Guyana: History: Introducing a Multiracial Appeal of 1938: The ‘Negro-Indian Combine’ – By Nigel Westmaas

By October 24, 2021.-– By Nigel Westmaas

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Ruhoman was widely known for his interventions in the press. Politically conservative (he was an open critic of communism), he was a major contributor and respondent to social and political issues. His brother, Peter Ruhoman, was the author of the influential book, The Centenary History of the East Indians of British Guiana.       

The two main racial groups in the colony, Africans and Indians (along with others, including the Portuguese), faced each other with suspicion, rivalry and stereotypes. As Guyanese historian Brian Moore avers, nineteenth century Guyana “was by no means a melting pot… there was a consistently high level of suspicion, tension and violence which characterized intergroup relations.”  These cultural and ethnic tensions extended into the 20th century. When the 1911 census indicated that East Indians had become the dominant numerical group in the colony, tensions assumed new political forms. Some African Guyanese groups interpreted the census as an impending ‘threat’ of Indian domination.  In 1913, there were communal disturbances between Africans and Indians, between De Kindren and Met-en-Meerzorg, in which, according to the Daily Argosy, “blacks and coolies were pelting bricks and bottles at each other.”

By 1919, the Indian Colonization scheme had been proposed which further drove a cleavage between the two main ethnic groups, as indicated in statements and ripostes of organisations representing various ethnicities.

In this context, Ruhoman’s unconventional call for a “Negro-Indian Combine” was significant, opening as it seemed to a potential inter-ethnic collaboration in the 1930s, amid consistent contestation and stereotyping between the two main racial groups.

Unfortunately, modern reviews and commentary, including academic analyses, tend to rely solely on modern Guyana movements (from the 1950s) as the alpha and omega of racial division in the society. In the process, these observers and critics fail to connect the more varied historical tapestry of race and racial movements to the present. The existence of a huge literature and other narratives, including oral history and memory, on race suggests a more complex causation in Guyanese modern political history of race and race relations.

The Ruhoman document, appearing in a ‘rival’ publication with seemingly different perspectives, represented, at least symbolically, dialogue and cooperation between two ethnic groups historically prone to stereotypes and hostility to each other.

Some of these stereotypes persist, albeit in altered form, up to the present; a few are present in Ruhoman’s article.

In the final analysis, given the time in which it was written, Ruhoman’s document is quite advanced in its call for unity and for a positive acknowledgement of the ‘other’.

The document is reproduced in full below with end notes for explanation of a few features of its content.

A NEGRO-INDIAN COMBINE

By Joseph Ruhoman

The Conventionist Vol 1, No 9, January 1938 (Organ of the Negro Progress Convention)

The request of the Editor for an article in the journal so ably conducted by him as the organ of the Negro Progress Convention finds me in a happily responsive mood. I have just finished writing an article for the official organ of the Association working for the people of my own race; so that the switching off from one racial group to another in an effort to take up a cause that in a broad view is common to both of them is a task that is as agreeable as it is congenial to one like myself whose heart and mind and soul have always been bound up in that cause. All the Indians have suffered, so have the Negroes in the lands to which the Fates have driven their fathers.

SUBLIMATED SUFFERING

But we shall not cherish the memory of those wrongs. Races and nations like individuals, are purified and made strong by suffering. If, however, at times the mind will involuntarily go back to the past, let it not be allowed to linger there in any brooding over conditions and happenings which have been so deplored unless it be warned by its atmosphere and stirred to the spirit that will imbue us with an ever increasing determination to see it (sic) that oppression and injustice in any shape of form shall not be tolerated in this British country under any labour or other system exercising authority under Government.

The present year is a notable one in respect of two great historical events- marking as it does the centenary of the abolition of Negro slavery, and the centenary of the advent of the first batch of Indians from India under the system of indentured labour which was abolished in 1917. Each event is remarkable in its own way, and therefore worthy of commemoration.

I sometimes wonder which was the greater abomination – Negro slavery, or Indian indentured labour. Broadly, there was much of a muchness between them in what was evil or good in each. If some slaves had bad and tyrannical masters, others had masters that were kind and considerate to them. And just the same could be said of indentured Indians on the sugar plantations and their employers. If one system was the “execrable sum of all villainies”, the other was essentially and in practice no better. The principle at work in both was the same; and that was, the exploitation of the victim to the extent that would get the most out of him in labour, regardless of any detriment to his health and general physical efficiency. In the case of the Indian labourer, it was obvious from many cases that had come to light that it was only fear of the law and its penalties that kept in check the tendency of many a manager or overseer devoid of humane feeling to give way to the same excesses that marked the treatment of the Negro slaves by their masters and slave drivers.

CO-OPERATION FOR ECONOMIC IMPROVEMENT

What I would like to see in this centenary year of the two races that form the bulk of our population is the inauguration for a combined forward movement among them aiming more definitely and more determinedly than ever before at improvement in common conditions and on a scale that would be appreciably more to their benefit than all the results of their feeble and spasmodic efforts in the past. To this end, there must be organization, and on a proper basis. The leaders of the two races must get together, arrange meetings, and discuss plans for the great drive. The people must ventilate their needs and set out their grievances in no uncertain way, both by themselves independently and through their representatives in the Legislative Assembly, as well as through the medium of the Press.

The leeway to be made is no doubt considerable. And the members of the two races have largely themselves to blame for this. There has been too much of leaving their affairs in the hands of their representatives in the Legislature, and of never taking these to task for laggardness in action or weakness in representation. It could never be too often told to our political representatives in the Legislature that they are there to look after the interests of the people who have put them there, and that any remissness of duty on their part will not be lightly overlooked. It is true that under the present system of Crown Colony government political representatives of the people have been shorn of much of their old power; but they are still as much as ever before at liberty to express the wishes of their constituents and to make suggestions for reform or improvement. At the same it is deplorable what a dearth there is of public spirited men in the legislature; men fearless in the expression of their views and championing the cause of the people; men capable of making constructive suggestions for improvement and development. Even with a Government devoid of political sagacity and constructive statesmanship, there is so much that a capable representative could do in advising and directing Government, especially in connection with schemes of development and expansion. And it is this consideration that invests with so much importance the selection of the right type of men for representative purposes in the Legislature.

So far as the people of the Negro race is concerned, I would like to take this opportunity of congratulating them on their achievements during the past one hundred years. Under a Government of broader sympathies and with a more comprehensive programme, and with a range of vision extending beyond the cane fields, how much more would not have been accomplished by such a hardy, pushful, dauntless and ambitious race! With their limited opportunities in this country and the scanty means at their disposal, their record in both the field of labour and on the higher altitude of intellect is by no means to be despised. Their great creation, the Negro Progress Convention, with its laudable objective – Negro solidarity and the general advancement of the race – symbolizes admirably their faith, their hopes and their aspirations; its offshoot the N.P.C School of Economics, started two or three years ago, is already giving a creditable account of itself.; and its official organ, “The Conventionist” gives promise of becoming in time to all members of the race, if adequately supported, a powerful auxiliary to the local Negro welfare movement.

SOME ATTRIBUTES AND MORE

“What of the Negro’s future?  He has Faith, Music, Eloquence” – a passage which I well remember reading many years ago in an article in an English magazine, is always recalled in association with the achievements of the race. FAITH, MUSIC, ELOQUENCE! These are certainly great attributes of the Negro wherever he be found. He has faith in himself and in his race; and this is his sustaining power in all the circumstances and vicissitudes of his life. The very conception of a local Tuskegee and the actual laying of the cornerstone in the Land of Canaan attests to this faith; the very commencement of operations without adequate funds and any definitely assured prospect of success makes the movement a remarkable venture of faith. Music enters into the very warp and woof of his innermost being; he has displayed it before amazed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic; and well for him that it gives him that lightness of heart and buoyancy of spirit that shields him imperviously against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Our Alyce Fraser Denny in song and our Ruby McGregor at the piano and the organ are in this country living examples of the wondrous gift that is talent in myriads of their sisters and brothers. And as to the Negro capacity for eloquence in speech, how often has it not been displayed in the pulpit and on the platform, in the forum and the senate!

The Negro with his hardihood, his courage, his push, his intellectual ambition, his faith, and his eloquence; and the Indian with his initiative, his enterprising spirit and plodding industry, his patience and persistency, his temperance and his thrift, his love for religion and his devotion to wife and children; what a wonderful combination they would make, what a stupendous influence they would wield in the full maturity of their powers in the general life of this country! What a splendid contribution they would make to schemes for agricultural and industrial and general and general economic development, as well as for educational advancement and the spread of cultural agencies!

My very best wishes go to my Negro brethren in this their Centenary Year of Freedom, and may they find the bounds of that Freedom ever widening out more and more into the higher realms of the intellect and the spirit.

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1. Here Ruhoman presents a simplistic and incorrect promotion of the notion that African slavery and Indian indentureship were compatible or equal systems of horror. He concurrently focuses on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ masters rather than the abominable nature of both systems.

2. A reference to the initiative of the Negro Progress Convention to replicate an educational institution in Guyana modeled on the Tuskegee Institute in the USA, an African American institution founded by Booker T Washington.

NB: Ruhoman’s photo did not appear in the original Conventionist piece.

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Nigel Westmaas is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College in the United States.

 

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Comments

  • Dennis Albert  On 10/24/2021 at 6:45 pm

    While bricks and stones were being thrown, the Portuguese became insanely rich. Even today, it’s Portuguese names which comprise of the billion-dollar companies.

  • brandli62  On 10/25/2021 at 9:30 am

    Given that Joseph Ruhoman essay was written in 1938, it was indeed surprisingly respectful towards people of African ancestry. I also agree with Nigel Westmaas commentary that Ruhoman is simplistic and incorrect in promoting the notion that African slavery and Indian indentureship were compatible or equal systems of horror. In fact I was shocked to read so and was wondering why he would do so.

    Overall, the best way to overcome racial divisions is to marry across the racial divide. The more the nation becomes a melting pot of races the less these distinctions make any sense. As a person of African, Portuguese, Dutch, Swiss and Jewish decent, race has no place in my life. And I am sure many young people with mixed ethnic background feel the same way.

  • wally n  On 10/25/2021 at 10:47 am

    It was coming along, but slowly, Government “edits” does nothing more than polarize the population, inter marriage/mix might be slow, but the fixture is permanent.
    BTW doc. not only do you come up with good solutions…this time you are a living example.

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