Feb 06, 2021 Letters
Guyanese began migrating to England during the 1950s to pursue tertiary education as there were no post-secondary institutions in British Guiana. (UG was established by then Premier Dr. Jagan in the early 1960s; Burnham belittled the establishment of the university and even contemplated closing it down when he became Premier). Among the early migrants was young Sugrim Ramjeesingh of Ankerville, home village of legendary cricketers and politicians including Rohan Kanhai, Cheddi Jagan, and parents of Shridat Ramphal. Sugrim was among the early pioneers who journeyed to England, leaving British Guiana in 1956 in the midst of political turmoil as the British had suspended Guiana’s home rule. (USA and Canada were not considered favoured places for migration during the 1950s; Guyanese migrants left for USA in the 1960s and Canada in the 1970s after England restricted migration). Travelling to England up to the 1950s was by boat, a journey lasting almost a month. Sugrim told me it was a very rough journey by sea. Sugrim passed away last month and his remains were slated for cremation Friday.
Sugrim was a first or second generation Indian born in 1936 in Plantation Port Mourant (Boundyard/Ankerville). His father, Ramjee Singh, came from India as an indentured (girmitya labourer) in 1912. His mother, Sanicharee, was a first generation born Guyanese. Sugrim lost his mother when he was just 10. Till his death, Sugrim was among a handful of second generation Indo-Guyanese who were still around, and from home I learned about life of early Guyanese in the imperial country – experience of racism against non-White immigrants — problems to obtain a job and shelter, attend university, travel on public transport, etc. He related the difficulty of taking a bath during winter. Houses did not have hot water. One had to go to public places and pay for hot water for a bath, a luxury that was infrequently afforded.
Sugrim was the first among an extended family to journey abroad. He came from a very large extended family of brothers and sisters and first cousins (his three Mamu or uncles and lone Mousie or aunt had several children – some 25). The indentured immigrants passed away by the late 1940s and the first generation passed away by the late 1960s. Most of the second generation passed away by 2010. Only cousins, Math Dyal Mangru, Rickey Mangru, Bodo Ramjee Singh, and Betty Mahase are the remaining second-generation survivors.
Sugrim’s grandfather, Ghurbatore, was widely known and respected in Port Mourant and on other parts of the Corentyne. Ghurbatore, the labourer from India, acquired hundreds of acres of rice land and thousands of acres of open land for cattle grazing. Sugrim and his aunts, uncles, and cousins were known through the famous Ghurabtore of Boundyard and Ankerville. He and wife Amru left behind enormous resources for their children and grandchildren.
Sugrim was a product of the prestigious Corentyne High School (CHS) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was the premier high school in the county of Berbice. At that time, there were no GCEs, only Senior Cambridge was offered through Cambridge University. GCE was offered around 1959 through London University and later by Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Sugrim left for London in 1956 to pursue medical studies at a time when there were few Guyanese there. There were no tertiary institution in Guyana; those wishing higher education left for the UK.
Sugrim would be a first generation Guyanese in the UK, where he migrated, to pursue medical studies. In conversations, he told me life was very harsh in England. There were few jobs and limited access to housing. Signs were put up at various jobs site or rental places – “No Coloureds.” With its racism, living in UK was most difficult for immigrants and foreign students like Sugrim. Financial support was not very forthcoming from Guyana for foreign students. It was almost impossible to pursue studies in UK as a foreign student without a part time job; fees were prohibitive. Thus, many foreign students had to abandon their study plan and pursue work. In the latter years of his life, Sugrim became a successful businessman. He donated to religious organizations in London and Mathura, India. He became an ardent follower and supporter of the Hare Krishna movement in London. He used to grow Tulsi plants and shared with others at a time when it was difficult to obtain even in the cold winter. He came to be known as “Tulsi Baba.” Temples and families would miss him for his kindness and generosity.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram
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