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Dispatch from Berbice, Guyana

Posted on 23/05/2019
By Commonwealth Foundation

Bocas Lit Fest and Commonwealth Writers launched the Peekash edition of We Mark Your Memory: Writing from the descendants of Indenture at Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Moray House in Georgetown, Guyana, in May 2019. Anita Sethi shares her experiences of the Guyana launches and of Berbice in the blog below.



It happened to be ‘Indian Arrival Day’ when I arrived in Guyana on 5th May 2019, the name of the annual commemoration of the arrival of indentured labourers who were shipped from India to toil for the British Empire on sugarcane plantations in the 19th century as my maternal ancestors were.  It was approaching midnight as we drove past the gleaming black Demerara River which has long been used to transport sugar.


I was in Guyana as part of the Caribbean launch of We Mark Your Memory, an anthology in which I have a piece published entitled “Escape from Eldorado: A Bittersweet Journey through my Guyanese History”.

“Where are you from?” I am often asked.

“Manchester, UK”, I reply.

“But where are you originally from?”

When I attempt to explain this the glaring lack of education about British colonial history is often apparent – and it is urgent that we have greater discussion and that there is increased general knowledge about this part of the past to eradicate the ignorance that racism breeds. My piece answers the question, delving deep into British history in an anthology which commemorates the centenary of the abolition of indenture and shares the otherwise underrepresented legacies of indenture.


In Georgetown I participated in the lively launch event, reading from my piece alongside a powerful performance from the poet Mr Gee, followed by readings from fellow anthology contributors Kevin Jared Hosein and Gabrielle Hosein and a brilliant musical performance from Indus Voices (Amar Ramessar, Alana Warde, Tarun Daodat). The day after, I gave the nonfiction part of the Commonwealth Writers’ Workshop and was impressed by the quality of work, and also struck by the fact that there is a whole world of untold stories, and how urgent it is that they are told – it is crucial that events such as these craft workshops happen to enhance the capacity of less heard voices to tell stories.


It was the existence of that world of untold stories in places that are often far removed from access to literary organisations that made me want to commemorate the anthology in Berbice, too, the place where my mother was born and where family still reside, and also the first place in Guyana where indentured labourers arrived.


The morning before I departed for Berbice, I was honoured to have a meeting with the Prime Minister of Guyana, Moses Nagamootoo, at the Ministry of the Presidency in Georgetown – the Prime Minister was born in Berbice, in a village called Whim. I presented him with a copy of We Mark Your Memory and we discussed the collection, the wider literary scene of Guyana, and how writers such as our anthology editor David Dabydeen have done much for the literature of Guyana.  I also received a copy of the Prime Minister’s own novel which I very much look forward to reading, Hendree’s Cure, which evokes a world of Tamil fishermen who inhabited the Corentyne village of Whim in the 1950s and 1960s – a neighbouring village to my own family heritage.



Later that day I passed through the village of Whim on the way to my family’s village, No.57, also in Corentyne, Berbice (many villages have numbers as names), and I also passed through a village called Manchester – a reminder of my hometown many thousands of miles away from it, as I detail in my piece in the anthology.

In Berbice, I spoke on the local Countryside TV television station about We Mark Your Memory and the importance of discussing indenture and its legacy. The following day at the Tain campus of University of Guyana, I gave a salon about We Mark Your Memory, with a reading and discussion about indentured labour, which also included Dr Mark Tumbridge of the University who has researched the topic of indenture. What struck me most about the Berbice book launch event were the questions swirling around this part of history.  It was fascinating to hear from the audience members and participants the kind of questions at the heart of indenture’s legacy:  Why did they leave? What were the circumstances of life like in large parts of India at the time?  Were they any better off in British Guiana?  How difficult were the conditions in Guiana?  We discussed the problematics faced in answering certain questions due to the lack of written documentation, and I detailed my experience of visiting the Walter Rodney Archive in Guyana searching for my ancestral records only to stare down a literal hole in history where the page in the archival book was torn, as I have written about in my piece “The holes in history”. As well as looking into the past, the question was also raised: Where are we now? Where do we go from here?


My cousin who features in my piece in the anthology, when she accompanied me on a trip to the Rose Hall sugar estate, Canje, Berbice, was present at the Tain event. Commented upon was how much courage it must take to speak out about the true horrors of Empire and about the failure of the UK government to ensure adequate education about it in the British curriculum in schools which has undoubtedly led to the ignorance which can breed racism.


After the We Mark Your Memory event at Tain, Berbice my cousin took us to the newly established Indian Arrival Monument which was unveiled this year on 5th May, conceptualised and designed by Guyanese artists Philbert Gajadhar and Winslow Craig and cast by Indian sculptor Ram Vanji Sutar – it was moving to spend time there, among the labourers cast in sculpture, and spend time to think about the flesh-and-blood labourers of the past, including my ancestors.



Later on, I continued the discussion at my family’s home in Berbice, with those ranging from young children to my oldest surviving Guyanese relative who will be turning 84 years old this year, my mother’s mother’s brother. His wife has Alzheimer’s, making the topic of memory all the more poignant and showing just how urgent it is that we have crucial conversations while we can. The discussion was again filled with questions, and I was interested to learn about what the young generation are taught about the topic.  Some of the questions we discussed: who brought over the indentured labourers? Was it true that they actually had the opportunity to go back? My 13 year-old relative said: “I know that the Indians arrived in two ships, the Whitby and the Hesperus on 5th May which we celebrate as Arrival Day”. We discussed how different my journey to Guyana had been – no-one had been “stuck like sardines” and no-one had died. My 13 year-old relative also detailed how without the indentured labourers we wouldn’t have rice plantations, or “most of our dances and music we listen to such as tasa, chutney – my favourite music is tasa and soca and chutney”. And, of course, none of us present would have been born.


My journey through Guyana reinforced just how important conversations are about some of the most painful parts of the past – and only by understanding the past will we understand the present and be able to move forward to a better future for us all.


Anita Sethi

Anita Sethi is an award-winning journalist, writer and critic who has written for many publications including The Guardian and Observer, Sunday Times, Telegraph, FT Life & Arts, Independent, i paper, Times Literary Supplement, Granta and New Statesman, and has appeared on BBC radio. Her writing has been published in several anthologies and she is currently completing a book.

Website: Twitter: @anitasethi. Instagram: @anitasethi.