President David Granger: Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland; Honourable Vice President, Mr. Carl Greenidge; Ministers of the Government; Members of the National Assembly; Your Excellencies of the Diplomatic Corps, including of course the Ambassador of the European Union, Mr. Jernej Videtic; Sir Shridath Ramphal; members of the Heritage Society; members of the National Trust of Guyana, members of the media, distinguished guests:
It started with three ships, The Pinta, The Nina and The Santa Maria 525 years ago on the 12th of October 1492. No visa, no passport, no travel documents, these Europeans landed in the West Indies 525 years ago. The greatest intercontinental population movement in human history started and the Atlantic seaboard states England, France, Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands led that movement. The Europeans from the old world embarked on this great experiment to create a new world in the western hemisphere in their own image and likeness.
Here in Guyana, Europeans have occupied this area of South America for 350 years; from about 1616 or thereabouts to 1966, and this evening we speak of Europeans as the Dutch, French, British and Portuguese. The Dutch of course, were the first Europeans to settle in Guyana and they established three colonies. First Essequibo and then Berbice and then later Demerara and Essequibo came to be combined.
lAs you know, on the 13th of August, 1814 as a consequence of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty or as was sometimes called the Convention of London; the three colonies were ceded to Great Britain under Admirals such as Pitt Hind. They were not interested at first, in settlement because the takings from piracy were much more lucrative than planting annatto or cotton, but eventually they embarked on a series of tragic wars with England called the Anglo-Dutch wars, I think all of which they lost, all three Anglo-Dutch wars; and they were gradually expelled from most of their posts in West Africa and posts in Brazil, finding refuge here on the wild coast of Guyana. So they actually moved from privateering to trading and from trading to settling, but they also introduced a corporate model and that model was enshrined in what you call the Dutch West India Company.
So in fact Berbice, and even Essequibo really, and Demerara to some extent, the main model at first was the corporate model; we were not colonies of The Netherlands, we were colonies of companies, particularly the Dutch West India Company and of course in other parts of the world, you had the Dutch East India Company, but maybe the model caught on and then you had corporations like Bookers and Demerara Bauxite Company and Sandbach Parker, which were huge corporations that controlled large parts of our economy and of course our territory. In those days, the states, such as it was, was seen as a protector of corporate interest rather than a protector of the peoples’ interest.
My remarks this evening will vary slightly from what President Ben ter Welle, mentioned in his remarks and what Ambassador Jernej mentioned in his remarks. I prefer to look at the intellectual heritage or the intellectual legacy of the European presence here for 350 years, and probably the most visible and one of the earliest is religion.
This year as you know, the world, well the Protestant world at least, would observe the 500th Anniversary of what is called the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his theses on a church door in Germany. And one of the earliest churches to be established in the Guianas was of course, the Lutheran Church named after Luther and we had the Moravians and these were followed by Anglicans, Wesleyans and Roman Catholics and other denominations. So I will say one of the legacies of the European presence here was religious and that was the earliest footprint and of course, there were other cultural legacies.
Guyana as you know, is the only English speaking country on the continent and of course, there is the heritage of literature, but being the only Anglophone country in the continent of South America has its advantages. Of course the Foreign Minister would tell you that when we went to a certain Head of State he kept quoting Shakespeare about Perfidious Albion. I think that in one conversation he said Perfidious Albion three times so I know that he was a lover of English literature; I think the quotation came from Shakespeare so I think this is one of the legacies of the European presence.
More important I believe, in speaking about this European-Guyanese history or European-Guyanese heritage is the impartation or inculcation of ideas and one of the most important ideas was the idea that citizens actually had fundamental rights. And this was a legacy of the enlightenment because of course, when the colonies were established ideas such as the rights of man were unknown, unheard of and this came from the French Revolution, but it was Haiti which brought those values into the Caribbean with its cries of liberté, égalité, fraternité and up to now in our Caribbean studies in our Caribbean history the Haitian Revolution is studied as a separate topic apart from everything else because we regard the Haitian Revolution as being the vehicle, which transmitted those ideas into the rest of the Caribbean. In fact, after the Haitian Revolution the whole imperial project was basically doomed to fail. So we have great respect for what took place in Haiti during that 5000-day war. It had a direct impact on the Guyana colonies because we had a major revolt in 1796 in West Demerara, which is directly inspired the French Revolution.
Of course as Ben [ter Welle] would tell you, the French Revolution had another impact, that is the creation of the Batavian Republic and this created some disturbances in Demerara as well because we had two factions among the Dutch people in the Guyana colonies at the same time; those who supported the revolutionaries and those who supported the House of Orange, I think.
So the impact of the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution helped to stir the desire among the enslaved population of the Guyana colonies to demand their freedom and after that, even though there was a great revolt in 1763; revolts were more frequent, leading of course, to the revolt of 1823 and finally Emancipation, but the implantation of those ideas of the enlightenment was a significant contributor to the actual Emancipation of Africans in this country.
Another idea that took root here, a European idea I would call it, was the idea of constitutional government. One of the oldest buildings in the country up to now and you would see the photograph in the book is something called the Court of Policy, which of course, is a sort of proto-national assembly. Of course it was only for the planters at that time, but there on the Flaggen Island, what we call Fort Island, is this building, perhaps the most iconic building in Guyana’s history, that there for over 250 years was an assembly of people regarded as citizens who could come together and decide how the colonies would be administered. So that is in a sense, the mother of our parliament, the Court of Policy.
So it is a European legacy – the Court of Policy and of course, it was the light of the court of justice – and those of you who are familiar with Guyanese history would know that this Court of Policy gave the British rulers a lot of headaches after 1814 because the planters held on to their rights, which they had inherited under the Treaty of London and they were frequently in conflict with the Governor, a situation not dissimilar from today.
But we also learned from the British at least in the later colonial period, the importance of having regular elections. So in terms of constitutional government, I would say that is one of the legacies of the European era. And there is the rule of law – the very idea that all citizens should be regarded as being equal under the law and in fact the ubiquity of law courts up to the present time, there are many places where there are no law courts, where citizens do not have recourse to the law when they have been wronged, either by their neighbours or by the state or even by a foreign government, so this is one of the legacies. And of course, there is the expectation that only fit and proper persons, if I could be allowed to use such an expression, could be appointed to lead independent institutions such as the ombudsman or the elections commission or the judiciary. This is an important legacy which we must assert and maintain. And of course the education – in the colonial period it was the church, the Christian churches largely, not the government, which led the way for public education. The Congregationalists particularly, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Moravians, the Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, these all implanted what we came to appreciate as universal denominational education, and even now education is still seen as a right. In fact, it is still embedded in our Constitution.
So by and large the buildings are okay and the forts, but I feel that the implantation of ideas has been a very important part of our heritage for which we are grateful to the European presence. Those are some of the good things. So this evening ladies and gentlemen, your excellencies, I am happy to be present to attend this ceremony here, which marks the handing over of these books, the launching of this important book, particularly, I must thank Ben [ter Welle] who has been an indefatigable servant of the History Society, and of his work not only in heritage, but also in the environment.
I think the book documents not just the establishment of physical and concrete structures; it doesn’t only tell the story of the coming of the people but most important, it tells the story of ideas. So I welcome this publication, Aspects of the European-Guyanese Heritage. It is a reminder of the legacy of the European presence in Guyana, but also it’s a story of continuity that we, Guyanese, have chosen not to throw out some of the ideas which we inherited and to that extent I feel that Guyana is a good place for Europeans from The Netherlands to live.
This book brings into perspective also a particular Guyanese quality of multiculturalism that the colonial era brought; people from Europe, from Asia, from Africa and we met of course the Indigenous people, and our multiculturalism is an asset and we feel that in a way, although this was not a deliberate act of policy – people just wanted to get cheap sugar – but it created a unique society from which we learned not only to be tolerant, but to love each other and to appreciate the various unique talents and the qualities of various ethnic groups, other religious groups. Sometimes when you look around the world you see how blessed we are that you can actually see a masjid next to a mandir next to a church and not think of burning it down.
So I do believe that this understanding of our colonial past will instruct us to better understand the issues which face us in the future, particularly as we seek to develop and commit to a more cohesive society, a more socially cohesive society.
Allow me therefore, to congratulate the Guyana Heritage Society, of which I was once a member, and at the time of my presidency I think we were able to select the logo which was a Dutch ship called the Den Arent, which actually I think is the model of one of the first Dutch ships to come into Guyana’s waters and it is now the logo of the Heritage Society.
I’d like to thank the Trust for collaborating with the Heritage Society and thank the Commission of the European Union in Guyana and the three have worked together to produce this excellent book. I think that it is not only a fitting tribute to the celebration or the commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago that the European Union should have collaborated, but also to Guyana’s Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence but also the hundredth anniversary of the abolition of that other British invention, indentured immigration to Guyana.
So congratulations all around and I hope that this book is bought and given to your children so they could understand where we have come from so much that they could appreciate better where we need to go.