Celebration of the Enmore Martyr
Moses Nagamootoo, Keynote Speaker
On June 16, 1997 the Guyana Festivals Committee of New York commemorated the Enmore Martyrs at the Guyana Consulate in New York. At the head table were Consul General Brentnold Evans, Ambassador Rudy Insanally and Minister of Information for Guyana, Moses Nagamootoo. Mr. Fiyuze Ali of the Festivals Committee chaired the proceedings. Ambassador Insanally gave brief introductory remarks. Mr. Evans delivered a very moving speech, observing the developments since the PPP/Civic government took office, reminiscing on Dr. Cheddi Jagan and lamenting his loss. Mr. Mel Carpen of the New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Concerned Guyanese introduced Mr. Moses Nagamootoo, recalling youthful exploits in their teenage political ventures and their attempts to join the Guyana Defence Force.
Mr. Nagamootoo delivered a resounding address placing the Enmore issue in historical context and showing how it was relevant in the international scene, but more importantly, how it became the spring board for the formation of the vanguard party for the working people of Guyana the People Progressive Party.
Apart from asking relevant questions, he asked, "How is the PYO?" I found that very odd. A man of so-called distinguished military career, the Chief of Staff of the Army of Guyana, would be interested in a very small boy like me and a smaller organization named the Progressive Youth Organization. It is good to look back so many years, because it is linked in historical continuity. The things we did and which we should have done many years ago are the things we can talk about when we speak about the Enmore Martyrs. They were in a different historical period. Unlettered people, barefooted workers; and they too had ambitions; they too had desires; they too had yearnings.
There was a desire to create rights when rights did not exist in our country but had existed in other countries. When I decided that I wanted to become a soldier it was a desire I held, to enjoy in a nondiscriminatory way the rights that were available in another country, in England. There, it would be unthinkable for someone to walk into an interview and be asked about your political affiliation. The Enmore Martyrs were claiming what had been established in the "mother" country the right to join a Trade Union; they were asking for that right to be unionized and the rights to vary their condition of labor from what was an onerous system of cut and load. They wanted a system of cut and drop which was perhaps easier work loading entails another procedure of labor. They were asking this over one hundred years after the British themselves had secured these rights, and even longer before that the right of workers to join trade unions, the right of workers to vary their conditions of labor. But what is important about the Enmore Martyrs (and I want to remind you of the names of the Martyrs. It is important that we do not speak of them in abstract Pooran, Surujballi. Rambarran, Harry and Lallabaghee) They were five young sugar workers, all considered to be barefooted workers; what is important about the lives of these workers who would have had no other occasion or no desire to enter into history, except that the conditions of their lives had made them enter history as a matter of historical accident. It could have been five other workers who had been shot named Lallabaghee, Pooran and Rambarran, etc. They could have been named Richmond; they could have been named Evans or any other body. The name is not important. What is important is that they have become at the top of the mountain a fire that has led the way for an entire generation of freedom fighters. It is not their names, it was the act of rebellion, the act of revolt, the act of defiance, that have made them enter into history and into the heart and actions of successive generations of men and women. And what they did was not different from what had happened before. It is part of the tragedy, if I may say so, that men (and when I say men I mean also women) would have to die, as men were born to die. But very few men in history died and their lives have become models to emulate and to even do better. Our entire history has been one of sacrifice. Our entire history in Guyana has been one of struggle. If perchance you see today that red occupies the most significant part of our national flag, it is because red symbolizes struggle and labor. It is not an accident. It is not by chance that when the Enmore Martyrs were shot down one of them (Pooran, I believe) had been waving a red flag. It is symbolic that he should have been waving a red flag.
In school we read about Karl Marx. In 1848 the Communist Manifesto was written. However we may feel about ideology today, of how the world has changed, the Communist Manifesto is the first document that has called for the workers to unite. In fact, they can get rid of the oppressors if workers unite as one; they can build a new world of equality and fraternity, of sharing and justice. And one hundred years after, in Guyana, the workers of Guyana raised the red flag, the red flag that has been spoken about by Karl Marx. There is nothing undignified about what the workers did there. In fact even if you were to say that the red flag symbolized an ideology, there was nothing undignified about the struggle of the Enmore Martyrs because I know people want to look at struggle not in terms of what is achieved by the struggle but in terms of the color of the struggle, in terms of the ideology of the struggle, and that is why we speak in this way. It is because of the color red that there was every reason for us to be proud and to keep what Dr. Jagan always said: "to keep the red flag flying". Those are the words a refrain from the PPP song, the PPP battle song to keep the red flag flying.
But what the Enmore Martyrs did, cannot be isolated from what has happened before. In 1763, the Berbice slaves revolted against slavery. They took arms against their slave master. And at that time the immediate concern was not to unionize, not even for freedom. It was for food, for better ration because people are always concerned about their livelihood. They are always concerned about the condition of existence and survival. It was and is an important question. Everywhere, in the Caribbean you had revolts after 1763. In Barbados 1816, in Guyana again 1824, with Damon. First we had the sacrifice of Cuffy, then we had Damon in 1824 people who paid the price in ways that were more brutal and agonizing than these that were applied to the Enmore Martyrs. The Enmore Martyrs were shot in cold blood. Almost all were shot in the back, which tells you that oppressors are always cowardly people, irrespective of their color. They are always cowardly. Most of the great leaders of history Spartacus, they were hanged or they were nailed to cross. And that is why the leader of the Jamaican revolt in 1823, one Samuel Sharp said, "I would rather die on yonder gallows than to live under slavery". They knew where they had to go. There would be a price. There were people in history who had accepted the fact that the price of revolt was death, and death in perhaps more brutal ways.
But we had mentioned all of that to show that while conditions have been bad in our country, in Guyanas history, it had not always been a struggle that was linked for the final liberation of Guyana. The slaves fought in Berbice against the plantation. They did not have an ideology that went beyond the immediate improvement of their condition. Slavery was bad and therefore slavery must go. Better food was what was needed. The link I am trying to create was that in 1948 everything that happened before was one other blow against oppression, one other blow against domination, one other blow against exploitation. But in 1948 it was the first time that a proletarian revolt, a working class revolt among bare footed workers for union rights had been linked to a political objective of freeing Guyana from colonial rule. And that is the significance of the Enmore Martyrs, of the Martyrdom that it was an act that linked our country to the definitive solution to Guyanas problems. In Barbados they had a policy called the policy of amelioration. They fed the slaves well, they gave them suits, they took them to the churches the colonizers and they used that always as an example. Why is it that in all other parts of the world slaves were revolting but in Barbados, the Barbados slaves were not revolting? They used Barbados as an example to show that slaves could be docile and they could be happy if they were docile, and the masters would teach them the White mans culture.
The policy of amelioration was what the Enmore martyrs didnt want. They didnt struggle just for improvement in their condition. They wanted to link their condition to an association, to the right to join an organization that would continually advance their economic rights. And therefore Enmore is closer to what was ideal in struggle because very few countries in the world, up until that time, were linking their economic struggle with the struggle for political freedom. In Guyana, we saw, two years after the Enmore Martyrdom, that the Peoples Progressive Party was formed the mass based political party that was linking the struggle for economic rights with the struggle for political freedom. That is why today we cannot remember the Enmore Martyrs simply as people who were shot and killed by colonial police as an act of bravado, that they probably died bravely. They were killed; they were murdered. Their martyrdom was not what they willed. They did not go there to die. But for the Whites, for the Colonial plantocracy, their death was important to suppress an advance of the struggle. But they didnt prevent the struggle from advancing into the political sphere and 1950 was the beginning of the end of colonialism in Guyana.
I know tonight that we are celebrating the life of the Martyrs; we are not mourning their death. Walter Rodney had used a very prophetic epithet: Dont mourn, organize. And more recently, Dr. Jagan on his deathbed optimistically said: Dont worry, everything will be all right. Because it is struggle, it is continuity that will make such prophecy come through, come through to the extent that people are prepared to struggle, people are prepared to linked previous struggles with today's struggle and tomorrows struggle.
When Consul Evans spoke here, I was moved; I was touched that here is a product of the bauxite environment; Black people talking about the Enmore Martyrs as if Enmore Martyrdom had become a part of the Black struggle. In fact it is the other side around. Not that Enmore Martyrdom had become part of the Black struggle; it is that the Enmore Martyrdom had inherited from the Black struggle. It was a projection of the struggle that had started in the slave plantation. It was a refinement of the struggle, placing the struggle on a higher plane. As I said, placing the struggle as a fire on top of the mountain that everyone could now see. Lives have been shed and these lives should not be shed in vain.
When people talk about the radicalization of politics in Guyana and tend to go back to create stereotype of people like Dr. Jagan that they were communists when they came on the scene, (hence the suspension of the constitution in 1953 in Guyana, to get rid of the communists and the government). It is not that Dr. Jagan or people like Martin Carter or any one of those leaders of that time had said that "we were red". The color of their struggle had not been dictated by them. The color of their struggle was what anyone who wanted to be a credible leader had to don. In 1948,1949,1950 (Burnham came from England in 1949) he had to, if he wanted to become a successful politician, he had to embrace the Enmore Martyrs, embrace the struggle of labor against capital, the people against the plantocracy.
Every one of the islands in the Caribbean, starting with Uriah Buzz Butler, were revolting against the plantation in 1930s (they used to call it the hungry 30s); all throughout the Caribbean they had revolts, rebellion and strikes of workers. Every one of the leaders before Jagan in the1930s had promised that the first thing they would do was to nationalize sugar, was to expropriate the sugar industry from the colonialist. That was said by a conservative like Adams (Sir Grantley Adams) who worked later on with the British. He put on his manifesto in one of the early elections, 1935/36 or thereabouts, the nationalization of sugar which was the first priority of a labor government. That was said by Norman Manley and Bustamante in Jamaica when they formed a Party. They all ran to form Peoples parties. All the parties were named peoples parties, and all these parties inscribed in their manifesto: that they would get rid of the British domination of the sugar industry. So the politics was left, the color of it was red. People inherited slogans from the British. The British Labor Party was talking about Fabian Socialism. And when the people of the Caribbean sided with Britain, sided with the axis against fascism in 1939 to 1945 (the second World War) they all were fighting with the Soviet Union, the Red Army of the Union, against fascism, for freedom and democracy. That is why people in the Caribbean wanted freedom; they wanted democracy. That is what they fought against Hitler for. That is why the British told them, "join the army; join the British". Let us get rid of Hitler and let us build a new land of freedom and democracy.
So you have to link 1948 with this antecedent of ideology. That ideology was not invented in Guyana. People didnt choose overnight to become red. Red was the dominant color and any politician who wanted to succeed had to embrace some redness on his banner. So today, on the 49th anniversary of the Enmore martyrs, I think we have to be humble to this beginning of struggle. We have to humble ourselves to recognize that they were not great academicians. They did not sit down in a school and plot the course of history and the course of struggle. One thing they had was a desire for change. One thing they had that we are lacking in this period is that they crossed the line. They were told by the masters not to get past the fence. But they went into the compound and they were shot while they were trying to escape. Today we have a golden opportunity; but nothing happens in history unless you cross the fence. You could be martyrized but you can only be martyrized once. In Guyana today, we need to look at the example of the Enmore Martyrs, and we need to cross the fence. That is where we have to make history to be bold and courageous and take our future in our own hands.
After Dr. Jagan died we went to Linden, Sam Hinds (our new President) and I; and he made a speech that I will always remember. Ill share with you some of that. He was speaking especially to Black people in Linden, and he said that, "When I joined Dr. Jagan in 1990 and decided to become a candidate, people said: The coolie will use you; that you will not become Prime Minister." He said he became Prime Minister. He said that, "In seven years of my life I have become more than Ive ever wanted to be and more than I have ever dreamt of becoming. I became the Prime Minister and I became the President of Guyana." And he said that he was gratified and humbled, that by him becoming President required that some good Indian people, like Moses and Reep and others, to step back because they had been in struggle for many many years. He said, "I have crossed the line. I have met people here of good faith. I have met people here who are decent. I have met people who did not see color as the pre-eminent factor in leadership and I have crossed the line. Why cant you?"
The fact is that the Enmore Workers sacrificed and led the first blast that made the Empire (British) tremble. The world became so conscious of the brutal nature of the British colonial masters that they sent a Commission to inquire into conditions of the plantocracy. I think it was Boland after 1948. They came to Guyana and the world became sensitized as to the nature of exploitation in the colony. The fact that they sacrificed (they were Indian sugar workers) to pave the way for what we have inherited now in Guyana, does not mean that Indians must have pre-eminence, does not mean that they must become number one in leadership; but that the struggle of continuity would require that we share. The slave struggle, the indentured laborer struggle in the plantocracy and the bauxite industry all these struggles must converge into producing the best among Guyanese, irrespective of race, to take the struggles of the slaves and sugar workers forward. The fact that Evans here from Linden is referring to what we call the primal blast in the freedom struggle in Guyana the Enmore Martyrs is showing the emergence of a new consciousness in Guyana where Black bauxite workers are prepared to recognize the significance of Indian sugar workers in the struggle for freedom. And that is the kind of consciousness we have to promote in Guyana a non-racial consciousness one that is profoundly based on the understanding of our history.
In 1979 when the Bauxite workers were on strike in Linden and the leaders were imprisoned by a Black government (Burnham, a Black leader) and they were tear-gassed in their cells, sugar workers were part of the movement to collect food from the sugar belt. They were sending the food to Linden to help the Black workers. In fact they went on a strike in the sugar belt. They crippled the sugar belt in order to pressure the bauxite industry to deal with the demands of the bauxite workers. That is the kind of example that we need to look at when we reflect on the Enmore Martyrs, because Enmore Martyrs must not only become a talking point for sympathy: "The poor worker died, they shoot the worker, they lost their lives. . ." In fact it is not now become an occasion for mourning; their sacrifice should become to us a kind of a mandate or command that you could remember us or you ought not to remember us unless you do the things that we had desired to be done, to secure for workers a better environment and a better society.
It is therefore a happy culmination of the struggle of the Enmore Martyrs that we can build a society in Guyana in the post 1992 period, that holds out this partnership, that holds out the multiracial, this multicultural attitude and the nonracial consciousness; that we can recognize in our country so shortly after Dr. Jagan died, as if he had willed it, the two most important positions in Guyana the President and the Head of the Presidential Secretarial, as being held by Afro-Guyanese.
Essentially, people said that the PPP is a "Coolie" party. The PPP was born out of the Enmore struggle. . . the five Indian workers. . . . It took the PNC government 12 years to recognize the Enmore Martyrs after they got into government. We were going to the cemetery year after year; we had to seek police permission to go there to place wreaths on the grave of the Enmore Martyrs; we had to ask permission to hold meetings in Enmore. They (PNC) defiled the memory of the Enmore Martyrs because they felt it was a bad example if Indians were to be brought up on a pedestal of respect and honor in Guyana. So the PNC had seen the Enmore Martyrs as only recognizing the bravery of Indians and therefore, for racist reasons and political reason, ignored them. It took them many, many, years before the first recognition was given to Enmore Martyrs in 1976. In 1976 it was the first year that the government under Burnham recognized Enmore Martyrs. And therefore, the fact that we have come beyond the race thing must teach us that Enmore Martyrs and their sacrifice had never meant to be a struggle where one race predominates or where one race considers itself pre-eminent. Today, we have a government that can tell the labor movement: tell us what law you want and we will give it to you. We have today a Trade Union Bill, which was virtually written by the Trade Union Congress that is before Cabinet (it has been approved) where the recognition of a trade union almost becomes an automatic thing once 50% of the workers in a poll decide that they want a particular union. It is their choice. The workers must have the choice of their own union.
We have a situation now where we have almost made into a law that henceforth, since 1992, the wages of workers shall not trail behind inflation. While we are increasing wages on an average of 25%, in fact calculating between 1992 and today, wages have increased by between 100 to 150%. Not enough. One may say statistics lie. But statistics are also important to say that had it not been for the goodwill we would not have increased the wages as much as we had them increased. Inflation has been pegged now at 4.5% and real wages would be 9-10%, an overall increase in real wages. We couldnt give more money because the IMF said we cant give more money, this is your ceiling. We did another thing we said all right if we cant increase wages, we can decrease the taxation. Anyone who works today in Guyana for less than $18,000 a month is not required to pay taxes. You are taken off completely from the tax burden; so that you free up people from paying from the little that they receive. And we make it up also; in order to make the wages important we decided to increase the allocation for social services in 1992 from 8% to 18% of the budget this year. We have taken more money to spend in health, to spend in education, to spend on pension, so the workers dont have to dip into their pocket to pay for these services. The services are available free and we are trying to improve the quality of the services. Therefore, you see that it is because of the spirit of Enmore, because of the pledge Dr. Jagan has made to Enmore that this government as a labor government, as a red government, as a government of the working people, it cannot do anything else in memory of Enmore than to improve the lot of the working people. Therefore, that is why we celebrate today. It is an occasion to celebrate because the dreams of the Enmore Martyrs are becoming true. They are being actualized. These dreams have become a flame for future generations to be guided with a beacon as to where we have to go. We all have to go up to that mountaintop. We all have to go up to that red flame of struggle and achievement, and that is why today I am happy to pass through here as an itinerant Minister, that I can join with you in your celebration.
I have come back from a meeting of UNESCO I was very happy that Guyana has impressed the world. The achievements of Guyana are perhaps solitary in the world if I may say so. I am close to the United Nations building. You may check the record. But no other country in the world that has gone through structural adjustment programs has made so much achievement as Guyana, per capita achievement as Guyana, in the world. Our growth rate is 7.9%. Between 1985 to 1992 there was minus 10% growth rate in the economy, minus 10%. And now that we have reduced our foreign debt by US$1 billion (we inherited a debt of US$2.1 billion; now it is US$1.6 billion), we should be able to create some savings in the future to spend in the social services sector, to make our social services a model in the world. If we were to bring our social services growth to 20% of the budget next year, the international community will give us 20% more, (the 20/20 compact) to the people, to bring milk, and food for babies, and to the increase of our outreach sickness programs and the anti-malaria, program, anti-poverty program and so on.
Since the death of Cheddi Jagan, there seems to have been (in fact since 1992) there has been a renaissance in Guyana in culture, in art, in poetry, in music, in painting. Everywhere you turn in the countryside, among the Amerindians you see this expression. Art is synonymous with freedom. If artists are not free in spirit, they create nothing. What we have in Guyana is not only the freedom to build the economy by 9% or 8% or 7%. We have launched something that has no pricethe liberation of the spirit, the freeing up of the spirit and the recovery of our self-worth and self-esteem. These we celebrate because there were people like the Enmore Martyrs who paid the price, who signaled to the world that this country needs to be changed and they had given rise to the first liberation party, the PPP, and had ignited the passion of an extraordinary leader like the legendary Cheddi Jagan who lit the way for us to follow.
I share in the celebration today of the life of the Enmore Martyrs because they have given us a spirit of freedom which we must always keep and endure as we continue in the vein of their sacrifice. Thank you.
Guyana Journal, June 1997