By Annesha Das Gupta
Heard of Guyana? It is a country in South America, bordered by Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. Spread over an area of 83,000 square miles, Guyana has a population of approximately 750 thousand (7.5 Lakh). 43 percent of population is formed by people of East Indian ancestry (Indo-Guyanese), followed by Afro-Guyanese ancestry who form about 30 % of the population.
Wismar is a locality in Guyana.
Wismar massacre culminated on the day of 26th May, 1964. This date is special for the people of Guyana, as it is celebrated by them as the Guyana Independence day. Though there is another side to this coin, rather a dark one. Something which was kept well-hidden, for almost four decades, in the archives of the Guyana Government and also in the minds of the Indo-Guyanese.
Yes, the side which denotes the day of the Wismar massacre. A day when more than 3000 Indo-Guyanese where murdered, severely injured, burned and raped by 18000 of the African population. An incidence, which the African government continue to deny.
This article is constructed by garnering and processing through the sources available on the internet. Especially from the blog known as Guyana under Siege. In the blog, one will find the Wismar Report prepared back in the days of 1964 under the order of the then British Guiana governor, Sir Richard Luyt.
The surprising part is that the report saw the light of the day as late as 2004 and was published by GNI Publications. It took special effort of Dr. Odeen Ismael, who was the former historian-ambassador for the government of People’s Progress Party, though the report is only available online.
Another thing is that one will not be able to secure much resource on the topic, no matter how much they trawl through the cyber world. Perhaps, it is not as astonishing as it sounds after all the histories are always written by the victorious ones.
How? One will ask.
Because sometimes battles are won and sometimes they are not. And the one who lose, do not often get to tell their side of the tale.
The Wismar Massacre
Wismar and Christianburg were the villages where the bauxite mining communities used to live, surrounding the region of the upper Demarara River. It was mixed community where both the members of the Indo-Guyanese and African-Guyanese used to reside. With the population for the Afro-Guyanese being as high as 90%.
Unrest started growing up in the month of May, 1964 around the areas of Wismar, Christianburg and Mackenzie. The workers in the sugar industries started holding strikes, demanding the recognition of the workers as bargaining agents. And it is known that the strikes were initiated by Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (G.AW.U).
The committee who were responsible for the preparation of the Wismar Report regarded these strikes as essential to include in their report because the participants in those strikes were segregated as East-Indians who mostly supported People’s Progress Party by Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan, whereas the African majority were on the side of People’s National Congress of Mr. Forbes Burnham. Therefore, indicating a racial as well as a political tension.
While in the beginning the strikes were of a more peaceful nature, it did evolved into a violent one as clashes started between the strikers and the non-strikers, with the Africans being employed as the strike breakers. Some people were killed incidentally and both the sides claim them as their very own ‘martyrs’.
Later these clashes intensified into a pandemonium which took part in the greater portions of the East and the West coasts of Demerara. On 21st May, an African couple, were killed when a bomb hit their house. After that the situation went out of hand and a state of emergency was declared after three days.
The massacre in the Wismar-Chistianburg and Mackenzie area lasted for a total of 38 hours; between 24th May, Sunday to 26th May, Tuesday – 1964.
According to the committee, over 230 Indo-Guyanese homes and houses were destroyed, a person was even set on fire. Mr. Ramajjattan, a supporter of the PPP was found decapitated and a 15-year old girl was raped and apart from receiving physical injuries, went through a terrible mental shock. The thing is that these are just some of the instances mentioned among hundreds which have gone uncounted. The Africans who took part in the violence entered into the houses of the Indians hitting and molesting them while they shouted “kill de coolies”.
The people, who managed to escape from their villages, remained hidden in the forests nearby. Unfortunately, the African mob followed them are hunted them down like animals. In the process over 1500 people became homeless.
In the following days of 26th, 27th and 28th May, more than 500 of the Indo-Guyanese came out from their hidings in the forest and were taken to the refugee camps in Georgetown.
Two river streamers were commissioned by the government to take the first batch of the Indo-Guyanese to Georgetown where the Africans pelted them with bricks, jeered and used shabby language at them, on their arrival. About 300 of the total number of Indians found shelters with their relatives while the rest had to sleep on the concrete floor of the pier warehouse.
Seventy-five members of the Mackenzie Police and Volunteer force, who were all Africans, did not take any step to prevent the massacre. Even some of them were found to have themselves being part of the looting, beating and killing of the Indo-Guyanese. The volunteers did not help in any way to stop two women from being raped and they were ultimately saved by the members of DEMBA. In other instance, a young East-Indian was shot when he refused to go by their command.
The committee for the Wismar report, concluded that the disturbances were politically and racially inspired and that it was be said to be a pre-planned massacre.
Aftermath to the present
As mentioned by the committee themselves, hardly anything was done by the Police and Volunteer force and the British troops arrived late in the evening when all over 3000 Indians were evacuated and most of them were re-settled in the coastal areas.
Whereas, on 6th July in the same year a passenger launch named the Sun Champ which was en route from Georgetown to Mackenzie was hit by a huge explosion killing about 36 Afro-Guyanese. This incident was assumed by some Africans, to have the hands of East-Indians behind it. They became enraged and attacked the community, injuring many and killing about 5 people.
Mrs. Janet Jagan, who was then the Minister of Home Affairs resigned from her position concerning the atrocities that has been done. She stated of the non-corporation from the Commissioner of Police, Mr. Owen, who did not follow her orders that were given early on 25th May for reinforcement and the dispatching of the British troops to the areas for the protection of life and property.
In the contemporary times, as mentioned by Rakesh Rampertab, editor of the blog, Guyanese under Siege, mentions a quote where it is cited that the descendants of the Indo-Guyanese people who were involved in the massacre refused to even pass on the information to the other generations either vocally or as a written record.
Though not every part, of it is true. In the recent era some of the people have been seen to write to the newspapers demanding the reimbursement or the compensation to the victims who have gone through such violent times. They want the African government to confess and open up the files on the massacre which have been a well-guarded secret for so many years.
Rampertab, also talks about how Mackenzie was renamed to Linden by Burnham. He cited that Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, named the town after himself to mark it as his greatest political victory. He intended to stamp the massacre and show off his superiority. Burnham also made 26th May, 1966 as the Independence Day for Guyana. In reality, he wanted to register his own name on the massacre and sent a message to anyone from the Indo-Guyanese community who will dare to challenge him, will receive the same fate as that of the Wismar massacre. It is further mentioned that the whole event was used as a tool of racial violence by Burnham’s PNC and Peter D’ Aguiar’s UF to bring down Dr. Jagan’s PPP, exactly when it was at its zenith.
Therefore, the quote from Mr. Raymond Ali might perhaps ring as true in one’s ear:
“The massacre of Indo-Guyanese in Wismar and Christianburg has remained a well-hidden and well-guarded secret. Not only have Guyanese failed to record and seriously document part of our history but also the older generation of Indo-Guyanese have not passed on this information even orally. Up to today there is no accurate figures on the number of Indo-Guyanese that died during the Wismar massacre”.