The March of Ides
by Richard Rupnarain
If you have ever heard the warning, "Beware the Ides of March," then it's probably from the works of William Shakespeare. In the English bards play Julius Caesar, a soothsayer, said to be a Roman astrologer by the name of Spurinna, tells Caesar who is already on his way to the Senate, "Beware the Ides of March," to which Caesar replies, "He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass." The Roman ruler was assassinated at the foot of Pompey's statue that same day, on the Ides of March, which is March 15, 44 B.C.E.
Well, the title of this story is not a misnomer. It is not about the Ides of March. It is about the march of Ides. Ides Braithwaite, that is, an ordinary black woman from Golden Grove who tried to do something extraordinary to remove the PPP government from power during the turbulent days of British Guianas struggle for independence.
It was February 22, 1963, and the small South American colony of British Guiana was trying to free itself from the grip of its British masters. At first, the multi-ethnic nation of Blacks, Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Amerindians and mixed race peoples were all united under their local leaders against the British in the pursuit of independence. But the local leaders, being inexperienced politicians and experimenting with Marxism, an ideology that the West had vehemently opposed at the time, soon discovered that removing the colonial power was not as easy as they had envisaged.
The British, with the help of the Americans, whose president feared that if Guyana became independent before the US presidential elections of 1964, and turned communist, they could seize Reynolds Metals aluminum operation and other American properties and make the political results disastrous for him, employed the ancient war principle of divide and conquer to escalate division and strife in the colony in order to justify their continued presence and to deny it independence from the Crown. Little did the American leader know that the grim reaper had an appointment with him set for November of that very year. Nevertheless, the external forces Working with local anti-government Trade Unions and anti-communist groups and capitalizing on the fears of the people and the ruthless ambition of power-hungry politicians, the foreign powers sought the toppling of the PPP government by unconstitutional means and by pitting the opposition forces against the democratically elected government, mainly under the guise of fake promises and unfounded fears.
Ides Braithwaite, twenty-four years old at the time, was in full support of the elected government and its leader. Even when the party had split along racial lines, mainly between East Indians and Africans, she remained faithful to the ruling party and its East Indian premier. But as the British and American propaganda machine rolled in and began to disseminate news that the leader of the government was anti-colonial, anti-British and pro-Russian, and that his Marxist ideals meant that he was going to take the nation into the path of communism, she had a change of heart and joined ranks with the opposition PNC party.
That change of heart was due mainly to the perception of communism that was prevalent at the time. Like many others, Ides had heard stories of how the communists built factories and took away children to work in those facilities without their parents consent. She heard disconcerting tales of how people were starving in communist lands and how they had to line up for food stamps because the government was using the money to stockpile arms. She winced at gut-wrenching episodes of KGB executions and voiced her disgust at news of the exile of dissidents to Siberia simply because of their refusal to join the party or to comply with certain orders. Then when the UF, another opposition party, began to proclaim that the communists were was a godless regime who persecuted religious people unless they worshipped Lenin, Stalin and Marx, she made an about turn and from that time on viewed the Premier as an instrument of the devil who must by all means be removed from power. She did not want to live in a country where she was under continual observation, where she had no privacy, where she could not practice her religion, where she had to line up for food, where children betrayed their parents, and where she had no voice. She preferred to be poor but free, to have the right to make decisions for her son, to raise him to be a free, independent thinker who was at liberty to express his thoughts and opinions without being deemed a traitor. She believed in the pursuit of happiness, not by the dictates of a few men who believed they knew what was best for everyone, but on her own terms and values. And so she gave her unconditional support to the call for the Premiers removal from office and was willing to volunteer her service to that end.
To meet the demands of the task Ides felt it necessary to free herself from all domestic and emotional entrapments and so she sent her only son to stay with her father, a retired dragline operator who of recent was not doing so well, but who was very fond of his grandson and who seemed to come alive when the boy was around. The boy also loved his grandfather and relished the opportunity to stay with him, even though it meant he would have to commute to school for a few weeks. Strangely, both grandfather and grandson seemed to take an indifferent attitude to the civil strife that had enveloped the country. The old man, like most people, simply did not care to get involved in what he saw as a power play among white, black and brown people. All he wanted was a return to the days when things were better. The boy on the other hand, raised in the Anglican Church where he once served as an altar boy, just hated all this fighting. He just wanted to be to be able to go to the movies, to hang out with his teenage friends, to run errands so he could buy black pudding and souse at the street stall. But the volatility of the times had deprived children of these basic joys and kept them indoors when they were not in school. At least life indoors with his grandfather was not that bad. They played drafts and dominoes, made mauby and ate metem, and when they were tired the old man would enthrall his grandson with tales from his days behind the gears of a dragline. He told him how he was the best operator, how he cut a mile long ditch, four feet wide, in one day, and how he once dug up the remains of two dead bodies and helped the police with an unsolved murder mystery. Before long they would both fall asleep, victims of severe humidity and overstuffed bellies.
In the weeks to follow Ides, now freed from domestic obligations, rallied behind the major opposition party and its leader, who quickly hypnotized her with his passionate speeches and brilliant oratory and who eventually brought her to the point of veneration during one of his rallies when he shed crocodile tears and, perhaps inspired by the great black civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Letter From Birmingham Jail, confessed that his life was worth nothing and that he was giving it for his people that they might live in freedom and prosperity. Ides had never heard anyone pledge martyrdom for her and that made her feel special and from that moment her commitment to her leader was complete. And so was her disdain for the Premier. She swore that if it were to be her last act on earth she would have him removed from office, one way or the other.
But after years of covert and overt activities by the foreign powers and their local conduits had failed to destabilize and topple the Marxist PPP government, and after numerous attempts by Trade Unions had failed to cripple the country, Ides realized that the illegal way to remove the ruling party from power was not working as the opposition forces had intended. Strikes failed to immobilize the country. Bombs laid at government buildings and wharves failed to bring down the government. Even the infamous X13 Plan involving trained commandos, bomb-making experts and communications specialists failed to get off the ground. Personal attacks on the offices and the person of the Premier failed to dislodge him. The Premier on the other hand was inexorable in his determination to win independence for his country and equally resolute that no one but himself should have this honor. The opposition also wanted this feather in their cap and using the threat of communism and the prevailing instability in the country, they stalled negotiations for independence. At times Ides felt the momentum was on her side and she became hopeful, but then the government always found a way to push back the opposition, from retracting and amending bills to extending an offer to form a coalition government.
Presently, Ides began to fear that the legal way to remove the Premier was also not working and was not likely to work in the foreseeable future. After all, Indians had outnumbered blacks and the trend was likely to continue. The East Indian population was growing faster than any other ethnic group, which meant that in a free and fair election based on the current first-past-the-post system, the Indians had a lock on power. Ides frustration gave way to hope when she heard rumors circulating in her party that opposition groups were pressuring foreign powers to legislate a system of proportional representation, an electoral system based on the Sandys formula that would enhance their prospect at the elections. But so far nothing was happening on that front as the British and their American counterparts continued to wrangle over the possible fallout from changing an internationally accepted system of elections simply to remove a democratically elected government.
In early May 1963, Ides came to the conclusion that she could no longer depend on the British, or the Americans, or the Trade Unionists, or the opposition leaders, or the bomb makers and arsonists, or a fair election, to unseat the government. This problem was bigger than any man could handle. It required supernatural intervention. And to that direction she set her gaze.
Ides Braithwaite was born to parents who had their ancestry in the Gold Coast. They were deeply spiritual people whose practices were outlawed by the slave owners and replaced with Christian teachings from English missionaries. But Ides grandparents could never understand why the white man taught them about love and about everyone being equal in the eyes of God and yet the white planters treated them like vermin. The missionaries preached that marriage was honorable yet the white man split up their families. The missionary said Jesus came to set all men free yet the white man had them in chains. This contradiction caused her grandparents to view the white mans religion with suspicion. While they found the man Jesus to be intriguing and the story of his vicarious death for sinners poignant and meaningful, the atonement was in dire contrast to what the planters had demonstrated to them. And so, out of this paradox came a hybrid form of religious practice in which they embraced Jesus but not at the expense of their culture and religious practices. They would pray to Jesus and if he did not answer them they turned to the gods from back home. The religion that Ides received from her parents was this form of convoluted faith. She was Anglican and she was black spiritualist, and it was her connection to the latter community that she reverted to when things became desperate. And right now the situation in her country was desperate.
On the morning of May 12, 1963, after cleaning up the house and doing her laundry she grabbed a basin and a knife and took to her hammock under the house to peel some cassava and plantains for a metem stew. The skies were gray, heavily overcast, and the gusty winds off the Atlantic were cooler than normal. The children were in school and save for the sounds of wooden paddles beating laundry, and the occasional baby crying, it was otherwise quiet in the neighborhood. After about five minutes of peeling cassava she stopped the rocking hammock, rested the knife in the basin and stared blankly into the overcast skies. Her thoughts drifted to her son whom she had sent to stay with his grandfather after the riots began. What sort of future awaited him in a communist country? The boy wanted to go to Institute and study to be a draftsman and then later pursue a career in architecture but with the communists running the country he would have no such say in his future. The communists will decide his future and that to her was offensive. She gave him birth and raised him single-handedly after his father absconded to Bartica with an Amerindian woman, so who were they to take him away from her? The very thought of losing him caused her blood to boil and it was at moment she sealed her resolve to seek assistance from the supernatural realm.
But to whom will she turn? There were many gods who were willing to perform mercenary duties for a token offering. She had heard of the Hindu goddesses Kali and Durga and how they could do bad things to people, like breaking up relationships and causing people to go crazy, but she was not sure she could trust these deities as they were Indian and were likely to be in support of the Premier. She needed a god who would be empathic to her cause. And she found one.
When she was a young girl she heard many stories about the supernatural, about spirits, good and bad, from Africa, from Suriname, and from the hinterlands of Guiana. Her grandparents told her about spirits like Anta Banta who caused people to run down to rivers and lakes and drown themselves, and Dai Dai, the short and squat Amerindian spirit of the forest who was in charge of protecting the gold and diamond treasures of the hinterland. And her uncle, a pork-knocker working the rivers in the Essequibo region for gold, would come out periodically from the interior to visit his family and tell them tales of virulent spirits in the bushes such as Kanaima, Makonaima and Masacouraman who would overturn canoes and drown the occupants. She had also heard about voodoo and black magic but never ventured to learn more about those practices because they appeared to be dark and dangerous. In any event none of those spirit beings intrigued her as much as the one called Baccoo. The other spirits were malevolent but capricious. They had to be constantly appeased by offerings and rituals but offered no real guarantee of their service. The outcome was always unpredictable. The Baccoo, on the other hand, she was told, was a fair player who reciprocated favorably as long as he was treated well. Unlike the other warlike gods he was known to subject himself to his master as long as he was well taken of, that is, as long as he was well fed with an ample supply of milk and bananas. Besides, the spirit could somehow be contained in a small bottle despite its big head and chubby torso, making it easy to transport him across the border from Suriname, where he was known to make his home.
Added to all this was the cost of acquiring the spirit. She was not a well-to-do woman but she could provide bananas and milk without much strain on her meager budget. And for that small investment she would have at her disposal a powerful mercenary, with the ability to make itself invisible and execute its masters wish without question. Ingenious! Why didnt anyone think of this before, she wondered.
And so the plan was hatched and finalized. She will go to Suriname and return with the Baccoo and then she will proceed to win his confidence. She will buy him the best bananas on the East Coast and she would get him all varieties, from speckle bananas to fig, apple and Cayenne. And she would get him fresh cows milk from an East Indian man at Annandale. And she would make him a nice cot in her sons bedroom. Then when he was comfortably settled in she would explain to him the problems in the country and ask him for his help, not as a favor to her but for the whole nation. She will ask him to assassinate the Premier, preferably in his own house, while he slept. In this way they will get rid of the Premier and none of the opposition leaders will be accused of murder. The autopsy will show that the Premier died from a heart attack, an easy sell in those deeply stressful times.
The next phase of the operation was finding the dealer in Suriname and getting there and back without arousing suspicion. She did not want to ask her grandmother or any of her neighbors about Baccoos for fear of them asking too many questions. But as it turned out luck was on her side. That weekend, her uncle Charlie, her mothers only brother, came out from the bush to sell gold dust and a few nuggets he had dredged up from the bottom of a tributary of the Potaro River. As was his custom he went to Stabroek market where he sold most of the gold to Indian jewelers and then proceeded to the DIH rum shop across the street for a drink or two, after which he hailed a taxi and headed for Golden Grove. Despite the fact that he arrived sweet and glib, his hair and clothes unkempt, a slight swagger in his gait and the smell of beer on his shirt, he was still a welcome sight, more so because he always kept a piece of gold nugget for everyone, and especially her, his favorite niece. Of course, Ides never liked seeing her uncle drunk and always chided him about his drinking, but that particular day she did not mind it at all. For in that inebriated state she was able to garner from him all the information he had on Baccoos, including where people acquired them and how much they paid. She even obtained from him the name of a contact in Nickerie, a Guyanese emigrant by the name of Wilson, and directions how to get to his place. When Uncle Charlie had divulged all she needed to know he fell asleep in the hammock and she retired to bed with a smile. That day she had garnered something worth infinitely more that a carat of gold. She had found the keys to the liberation of her country.
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