Over the past decade, Guyana has been stirred into a state of constant self-examination. The results, however, have been meagre and disappointing, largely because the discussion has been confined to the period after 1953, and to the personalities, failures and recriminations of that era. (1) There is a tacit assumption that only in 1953 did mass involvement in Guyanese political affairs begin, national political leaders arise, and racial suspicion and strife find expression. Guyanese history began a long time ago. Even the beginning of this century is an arbitrary and not entirely satisfactory point at which to take up the story of the Guyanese masses, but it does allow some scope for at least an interim examination of the Guyanese past in terms which are relevant to the working class.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the net result of nearly three centuries of varied activity by external forces on the Guyana mainland was the creation of a small society limited to the coastlands, to the production of sugar and to all that went with sugar in terms of class stratification and foreign exploitation. Today, the fundamentals of the situation remain unaltered, with sugar accounting for more than 40% of the revenues. Yet the old colonial system has its critics, the most serious of all possible critics—the working masses. It is the contention here that both the marginal modification of an entirely sugar-bound society and the hostility evoked by that society are to be traced to the years after 1900, and in particular to the period of the first World War.
In the economic sphere, the principal supplement to sugar in Guyana today is bauxite. At the outbreak of the war. a number of mining concessions were issued when geological evidence indicated that extensive deposits of bauxite were likely to be encountered in Guyana. The largest concession was held by the Demerara Bauxite Company, which was registered locally in 1916, backed by American and Canadian financial interests. The Demerara Bauxite Company built the town of Mackenzie before the end of the war, and early in November 1919, there was a Chronicle report that the Company had just exported 1,500 tons of bauxite—its fourth shipment. (2)
All Guyanese welcomed the discovery of bauxite, but there was a revealing debate about the role of American capital, when it was ascertained that the Northern Alumina Company of Toronto of which the Demerara Bauxite Company was a subsidiary, was merely a facade for U.S. capitalists. Primarily, the question was posed in terms of British imperial interests versus those of the U.S.A.; and in, fact the British government suspended the granting of mineral concessions in Guyana during the latter stages of the war, with the hope that British capital would give a better account of itself after the struggle in Europe had ended. But there was also the underlying assumption in the Guyanese press that local interests could well have been jeopardised by U.S. capital, and local entrepreneurs demanded the opportunity to be allowed to raise capital and take the initiative in the bauxite industry. As it turned out, the North American financiers and industrialists had the field to themselves. The Demerara Bauxite Company quickly joined forces with and took partial control of Sprostons, the most important engineering and shipping firm in Guyana at that time; and together, they came to dominate the Demerara river and a significant section of the economy.
Growth of U.S. Imperialism in Latin America
Stimulated by wartime conditions, trade between Guyana and the U.S.A. was on the increase, and imports from the U.S.A. were rapidly outstripping imports from Britain. Guyana was but a small part of a process of development taking place in the whole Latin American and Caribbean area. In Jamaica, the U.S.A. had gone further towards capturing the local market than in any other British West Indian territory; while in Surinam, it was also U.S. capital which had started the bauxite industry. This new U.S. offensive was a further stage in the decline of European influence in the Southern Americas, a process which started with the Haitian revolution.
The nineteenth century had already shown that European decline meant replacement by U.S. domination. This situation was being seriously discussed in the Caribbean and Latin America at the end of the first World War. The Argosy gave prominence to a discourse by an Argentine intellectual on the dangers that were imminent because of U.S. imperialism. All the British West Indian islands were particularly concerned that the British were planning to relinquish their Caribbean possessions to the U.S.A. The answer to this new threat, they felt, was a Federation, though curiously enough, this too was envisaged in broad hemispheric terms to include Canada. Subsequently, the hopes of Federation were dashed, while the fears that the British would relinquish their possessions to the U.S.A. were fully justified in every respect except that of international law.
Simultaneously with bauxite, the more glamorous attraction of diamonds was presented. By 1922 the diamond industry was flourishing, and accounted in value for one quarter of the exports of Guyana. Since gold had been discovered in 1882, with rubber and balata providing further incentives, and with bauxite and diamonds in the offing, it is not surprising that the ‘bush’ acquired a new meaning for Guyanese, and the habit of looking inland was probably enhanced by the partial breakdown of the traditional relations with Europe, which the war effected. During the war, people keenly debated the feasability of such schemes as a road to link up with the main Pan- American highway, and a railway deep into the hinterland, while an economic survey of the Rupununi was proposed.
The parallel with Guyana of 1966 is striking. The interior can be seen to represent in the consciousness of the Guyanese, an escape from the insular and colonial relations of the narrow coastal strip; and, incidentally, it is clear that the masses were taking the initiative on the matter. This consciousness, for obvious geographical reasons, is absent from the islands of the Caribbean, but it is not unique so far as the mainland territories are concerned. A modern historian sees the most characteristic clement of Latin American history as being its “El Dorado Spirit”, (3) and that spirit was perfectly exemplified by the Guyanese ‘Pork-Knocker’, as well as being shared by those who remained behind.