021 at 11:05 am

    Conclusion….Racism is here to stay?? What about a few solutions? Remember just an opinion, fire away.

    • Dennis Albert  On 05/01/2021 at 4:58 pm

      The coalition government tried their best to represent the multi-ethnic and cultural diversity…There were no embargos, bans, kick down the door, or any allegations that the PPP used on their opponents back in de day.

      They got ejected thanks to the US Ambassador, the Canadian ambassador living in Ottawa and the Trump administration who already had prejudice towards Blacks.

  • Jo  On 05/01/2021 at 12:16 pm

    What are your solutions Wally n? Geoffrey da Silva wrote detailed measures that should be enacted. No one seems to care to fix the constitution. My benchmark is the work of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to ensure racial harmony in his island nation. Guyanese leaders do not care to be scholars of government policy. The current pattern is about who has the hand on the wheel. No smart role models to be found in major economies though Biden’s trying now to break the impasse that sets in stone.

  • wally n  On 05/01/2021 at 1:25 pm

    I have none, but my OPINION is, regardless of where you are, end up, one life time, you have a responsibility to be the best you can be for your family and your self. Many of members of my family settled in America and Canada, not white, had the same hurdles of all non white. What did they do, upgraded their education, made sure their children had the best education, used all the opportunities offered. Now if you are in a position to make changes, you should as much as you can. I produced Television, we pounded the accomplishments of all Guyanese and West Indians. I worked for a large manufacturing company. I convinced the general manager to include the employees with all staff events, he did and gave my almost an unlimited budget to run the program. He had vision, maybe all white people are not devils.
    So if you work for an organization, do whatever you can, suggest changes, Guyanese have/had the personality to convince, confrontation usually brings opposition, just me do something anything it’s a start

  • wally n  On 05/01/2021 at 2:15 pm

    We gat to stop….agreeing like this…good to know

  • Ram esh  On 05/01/2021 at 10:00 pm

    You cannot rewrite history:

    “Unfortunately as politicians like Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham and other forward thinkers like Walter Rodney and Eusi Kwayana sought to better the lives of the underprivileged, racial divisions hardened and became solidified and people who had lived together in an uneasy harmony began blowing up and slaughtering one another.” Geoff Burrowes.

    Guyana is a ravaged land. It is unlike any other Caribbean nation. The racial disharmony in the country doesn’t exist in the other former colonized Caribbean land. In this sense, we’re unfortunately unique.

    The division between the two major ethnic groups, set in motion by the British and exasperated by LFSB, is so wide and entrenched, that it is near impossible to narrow.

    Immediately before, during and after Burnham’s reign of terror, more than a million Guyanese have fled to distant lands to escape the trouble, the violence, and the hopelessness in their homeland. Many of them represent (and represented) some of our the best and brightest. Instead of using all that talent to improve Guyana’s situation, other countries have been the beneficiaries.

    Some on here would like to forget history or to even rewrite it. But history is history. Guyana is the only nation on earth whose population has remained static for more than a half century at around 740,000. If you know of another, please enlighten us. Economic growth was stunted.

    Burnham utterly destroyed the homeland. He used his immense talent for personal good. He cared little for the well-being of the people, except the few around him that mattered most.
    can only rue what might have been had that man not been entrusted with the reins of power in those early post-independence days.

    In 1957, the people democratically elected Cheri Jagan to office but the British brutally came in and suspended the constitution, removed him from office and installed their own governor to run the country. The CIA and the British intelligence services were collaboratively and actively involved in the suppression of democracy in Guyana and in keeping the people apart.

    Those are the facts. You can be as pollyannaish all you want, it will not change what actually happened in the land of our birth.


    • geoffburrowes  On 05/04/2021 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks for the diverse and heart felt responses. It’s clear that our history has left deep and enduring scars.
      My first response was that Guyanese, both in Guyana and in the diaspora, have two choices:
      One is to wallow in the hurt done us by our own people and other nations like Britain and the United States.
      Two is to forgive those who have hurt us, both our own people and the imperialist nations who have taken grievous advantage of us, to further their own interest. To forgive those of our own people who have participated either in enslaving us or equally brutally, slaughtering us and our families, again to further their own interest.
      Hard! Incredibly difficult! But necessary if we are to move on!
      If we can do this we can start depending on one another’s strengths and capabilities to rebuild the Dear Land of Guyana!
      If we look around us we can see lots of examples of those capabilities. A black Guyanese Canadian named Bollers who broke through the colour barrier in hockey in Toronto to encourage and coach championship coloured teams and was so good that he is now coaching multi ethnic champions.
      Our own Sonny Ramphal, whose great grandfather was an indentured labourer from India, who has demonstrated his excellence at law and diplomacy, to the degree that he became an eminently successful Commonwealth Secretary General and is now showing the International community the justice of Guyana’s claims to our own land!!
      There are countless other brilliant people of every race, colour and creed, who in Guyana and the diaspora are making a difference in improving our daily lives.
      Not only brilliant academically but practically. Common sense, a quality that is far from common, abounds in our people and must never be underestimated. It is arguable that the current generation of young people in Guyana are set in their racial outlook, but I think that argument sells them short. Young people are idealistic and I feel that they are our best hope of realising the dream of our motto: ONE PEOPLE, ONE NATION, ONE DESTINY!

      • Chris  On 05/04/2021 at 2:08 pm

        If you are standing on a hill and you look way below to see your neighbours trying desperately to avoid getting swallowed by the rising tide? From your high perch it’s easy to do the talking but can you also do the walking? The hill is a figure of speech for those facing the tide as opposed to those who have fled to greener pastures.

      • Bernard  On 05/05/2021 at 11:03 am

        GB writes: “Two is to forgive those who have hurt us, both our own people and the imperialist nations who have taken grievous advantage of us, to further their own interest. “

        Good morning. Very interesting thread.

        With all due respect, Mr Burrowes, even though I’d like to endorse your sentiments, I have to take a diametrically different view. Your logic is flawed.

        One can forgive and forget a family member, a friend or a next door neighbour. However, such generosity must never extend to historical wrongs, in my humble view.

        Would you forgive Adolph Hitler for exterminating millions of people in gas chambers? Would you forgive Bashir al Asad for the horrors he’s committing on the Syrian people? Would you forgive the British for the genocides and plunders they committed all over the Empire? Would you forgive Joseph Stalin or Benito Mussolini?

        Our country was taken advantage of ruthlessly by a series of colonial powers over the centuries and when they finally left, we inherited a monumental mess and broken people. Why are you not in Guyana to help with the healing process? Do you expect us to forget and forgive massa for dumping millions of our people overboard at sea during the brutal centuries of the slave trade? Or the lynchings, beatings and rapes they committed on the plantations, with impunity?

        Please take off the rose coloured glasses, dear Sir. We the people of Guyana will never forgive the colonial criminals. We were not able to speak out on the plantations. Now we can! Our people must learn to come together as one and live in peace. We must!

        On this, we can agree.

  • Jo  On 05/02/2021 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you Ramesh for your rebuttal about “knee-jerk” analysis of the role of the British and the US. “Nuf said”. I’ll only add..consider the mess in Iraq where “democracy” in a place inhabited by different sects leads to the same unending impasse of competition for power. Would that Kennedy could see pass his sense of his “sphere of influence” and let countries have their own self-determination. Oh no..only Europeans and Americans get to choose for themselves. I’m done. All we have are our memories, the loss of our motherland and faint hope that there can be leadership that steers away from ethnic strife and a future for all.

    • Ram esh  On 05/02/2021 at 6:38 pm

      Nice to hear from you, Jo on.

      I’d like to make a correction to the date of the suspension of the constitution and the British coup d’état in British Guiana. The year was 1953, not 1957. That previous comment was made by entirely by memory.

      The codename for the coup d’état was Operation Windsor. British troops invaded the country on 9 October 1953 by air and sea. British troops were walking all over Georgetown.

      On orders from Winston Churchill (in collaboration with John F. Kennedy) Governor Alfred Savage suspended the constitution, arrested Cheddi and his wife Janet Jagan and placed them under house arrest. Savage then took full control of the government while the duly elected leaders were held captive.

      Yes, the CIA and the MI5 were fully engaged in the affairs of our British Guiana and in the successful execution of the overthrow. It’s important for all Guyanese to know what actually happened before making comments on the basis of ignorance.


      • Ram esh  On 05/02/2021 at 7:07 pm

        It was actually Eisenhower and Churchill involved in the coup. Kennedy was subsequently involved after he became president in 1960.

  • Dennis Albert  On 05/02/2021 at 6:07 pm

    There are so many changes going on in Guyana…Twenty years ago, it was more laid back, and as long as one passed CXC they would get a job which got them approved for a NBS mortgage.

    Today? Managers at insurance companies are struggling to pay the bills, because at today’s prices, a decent car is G$3.5M, a decent home is skyrocketing because the Hong Kong investors and the Russian oligarchs are buying up the land for obscene prices.

  • Schavana Phillips  On 05/03/2021 at 6:53 am

    Congratulations Geoff !! Thank you for your pure and unadulterated account of race relations in Guyana along with the influential social fibre in which we were bathed. Confucius once said, ” Learning prevents one from being narrow-minded”. But there was no a lack of education and learning in Guyana, and today many acts of false superiority pervades society. You, like Tony, were exposed to a culture at Queens College which fostered equality and respect for learning and the learned, the privileged and under privileged, the scholarly and the skilled.

    • brandli62  On 05/04/2021 at 4:54 am

      I have heard so much good things about Queens College, which appears to have been the crown jewel of higher education in Guyana. How did the school change after independence? Does it still produce that best graduates?

  • Ram esh  On 05/04/2021 at 1:30 pm

    Tomorrow, May 5, is an important date in Guyana’s history. It marks 183 years since the slave ships – Whitby and Hesperus – arrived on our shores from from Calcutta with the first batch of indentured slaves.

    Coincidentally, tomorrow is also a significant date for the formerly colonized people of Mexico. They celebrate Cinco de Mayo. That is Spanish for May 5. It was on this day that General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a strong invading French army.

    Cinco de Mayo in not the celebration of Mexico’s independence, as some erroneously assume. Rather, it is is about the Battle of Puebla. The ‘superior’ French army suffered a heavy defeat by a poorly-equipped opponent.

    It was to change the course of history in Mexico. Similarly, the arrival of the Indians in Berbice and Demerara on May 5 would significantly change the course of history in Guyana.

    In short, it is not an overstatement to say that the fate of the peoples of colonized lands is synonymous with the struggles of orphaned children.


  • Carol miller  On 05/20/2021 at 2:39 pm

    Wonderful article

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