(A review of David Granger’s The Independence Movement: 1946-1966.)
David Granger’s The Independence Movement: 1946-1966 reminds us that Guyana achieved Independence only after protracted agitation and agony. The book compels the reader to look beyond the prominent personalities of the immediate pre-Independence period of the 1960s and to acknowledge the contributions of the often unrecognized and unrewarded workers and their trade unions in earlier years.
The book is one of the few devoted exclusively to Guyana’s Independence Movement. Its publication enriches our understanding of Guyana’s complex and circuitous approach towards Independence.
Several academics have analysed Guyana’s path to political Independence. Most, however, have done so as part of wider socio-economic and political studies.
Clem Seecharan, for example, looked at Independence as part of his study of the sugar industry; Andra Thakur placed the microscope on Independence in his dissertation on race and class; Ralph Premdas examined Independence in the context of ethnic conflict and Harold Lutchman chronicled this process in his study of the country’s transition from colonialism to statehood.
David Granger’s The Independence Movement: 1946-1966 provides an expansive but enlightening overview of the antecedents of Independence, the political context of the struggle, the central role of trade unions and the emergence of cut throat communal conflict. It highlights, also, the performance of some of the principal political parties and players. The book is a valued source of information about a tumultuous period in the anti-colonial struggle.
The recording and reviewing of historical events are not without their biases. Attempts at a dispassionate examination of historical events often succumb to pre-conceived narratives.
David Granger wrote this book while he was the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR), the party which led Guyana into Independence. He has managed, however, to suppress partisanship and the tendency to confirm or contradict the two principal narratives of the Independence Movement.
The first narrative highlights the role of the original People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and its forerunner the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in galvanizing the anti-colonial struggle. This narrative traces the roots of Independence to the arrival in the colony of Dr. and Mrs. Cheddi Jagan. It projects Cheddi Jagan as the principal architect of Guyana’s Independence and dubs him as the ‘father’ of the nation.
The second narrative portrays the achievement of Republican status as being preeminent over Independence. This perspective is viewed as an attempt to de-emphasize the role of the PPP in the attainment of Independence and to give prominence to the Republic celebrations.
These two narratives have influenced the dual emphases being placed on commemorating both Independence and Republic anniversaries. The PNC administrations from 1970 to 1992 attached greater importance to Republic anniversary observances than to Independence. The PPP administrations from 1993 to 2014 attached greater significance to Independence than to Republic anniversaries.
The Independence Movement: 1946-1966 does not subscribe to either of these narratives. It is not written with an overbearing partisan political objective in mind. It attempts a dispassionate examination of a defining event in the country’s history. The book is assessed best to the extent to which it has been able to achieve an objective analysis of the Independence Movement. The book is divided, thematically and chronologically, into six sections:
Labour rebellion – identifies the labour unrest prevailing in the depressed conditions in the British West Indies between the two World Wars in the 1920s and 1930s as the primary antecedent of political Independence;
Political empowerment – connects the energizing of the anti-colonial struggle to the emergence and agitation of trade unions, political parties and ethnic associations;
Political violence –relate show civil violence within the colonial state galvanized opposition to colonial rule;
The Great Schism – discusses the impact of the split within the original PPP on the nationalist movement;
Self-government – interprets the impact of the introduction of a new constitution in British Guiana in 1961 and the colony’s unsteady steps towards limited self-government;
State of emergency – analyses the circumstances which led to communal insecurity, political instability and the decline into emergency rule and deployment of British troops;
Common Ground – examines the efforts to ensure a political solution to the most pernicious political problems of the day;
Constitutional impasse – describes the differences which arose between the political parties over the electoral system and efforts to resolve these differences;
The Disturbances – explores the origins of the civil violence which erupted from the first half of 1964;
The Advent of Independence – analyses the developments leading, eventually, to the inauguration of the independent state.
The Independence Movement, therefore, covers considerable historical ground. It was researched deeply, as David Granger would. The text benefits from a wide variety of acknowledged sources and provides information on a panoply of political parties, trade unions and other social organizations and individuals who were part of the Independence struggles.
As with all of David Granger’s books, it is succinct, simple and easy to read. The book is suited for all audiences, from primary school students to university professors. The book, however, will evoke criticisms arising from its uneven treatment and omissions of events, issues and personalities. It provides only fleeting mention of the tragedy at Plantation Enmore when five sugar workers were killed on the 16th June 1948 by colonial police, an event which was viewed as adding combustion to the anti-colonial struggle. The perspective of the British Government’s notorious suspension of the Constitution in 1953 is highlighted without regard to the perspective of the elected ministers. An examination of the efforts of the United Kingdom and United States Governments in undermining the British Guiana Government in 1961 could have ensured greater balance in understanding the ‘Disturbances’.
These deficiencies, however, do not detract from the profound and subliminal argument which the books makes – Guyana was a fractured nation upon the attainment of Independence. The task of healing this fracture and achieving greater ethnic and political unity remains the principal challenge facing the country.
The book departs from conventional narratives by giving prominence to the role of workers in the Independence Movement. David Granger has demonstrated compelling the critical role which workers played in the Independence Movement, particularly during the ‘Labour Rebellion’ in the West Indies in the 1920s and 1930s.
David Granger, since assuming the Presidency, has restored the celebration of Independence to its preeminent place in the country’s commemorative calendar. He was mindful to choose Independence Day, 26th May, for his ceremonial Inauguration after having been sworn-in as President ten days earlier on 16th May 2015. He had the honour, also, of being President when Guyana celebrated its 50th Independence anniversary in 2016 during which it hosted an emotive flag-raising ceremony which swelled national pride.
David Granger, far from deemphasizing Independence celebrations, has re-invigorated its national importance, including through this delightful and informative publication. The book reaffirms his conviction and purpose in ensuring that the antecedents, causes and course of the Independence Movement will not become a footnote in his country’s history.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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