President David Granger: The Guyana Veterans Legion, Colonel Gomes and other officials and members of the Guyana Veterans Legion; Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; members of the media.
Forty-eight hours ago, across the way at Queen’s College, Briana Chandaband and Marlon Benn, the two youngest students at Queen’s College laid a wreath at 11:00 hours on Friday to commemorate the students and staff members of that College who died in the world wars – a wreath of poppies.
It is an old tradition and Queen’s College has the reputation, I think, of being probably the only secondary school in Guyana which faithfully on the Friday closest to Remembrance Day actually lays a wreath and could record and recall by name every member of that school who died in the world wars. This raises the question, why do they go on like that every year? Why? They didn’t know these chaps; they are complete strangers and all of that happened so long ago. Why do people wear poppies? Why do we engage in this annual ritual?
As you heard from other speakers, we meet on the Sunday closest to the 11th November because it was on the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918, that the Armistice was signed. The two world wars are very important in history to us here in the Caribbean and Guyana not only because of those who died but because of the unintended consequences of warfare. Prior to the First World War, much of the world was divided up among several great empires; most of them European Empires- almost the entire world was divided up among empires, but at the end of the first war and more so by the end of the second war, most of those empires had disappeared; had collapsed – the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Russian empire, the Ottoman empire and even now we are not quite sure if it is quite dead – it is in a form of rigor mortis.
The German empire, the Dutch empire, the French empire, the Spanish empire (it was dying a long time before anyway); the Portuguese empire – they were the first in Africa and the last out, but we in the Caribbean paradoxically are beneficiaries of the collapse of those empires and those empires collapsed largely because of the two world wars. They were done in by warfare.
As you know here in the Caribbean, 525 years ago last month, the 12th of October, eighty-eight undocumented immigrants landed in The Bahamas and over the years – over the centuries the Caribbean became the most balkanized region on the earth; even now we still have properties, territories owned by or related to or reflecting the empires of The Netherlands, France, Britain, and Spain.
The Second World War opened the doors of independence, completely transformed the globe. Two years after the war ended, India gained its independence in 1947 and what started with a trickle ended in a flood; then there was Burma, of course, Pakistan almost simultaneously and of course Guyana got its independence in 1966, but it was the collapse of the British Empire or the weak king of the British Empire, during the Second World War, which contributed to the fact that we are independent today; so in a way, the war wasn’t all that bad.
The High Commissioner for the United Kingdom has already paid tribute to the contribution of volunteers from the Caribbean who went up to England sometimes on their own; or, as the President of the Legion said, were recruited into the South Caribbean Force. Among them were two Prime Ministers; one became Prime Minister of Jamaica, another became Prime Minister of Barbados, but more than that in the second world war the RAF contributed by allowing a Guyanese, Cecil Henry Ethelwood Miller, to become Chief Justice of Kenya; actually, he was not really a veteran from Guyana and of course, Victor Crane, another RAF veteran, became Chancellor of the Judiciary in Guyana.
So many persons who went away to participate in the war came back as highly qualified persons but with a spirit of nationalism; so Remembrance Day not only recalls those who died, but recalls those who served and, of course, many of the veterans participated in the struggle for independence in what was then the Gold Coast and other colonies. When they went up to Britain, they said “well it is all well and good to fight for freedom of European countries, but hey, what about the Gold Coast, our own countries?”; more unintended consequences of the war.
You heard how the South Caribbean Force was recruited; many of the veterans who were part of the Caribbean regiment and here in Guyana they were recruited largely from what was then the British Guiana Militia, a force which had been established in the 1950’s by one of the most outstanding Governors, Laurens Storm van’s Gravesande, and which we have now re-established as the Guyana Peoples’ Militia. So we have a long tradition of militia service and it meant that at the outbreak of the Second World War there were already people in uniform who were willing to volunteer to serve. At the end of that war, many of them joined the British Guiana Volunteer Force and it is from the British Guiana Volunteer Force that the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana People’s Militia and through some of their recruits.
Today, we look not to the past but we look to the future and we are all concerned about the fate of the persons – young persons who as teenagers and young adults joined the defence and security forces to serve their country and they can see from today’s parade the number of persons in wheelchairs or wearing dark glasses is phenomenal. The plight of veterans has not eluded the Government of Guyana. When I was in Opposition, I promised and when I was in Government I fulfilled what I called an obligation to investigate the conditions under which our veterans live and work and this has been done.
I look forward, therefore, to working through the Guyana Defence Board with the Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana Veterans Legion and Civil Society to continue to improve the lot of our veterans. From those to whom much was given, much was expected, but equally we expect that those who have served will continue to receive not only the gratitude, but the support of the Government and the People of Guyana; so in this regard, I would like to once again congratulate the Guyana Veterans Legion and to assure the president I’ve brought my usual cheque.