By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
Guyana’s 55th Independence Day can be celebrated with a look back at the history of Guyana, and its promising future in the oil industry.
Guyana’s recent oil discoveries have put the nation at a fork in the road, with one path leading towards riches, and one path leading towards unrest. The new government would therefore benefit from analyzing the effect of oil on several Middle East countries to ensure that Guyana remains independent from unjust foreign interference.
El Dorado is a tale about gold. There are several versions (some about a king cloaked in gold and some about a golden city) and many theories about where it all took place. One “eyewitness” account placed a city of gold in Guyana. The famous British explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, led four excursions to the treacherous Guyana jungles in hopes of finding this city of gold.
Raleigh came across a written account of a captured Spaniard while Raleigh was in Trinidad. The Spaniard claimed that he was captured by an Amerindian tribe in Guyana and taken deep into the jungle. The tribe led him to what seemed like a bustling site in the middle of an uncharted frontier. It was as if the tribe created a city made entirely of gold. The Spaniard escaped but the only reference point that he could relay was that there was supposedly a large lake nearby. Raleigh never found El Dorado and he lost many years, and even his son, in his quest to find it.
The Middle East
Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran are unique but there are underlying similarities that Guyana should note.
Afghanistan was part of an original cradle of civilization (the Indus Valley), and also sits on at least 3 billion barrels of oil formed millions of years ago. During its ancient and medieval times, the region saw many dynasties, several conquests, flourishing trade, and cultural and religious changes. The modern era is marked by war and outside influence from Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power, oppressed dissidents, allied with the Soviets, and fought against guerilla mujahideen. The mujahideen were covertly trained by the United States and Pakistan. In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to stabilize the unrest. The United States and Pakistan continued to support the mujahideen rebels with cash and weapons. The Soviets withdrew but, in 1994, the Taliban emerged as a rebel militia of students aided by the Pakistani government. In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to surrender Osama Bin Laden. The United States joined the Northern Alliance and eventually overthrew the Taliban.
Iraq, too, has a deep history. The Sumerian era is credited as producing the first writing system, among many other firsts. Iraq was part of the Babylon, Assyrian, and Ottoman empires. Baghdad became the largest multicultural city in the Middle Ages until the Mongols burned down the city and destroyed the library. Iraq gained independence from the British and overthrew its own monarchy in 1958 to create a republic. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States intervened (the First Gulf War) because of the war’s effect on oil prices, and the Iraqi armed force was severely destroyed. In March 2003, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq based on false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Coalition Provisional Authority was then established but the nation remained in post-invasion disorder. In the summer of 2003, an insurgency against U.S. troops began and jihadist terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) formed. Though all U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011, a civil war erupted in 2014 due to ISIL’s rise.
Lastly, Iran’s history begins in the ancient Lower Paleolithic times. Ancient Greek writings referred to the Iranian province of Persia but the name “Persia" persisted and is often used culturally in reference to the whole country. Iran is actually one of the largest countries in the world with 83 million residents, and like Iraq, it was part of the Assyrian Empire. During WW2, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt issued a declaration for postwar Iranian independence and boundaries, but Soviet troops remained until Iran granted it oil concessions. Iran then nationalized its petroleum and oil industry. However, the United States quickly participated in a covert operation to overthrow the government. On January 3, 2020, Iran’s revolutionary guard Qasem Solemani was assassinated by the United States in Iraq. Some thought the assassination would lead to a world war. Of importance, Iran’s gas supply is the largest in the world and its oil reserves are the third largest.
History of Guyana
Guyana is located on the northern tip of South America, between Venezuela and Suriname, and north of Brazil. The Caribs, Akawois, and Arawaks were the most populous and most powerful natives, known as Amerindians. The Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize the area. After that, there were shifts in the reign between the British and the French. Britain ultimately prevailed and ruled “British Guiana” (as Guyana was known during that time) for over a century.
The British colonized Guyana in order to capitalize off of its sugar. To do this, they first enslaved Africans to labor in the fields. It is estimated that nearly 2 million Africans were enslaved in the Caribbean from 1651 to 1807. However, the date that the first Africans arrived in Guyana is unknown. It is believed that the Dutch imported the first enslaved Africans in the 1600s. Their labor was the vital aspect of the sugar trade hierarchy.
The British ended slavery in the 19th century and replaced it with a system of indentured servitude. The British began importing Chinese labourers for a short period and eventually began importing Indians. The Indians were told that they would work for a certain period of time and then return home to India. In reality, the inhumanity of indentured servitude was not much different than slavery. After importing hundreds of thousands of indentured workers to Guyana, the British ended this system because it was no longer profitable. Many Indians remained and formed the majority of Guyana’s population.
One lasting effect of British reign was that it created and promoted racial tensions between Africans and Indians.
Africans in Guyana
The enslaved Africans continuously rebelled against their inhumane conditions. One of the most well-known revolts was led by Cuffy. Cuffy was a Guyanese slave from West Africa and laboured in Berbice. On February 23, 1763, there was an uprising in a nearby plantation. The uprising gained momentum and spread to several plantations. Cuffy became the leader of the rebels and led a revolt that lasted several months.
It is remarkable that Cuffy and his runaway slaves were able to resist capture and hold their ground for such an extended time against the Dutch soldiers (which outnumbered the rebels) and the soldiers’ artillery.
When the slave trade ended, many Africans formed their own villages and/or relocated to the interior of the country.
Indians in Guyana
While written historical data on Africans and Indians in Guyana is limited, there is arguably more accessible information on Indian indentured servitude compared to African slavery.
The Indians in Guyana can trace their history back 30,000 years to the beginning of human civilization (as one of the three cradles of civilization was Southern India). Emperors and kings reigned over distinct regions in India. With time, the Indian culture began to share certain commonalities.
In the 16th century, the Mughal Empire ruled. The emperors were direct descendants of the infamous Ghengis Khan. They did not impose Islam and the locals were free to continue their native practices. The relatively peaceful empire allowed the arts to flourish with a mix of Persian and Indian aspects.
Modern India began when the British defeated the Mughals and ended the golden age of art and co-existence. The poverty rate during British’s colonization contributed to Indians seeking employment under the indentured servitude system. Some Indians accepted the job offer to work overseas for 5 years and then return home to India. Others were deceived and thought that they were only going to work in another part of India.
Africans and Indians in Guyana Today
Both Africans and Indians faced 3 grueling months at sea en route to Guyana. They ate rationed food and shared communal spaces. The ship’s docking was probably a welcomed end to the difficult and isolating conditions on board. The enslaved and servants were eventually taken to their assigned plantations, which included communal barracks. They were forced into hard labour cultivating sugar, cocoa, and rice. Moreover, like slavery, indentured servitude was condemned for its oppressive, violent, unhealthy, and depressing nature.
Many Indians never made it back to India and likely no Africans made it back to Africa.
The Africans and Indians who ended up staying in Guyana often continued the grueling labor associated with the agricultural trades. Britain initially refused to provide equal schooling. As a result, employment opportunities were limited and they had to take jobs in towns and villages far from home. Racial tensions remained high and stemmed from the British orchestration to keep the groups distinct from one another.
Education and other resources improved slightly, but many Guyanese felt that there were better opportunities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. This caused a surge in emigration. Once again, many of the Guyanese (as they now identified themselves) had to leave their parents, families, friends, and life as they knew it in order to attempt to secure a more promising future.
The continued hardships and displacement of the Indians/Africans, to the workers in the Caribbean, and to the recent generations who left for northern countries explain the lack of thorough and diverse history sources. There were either no opportunities or rare opportunities to document history while traveling across the Atlantic, working in the fields, or relocating to a foreign area. Thankfully, younger generations are more likely to enjoy their parents and grandparents without the imminent threat of relocation for better opportunities.
Guyana’s Treasured Oil
There are oil reservoirs all over the world but several of the largest known reservoirs are in the Middle East and the United States. ExxonMobile, America’s largest oil company, initially discovered crude oil off of Guyana’s coast in 2015. Since then, there were 16 extraordinary oil finds. Five of the six largest oil discoveries in 2019 were in Guyana.
Exxon and Guyana’s oil deal raises concerns as to whether the contract is disproportionately in favor of Exxon to the extreme disadvantage of Guyana and its people. Of note, the parties entered into an oil contract and three days later Exxon announced a major discovery. Some claim that Exxon purposely withheld evidence of the find to minimize Guyana’s negotiating power. As a result, Guyana would receive a below-average share in oil production. The deal was also made hastily during heightened tensions with Venezuela over the Venezuela-Guyana border, with hopes that Exxon’s presence would deter Venezuela’s attempts to expand their borders.
Is Guyana oil the modern El Dorado riches? Or is Guyana on the precipice of outside influence creating unrest in order to benefit from potential oil profits? In light of its 55th independence day, the government should take note of the above-mentioned history to promote fair policies relating to international oil investments. The unequal bargains of colonization should not repeat itself and it is the time for the Guyanese to have equitable opportunities.
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. writes articles on the importance of trademarks, trademark law updates, and also West Indian history (with an emphasis on India, Trinidad, Guyana, and the United States).
MDGR Law, P.A.
PO Box 101794
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33310-1794