Academic interest in Guyana’s modern political history has grown since the release by the C.I.A. of its records a few years ago. Professor Stephen Rabe’s “US Intervention in British Guiana – A Cold War Story,” published in 2005, was the first study after the release of the CIA’s records; Colin Palmer’s book is the second in what is likely to be continuing interest in the history of Guyana and an enduring fascination with Cheddi Jagan, whose international stature in colonial political history grows with each passing day.
Interest is generated by the story itself – an impoverished colony, a small population, of no strategic value, a dazzling group of radical young men and women, with a charismatic leader, boldly challenging British authority, twice removed from office by imperialist intervention, are some of the elements which come together in the compelling drama of British Guiana between 1953 and 1964.
Much of the story is already known but Palmer adds new information, and redefines what is already known, adding tantalizing new questions. Palmer convincingly demonstrates that the policies and postures adopted by the P.P.P. in 1953 was reformist in character and scope, “tone and emphasis,” although “stridently nationalist…..the notion that the Guianese leaders were Russian puppets was profoundly misguided and constituted a gross misunderstanding of their nationalist aspirations.” It is doubtful that the press, mainly the Argosy, but the Graphic as well, was misguided.” Reflecting the fears of the ruling colonial elite and their “local enablers,” it created the hysteria of “communism.”
Governor Sir Alfred Savage did not initially buy into the narrative and was prepared to work with the PPP leaders. But something happened along the way. It could be that the continuing “stridency” of PPP leaders or their attendance at conferences of “communist” affiliated organizations, the unrelenting anti-PPP press, continuous pressure from the elites, all nudged him towards a change of opinion. But a strike in the sugar industry may have been the catalyst. In the end his dispatches seemed to have played a major role in influencing the colonial office to intervene. The American Consul General crtitcised the suspension of the constitution and blamed Savage for the misjudgment.
The Sugar Producers Association, with which Ashton Chase was negotiating, on whose behalf is not quite clear, offered to recognize the Guyana Industrial Workers Union for field workers and the Man Power Citizens Association for factory workers. This was rejected. On hindsight, it is tempting to speculate what the political outcome would have been if the compromise had been accepted having regard to the crucial role that Bookers and Jock Campbell played in encouraging the British Government to suspend the Guiana Constitution with the use of bayonets.
British Guiana was the victim of two coups. Palmer described the suspension of the constitution as one coup, and as “constitutional terrorism.” The hijacking by Burnham and his supporters of the 1955 special congress of the PPP in 1955, resulting in the split of the Party into two factions, and eventually the PPP and the PNC, was described as “the second coup d’etat that British Guiana had experienced in the commanding heights of its political system in two years.”
Palmer quoted a Foreign office document for evidence of British involvement in the split. “The split in the PPP undoubtedly owed much to the patient work by the Special Branch who deserve the highest praise for this achievement.” It explains that the governor “has at his disposal an efficient Police Special Branch under confident and experienced leadership.” Palmer concludes that “this is an astounding admission of British complicity in the acrimonious divisions in the ranks of the PPP.” He explains that the nature of the interference is not known and suggests that “it may have taken the form of financial inducements to dissident PPP members to participate in the coup.”
The hapless Governor, Sir Alfred Savage, did not survive. He was recalled in June, 1955, having lost the confidence of local elites, the colonial office and, more importantly Jock Campbell of Bookers, for failing to destroy the PPP. Janet Jagan, Campbell declared, is “a proved communist” and should be deported, “possibly to a Soviet country.”
The failure of the British to destroy the PPP, despite its sustained assault, was due to the popularity of the Jagans and the PPP. “The party identified with the needs of the people, thereby earning their support and loyalty, but never lost sight of its larger objectives: self-government and political independence.” While elitist politicians worried about the estate providing meals and sleeping accommodation when they went into the sugar estates to campaign, Jagan “together with his wife, had spent years going into these same areas eating, sleeping, and talking with the people, and it was this that had won him the affection of the people.” He said that they possessed that “rare but indefinable quality to obtain and sustain the abiding trust of the people in whose name they spoke……The Jagans had kept faith with their admirers, a quality that meant the efforts by the colonial regime to discredit them failed because the wellspring of their support was deep and suffused by a passionate, religiouslike fervor.” (To be continued) (www.conversationtree.gy).