« PrethodnaNastavi »
HOUSES PASTURE MULES
Cow COW! TURE
Chance! Dollar Chance! Me is thirsty thirsty,' cried a Negro as he put down his cutlass. The origin of this strange nickname was obscure, the overseer told me, but on the estate the girl's real name was never used.
We went on our way, passing an area of pasture where the excellent estate cattle stood with their inevitable companions, the little white cotton birds that hop on the animals' backs whenever they need a meal of cow-ticks. We stopped at one of the estate's new housing schemes, neat little wooden houses on stilts. Under the indenture system the estates were required to house their labourers and give them free medical care. A standard barracks type of building, known as a ‘range', was built for them. In most estates these ranges are still to be found, appalling tumbledown buildings in which people live in filth and squalor. The conditions in which these people live must horrify anyone who sees them for the first time, and one is tempted to attack the sugar estates for allowing such conditions to continue. But the truth is not so simple. In 1922, when the last of the indenture contracts had run its course, most of the immigrants decided to stay on in British Guiana. The estates no longer were required to house them and provide doctors and hospitals, but in fact they knew that to keep their labour-force they must do so, and the labourers continued to live rent-free in the estate ranges. Many of these people did not even work on the estate. Today 40,000 people live in estate-owned buildings free of rent, yet the estates (in 1949) employed 27,000 workers, nearly a third of whom came from villages outside the estates. The estates cannot be expected to provide free new housing for the range-dwellers for whom they have no responsibility, moral or economic. They would be pleased to take down the ranges, but if they did so there would be an outcry that they were inhumanly evicting the tenants. The story does not end there. In 1937 a rehousing scheme began and by 1946 41 per cent of the estate residents had their own houses which had been built with interest-free loans or with other forms of estate assistance. But still the ranges existed. Unlike the African the Indian looks after every cent he earns and many preferred to live in squalor which was rentfree rather than pay a small rent or repayment of a loan.
However much they were encouraged to leave the ranges they refused.
It was only in a Royal Commission Report of 1939 that the Government agreed that it had some responsibility for the rehousing of the sugar-workers, and in 1949 the Venn Commission Report said that 'there can be no peace on the sugar estates till this depressing legacy from former days is removed and we consider that rehousing should be given high priority.' It recommended that the estates should continue to house their 'nuclear' or key workers and the Government should be respon sible for the rest, whether they lived on estate land or not. The Commission said that a public loan of £1,500,000 should be raised to rehouse the 6,000 families still living in the ranges, but the Government did not accept the recommendation, saying that the rehousing would be financed from the annual income of £93,750 from the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund,1 formed by a levy of 10s. on each ton of sugar produced. This income was too small, so in 1953 the sugar industry diverted to the Welfare Fund £520,833. Between 1947 and 1954 the sugar industry has given £1,421,578 towards rehousing, in spite of the recommendation of the Royal Commission that the industry's responsibility is limited. To enable workers to build their own houses the Fund makes them loans, which are interest-free and may be repaid over ten years. This usually means a repayment of about eight shillings a week. The sugar industry knows that what it has done does not cope entirely with the problem, but it has done what it can. The danger of the new rehousing is one which the industry recognizes; large groups of people are being housed in clusters round the estates, people who are often economically non-productive and are thus tied to an area when it might be better for them to go elsewhere. Dr. Cheddi Jagan has accused the sugar industry of wishing to tie down a labour force vastly greater than its needs
1 This Fund was founded in 1947 and is administered by a committee of representatives of the Government of British Guiana, of the Sugar Producers' Association and of the Trade Unions. Its income is derived from a cess on sugar exports. The £520,833 directed to the Fund came from the credit of the Sugar Price Stabilization Fund, with the consent of the S.P.A. representing the sugar interests. With this help the Welfare Fund will spend £248,125 in the Colony during the period 1955-9.
so that it will hold economic mastery. Part of his argument is fully justified; that a redistribution of population is needed on the coast-lands and up the river, and that the rehousing projects are quite unrelated to the underlying economic problems of the Colony. The sugar industry agrees entirely, but-it saysuntil the Government has land available for large resettlement schemes there is nowhere for the enormously increasing population to go. It knows that the new villages of pretty little houses are potential slums filled with unemployed and near-starving people. Until the conquest of malaria and the rise in population which followed there was a need for Sugar to husband its labour, but now it has nothing to gain from a vast surplus labour force at its disposal; the move in the industry is towards more and more mechanization employing fewer workers— who will be well paid and provided with regular work.
We walked among the new houses; some were bright with paint, and others, belonging to less house-proud owners, were the natural colour of the wood. My companion knew many of the people we met, remembered them in some cases as children. He joked with them, and they laughed back, quietly and respectfully. One woman came out onto the porch of her house and hailed him in sing-song chichee accent, crying, 'You growing old, man, growing old.' We asked if we could come in to her house and she ushered us in with shy pride. There were three small rooms and a kitchen, all clean and shining, the walls decorated with coloured prints of Indian film-stars, the Lord Shiva, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and Nehru. I asked her what her religion was and she said she was Hindu. Christian prints appear in many orthodox Hindu houses. The Indians are reminded of their religious loyalties by a sadhu who is sent among them from India and by the regular visits of the West Indies Commissioner for India, or his representatives.
I noticed that nothing was grown on the plots of land surrounding the houses and I asked the woman why she didn't grow flowers or plant a banana tree. She sighed and said that was what they had hoped to do, but that their lease forbade them to do so. When later I looked into this I found that the tenants were forbidden by their lease to plant ‘bananas, plantains, coconuts or any trees detrimental to the health conditions of the housing area' or to build pig sties or cow barns on
the house lots. The sugar authorities say that this is done for health reasons, since the trees form pockets for the breeding of malarial mosquitoes, but the P.P.P. insists that it is done to prevent the people becoming economically self-sufficient. It is significant that Dr. Jagan merely makes this contention without providing arguments. The planting of coconuts and plantains in such a small area could not possibly take workers from the estates for long periods and Sugar can have nothing to lose from its workers' being able to supply their own cooking-oil or plantains. There is nothing in the lease to prevent occupants growing vegetables or flowers (the woman seems to have misunderstood this) and elsewhere I saw garden plots well sown with 'ground provisions'.
Sometimes my companion would have long conversations in 'village English' which I was unable to follow, and he would translate them for me. He treated everybody with affection and kindness, and it was clear that he understood the quiet, undemonstrative nature of the Indian. It surprised me when I learnt, some while later, that during the riots on Plantation Enmore in 1948 he had been seized by the rioters, stripped and beaten. The Indian native, though outwardly quiet, is essentially passionate. The 1948 riots were the last outbreak of violence, when five men were shot and killed on Enmore by the police. As we shall see, violence was narrowly averted in 1953, violence on a large scale.
My companion apparently recognized that he had been attacked only as a symbol of real or imagined oppression, and talked of the Indians with admiration. They did not, he said, save their cents for themselves; they were willing to live in squalor in order to give their children an education. If they were able to do that they were satisfied, but it would be all the better if they could also save enough for an acre of land and a cow. They lived on very little in order to save, and an Indian wedding was a parsimonious affair-in contrast to an African wedding, for an African prefers to live in sin with his 'reputed wife' rather than let her undergo the indignity of a wedding which is anything less than splendid. I was constantly to hear stories about the remarkable thrift of the Indian. An English Guianese who had been an immigration officer to indentured workers some thirty or forty years ago told me how a Post Office