For generations, a parable involving outside intervention has circulated in Guyana, formerly British Guiana, in South America. The story goes that soldiers sent in to suppress the independence movement fixated on homes flying red flags, believing them to be a sign of Communist allegiance. Instead, they were Hindu prayer flags. I’ve encountered this tale in a self-published memoir, in a yarn told me by one of the country’s former attorney generals, in speeches edging cane fields. On the eve of a tarnished independence, the local Hindu establishment did protest that British troops, looking for concealed weapons, were targeting homes flying the sacred pennants. But the story has gained the quality of folklore. Sometimes, it’s accurately set in 1964, two years before independence. Sometimes, it’s misremembered to be 1953 – a year that carries its own significance, as it was when Britain overthrew the country’s democratically elected government.
Hope had been sown earlier that year by an unexpected victory in an election that extended, for the first time, the vote to people who couldn’t read English and didn’t meet income or property requirements. With 75% of this new electorate casting ballots, the rhetorically brash, inexperienced People’s Progressive party (PPP) surprised even themselves by winning 18 of 24 legislative seats. Its founder-leaders were a cinematically attractive couple with Marxist leanings: Cheddi Jagan, the Chicago-educated dentist and homegrown son of plantation labourers who became premier, and his Chicago-born wife, Janet Rosenberg, a nurse by training. The premier’s charisma extended beyond beaming good looks to a chemistry with the rural poor that the Bajan novelist George Lamming described as “a fundamental unbroken link with the earth, with the people from down there”.
Rather than sedition or a Communist takeover, they were arrested for defying restrictions on their movements
Winston Churchill remarked archly on the PPP’s electoral triumph: “(W)e ought surely to get American support in doing all we can to break the Communist teeth in British Guiana … (P)erhaps they would even send Senator McCarthy down there.” In the decade to come, the US would act to thwart this perceived domino’s fall; but what the British prime minister saw as the threat of totalitarian communism was, in fact, an anti-colonial awakening finding its tongue in the language of global workers’ struggle.
A few years earlier, the PPP had earned a mass following by organising protests after colonial police shot dead five striking workers at a sugar plantation near the capital, Georgetown: the latest in a long history of violent repression of labour uprisings in the crown colony. The PPP began with the aura of a subaltern Camelot: its multiracial, largely democratic socialist candidates sought to represent the colony’s working-class majority, most descended from enslaved Africans and indentured Indians, and cast themselves as part of the rebellion against British imperialism arising worldwide, from Malaysia to Kenya.
Before 1953, political power had been the hoard of the largely white colonial elite, especially sugar planters. The firm Bookers (of the book prize) so dominated “BG”, as the colony was known, that the initials were said to stand for Booker’s Guiana. The newly elected government aimed straight for that supremacy. They mounted a challenge to the union recognised by Bookers, which they viewed as co-opted and corrupt. For 25 days in September of 1953, work halted on many plantations when the new ministers urged it. Already, they had angered the Colonial Office by repealing an “undesirable publications” law, which banned everything from Paul Robeson records to radical trade union periodicals, and another law barring West Indian leftists from entering the colony. Nor had Jagan and his party endeared themselves by refusing to send an envoy to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and by urging clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted as Soviet spies in the United States.
Their fatal move, right after the strikes ended, was to float legislation that would have forced recognition of any union winning majority support from workers. Modelled on the Wagner Act in the US, part of what the PPP saw as a “socialist New Deal”, it alarmed foreign investors, for whom Guiana amounted to nothing more than its resources. The summer the PPP took office, two oil companies, a gold dredger and a metals miner all cancelled projects in Guiana. A run on the banks drained coffers of $1.4m in the month before the Queen signed an order on 4 October 1953 to dispatch troops to British Guiana.
The “imperial coup d’etat”, as the late historian Colin Palmer described it, was a badly kept secret. Three days before the naval cruiser the HMS Superb discharged a battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Georgetown, the Daily Mail blared: “Plot to seize British Guiana, navy sending troops.” The Colonial Office accused the PPP, based on hearsay from paid informants to the police, of plotting arson in Georgetown, with its famously elegant wooden architecture. Meanwhile, those on the ground reported calm. The day before troops arrived, the deputy police commissioner told the Daily Mail: “There are no demonstrations, there is no general strike, there is nothing abnormal happening here whatsoever.” The American consul noted that the bayoneted procession of troops did not disrupt the march of the everyday. A cricket match with Trinidad proceeded, as did horse races and boxing. Children attended classes and played in the streets.
Yet what happened was momentous. Never before had the United Kingdom openly removed a legally elected government from office. On 9 October 1953, one of several Black Fridays in Guiana’s political history, the colonial governor, Alfred Savage, dismissed the Jagans and their colleagues and declared a state of emergency. The order banned political gatherings and made it illegal for more than five people to meet. Except for funerals, there were to be no processions without police approval. The constitution, which the PPP had in any case dismissed as status quo, with “more checks than balances”, subject to Savage’s reserve and veto powers, was scrapped.
Over the next four years, swollen ranks of police constantly raided the homes of the party’s leaders, seizing “subversive literature”. But none was ever prosecuted for arson, sedition or a Communist takeover. Instead, they were arrested for defying restrictions on their movements in a concerted campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1954, Cheddi Jagan was sentenced to six months in prison, with hard labour, for travelling from the capital to the countryside. In court, he proclaimed: “Today Guiana is a vast prison. Whether I am outside or inside matters little … Justice has been dead since the British troops landed.”
Those British troops live still in Guyanese popular memory. Every schoolchild learns verses about them by another jailed leader, the radical intellectual Martin Carter, who wrote his “Poems of Resistance” during his detention in 1953. Copies were later seized during a raid on a PPP print shop by the very troops these lines evoke:
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.
The dream the Colonial Office struck was that of a united, truly independent nation. British officials fomented a split in the People’s Progressive party, which hardened into a racial rift, which later caused scarring violence.
During the emergency, the colonial government gave rival PPP leader Forbes Burnham fewer restrictions, no jail time and tacit encouragement to lead a breakaway faction while the others were imprisoned. The commission investigating the constitution’s suspension suggested that its restoration depended on his taking control. By the time the emergency ended, in 1957, two separate wings of the PPP contested that year’s election: a largely Indian one coalescing around the Jagans and a largely African one coalescing around Burnham, the London-educated lawyer with oratorical flair and pragmatic politics who would rule for 21 years.
“(T)he heavy hand of imperialism came down like a ton of bricks,” says Eric Huntley, a party leader jailed for failing to report daily to the police. He fled the party’s troubles in 1956, ironically for Britain. The letters he exchanged with his wife, Jessica, temporarily left behind in Guiana, overflow with the ache of separation and the growing divide in the party. In 1957, when she ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the PPP-Jagan wing, she shared what she witnessed: “The whole country is preaching race. Coolie. Black. So the situation is disastrous.”
The parable of the misconstrued red flag was as true for 1953 as for 1964, when it was fact. It imparts a lesson about the tragic consequences of outsiders misunderstanding Guyana’s landscape. That year, there was a shining moment of utopian possibility in the colony, and the emergency fractured its politics in ways sadly still evident. The most recent election was resolved in August after five months of impasse, with racialised violence a spectre throughout. Significant reserves of oil, discovered by Exxon five years ago, have created stakes for the rest of the world. Guyana still amounts to its resources for some. For those of us who carry the wounds of 1953 within us, as the heirs of divide-and-rule, the stakes have always been clear and heartbreaking.