Has Leonora lost its glamour?

By M.Z Ali
Guyana Chronicle
September 23, 2001

SEVERAL villages in Guyana are of historical significance in one-way or the other, some greater than some and others whose very existence provides solace to those who may have had golden memories.

Leonora on the West Coast Demerara is such a place, and no attempt to delve into its history would go without reward even if it means personal satisfaction.

In the olden days, it used to be referred to as Plantation Leonora, and is situated some nine miles from Vreed-en-Hoop. The name Leonora is Dutch, having gotten it during the Dutch occupation of the country. It was originated from the names of two Dutch children, Nora, a girl and Leo, a boy.

Leonora encompasses an area of some five square miles, and in the olden times was under the Parish of St. Luke. It stretches from Edinburgh in the East to Stewartville in the West. It goes north to as far as the Atlantic Ocean and South to as far as the conservancy.

This once busy plantation was the hive of economic activities mainly because of the presence of a sugar estate where most people on the plantation and even from surrounding villages used to be employed.

It was once graced with a railway station until the railway was disbanded in the 1970’s. Still standing are the police station, a Mosque and a Temple, where the majority of the population being Hindus and Muslims, offered their worship.

There is also a Post Office, which serves the entire district and surrounding areas, while a cinema was always there providing entertainment, prior to the coming of the television. Leonora also has two schools, a secondary and a primary, which were built during the 1960’s. These schools cater now for children from the entire West Demerara area. There is also a Cottage Hospital, which is today manned by a doctor and trained nurses.

There is also a very large market which does very brisk business on Saturdays when people from far off areas go and hawk their goods and do shopping.

While most of the population of Leonora are young people and know nothing or very little about the plantation in “logie” time, many of the older folks who are still around today remember what life was in the days when the entire population, most of whom lived in logies (long ranges which were built by the owners of the sugar estate to house the indentured labourers who worked on the estate).

From 1821 until its was closed down in mid-December 1986, Leonora estate changed its proprietors, attorneys and administrators several times. In that same year (1821), the proprietor and attorney was George Rainey who served in that capacity until 1871 when the estate was taken over by Sandbach Parker and Company, a name we are all familiar with because of their store in Georgetown, and William Russel became the Manager

Sandbach Parker and Company was the proprietor until 1969 when they sold out to Jessel, another British.

Prior to the Jessel take over, the administration changed hands periodically, starting in 1905 with the Administrative Manager being Mr. G. E. Anderson. He was assisted with the running of the entire estate with the help of ‘white Overseers’ who supervised works in the cane fields.

He was succeeded by Mr. A. E. Bratt in 1920, who, 10 years later, in 1930, was succeeded by Mr. Mr. R. E. Rodes, who gave way to Mr. Laiwood in 1934. After serving for 11 years, he was succeeded by Mr. R. H. Barnwell in 1945.

Mr. W. O. B. Rhigden, who took over in 1951, did not last long, and made way for Mr. Gregory, who, also after one year at the helm, was superseded by Mr. E. H. Kingston.

Kingston was followed by Mr. Mr. J. V. Ryder who took over in 1957 and served exactly 10 years before handing over to Mr. Balford in 1967.

They were all Administrative Managers of the estate until Mr. Jessel bought over and made this post extinct, for the work of the Administrative Manager was taken over by the Personnel Officer. The Overseers have also been relieved and their work was taken over by locals, who were known as Field Clerks.

As mentioned before, the labour force on the estate was supplied by indentured labourers who were brought to the then British Guyana from India and other countries. Upon arrival on the estate, they were housed in the logies, which were divided into rooms and given to them. They all lived in one bloc or community on the estate. Yes, they were estate people.

The accommodation was so designed to have easy access to the labourers, the majority of whom worked in the cane fields from dawn to dusk. Also, by having them together, it was easy to have effective management and control over them.

This kind of accommodation also offered the immigrants a special incentive in their being able to see each other as much as it was possible and to solder a social and brotherly relationship.

To satisfy the ‘white man’, whose ambition was to get as much as possible out of the labourers, it was necessary to secure their health. For this purpose, a hospital was built in 1868, just next to the sugar factory.

The two-flat building which had a doctor and dispenser, had accommodated 23 beds for males and 18 for females on the first floor, while on the upper floor, there was a male ward with 57 beds.

All food, hospital clothing and medicine were supplied free by the estate. The hospital was in operation and maintained until 1968, when it was demolished and the materials given for the construction of the Leonora Government School, now Leonora Primary School.

Workers now seek medical attention from the estate’s dispensary and the Government Cottage Hospital.

Their dwelling was sandwiched between the sugar factory which was to their west and the elaborate official “white man” compound in which were housed the mansions of the Administrative Manager, other managers and the overseers, with conditions par excellence, perhaps missing only the snow they were accustomed to in England.

They were so positioned to offer ready assistance if anything went wrong in the factory and which warranted their immediate labour or presence.

And it was from under the gargantuan saman trees of this “pond,” this “garden,” this “citadel” that the most earth-shaking, exciting and spine chilling stories were told by the older folks who took turns in the nightly event which drew larger gather every evening. Indeed it was from under these trees, that `jumbie’, `old hige’, Anancy and other stories were being narrated.

It was a nightly ritual to see the older folks, especially men with their `bottle lamps’ and black tobacco and in some cases jute bags on which they sat, heading under the trees which were in proximity of their abode.

Children kept their distance by staying home in the ‘logie’ seeking sanctuary. Apart from the fear that would have been driven into them by the stories, it was the general rule that in those days it was a taboo for children to be seen in the company of the older men.

The story-tellers would even tell you stories about their day’s encounter in the backdam. Whether false or true, when these macabre tales are told, they were enough to drive fear in the bravest of the brave among the audience.

They would tell stories about how they confronted the alligator with the golden tooth and the alligator with the golden crown, and how it was better if one wanted to live, to stay clear of the canals in which they had been seen.

They would also tell stories about the dangers of being under the silk cotton tree, especially at noon, because, as legend would have it, it was under those trees that the Dutch, who once occupied Guyana, loved to roam after death (Dutch jumbies). They also told gripping stories of `Dutch jumbies’ breaking the necks of children and even adults.

However, they did it, these story-tellers also had the knack to grip their audience, and indeed people used to believe.

The women folk, too, took their turn in the mornings after preparing lunch and doing other chores. They, however, were involved in a kind of `talk show’, for everybody’s business was being discussed. Yes, it was from under those very trees that the private life of others were being revealed. The women were the judge, jury and executioner, all in one.

Apart from the estate location in those days, Leonora was also made up of Groenveldt and pasture. These two areas stretched mainly along the public road, and away from the sugar estate.

The rest of land that made up the area of Leonora was used as pastures, rice plots and limited farmlands. As time went by, the estate allowed some of the labourers to cultivate rice on the plots and to do limited farming.

But today, things have changed, and all those rice plots and pastures have made way for housing schemes which today house offsprings of those very labourers who gave their lives for `king sugar’.

Today, Leonora is divided into several areas where there are comfortable houses, streets, potable water and electricity. Apart from Groenveldt and pasture, there are also Sea Field, Para Field and Sea Spray, all gracing the beautiful landscape of Leonora.

Bulging with a population of mostly youth today, the people freely practise their religion and cultural preferences without interference.

Unlike the days of indentureship, today, most of the younger people are urged by their parents to turn to education. The older people were not keen in those days to educate their children because of the belief that they could have returned to their motherland any time. Another important consideration was that they feared their children would have been doctrinated into Christianity. Not so today. Education is uppermost in the minds of most of the young people, and some have already made great achievements.

AS WE continue on our journey to Leonora today, it might be useful to give more insights into the population make-up. This is important because to know Leonora is to know the people and ‘from whence they came.’

Of course, with the passage of time the population mix of Leonora has changed considerably from what could be termed the perfect rainbow mix to just one race today.

In 1821 there were 395 slaves on the sugar plantation. This number rose to 430 in 1832. After the slaves, came the indentured and non-indentured immigrants from Calcutta, Madras, China, Africa and Madeira.

The indentured immigrants were the East Indians and Chinese, who at that time numbered about 717. The non-indentured immigrants from Calcutta, Madras, China, Africa and Madeira amounted to 450.

This was the population at that time that formed the core of the labour force, with the exception of the Chinese who took to business.

This is what is left of the once flourishing Leonora sugar factory. While the buildings are falling apart, the chimney in the background is still standing. The lift is at right, and in the foreground is the canal that took the cane punts to the lift.

These were the days when the entire plantation was a single unit, for everyone lived as one big family. But as time passed, everyone became the creature of the age in which he lived, and the population, that beautiful mix that was beyond reproach, gradually drifted to other neighbouring districts and left the area which has since become a predominantly Indo-Guyanese one.

The labour force at the factory, however, remained multi-racial until its closure. Since the estate’s closure in 1986, most of the factory workers have gained employment at Uitvlugt estate and elsewhere, while the field workers were retained to continue with the harvesting of sugar cane and other field work.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Leonora Estate was a classic example of unity in diversity, especially in the sugar factory and other key areas of operation including the garage (workshop), the pure water supply system, the electrical and the maintenance sections among others.

Indeed, it might be fair to point out that it was during those two decades that the people of Leonora propelled themselves to the top of the local map with their prowess in various sport events, politics and their ingenuity in keeping all sections of the estate’s operations functioning at full capacity.

The people were so glued to the estate and their tasks, that several initiatives to have them divorced from the job met with equal resentment, and only death could have parted them from their “empire.”

Yes, this was the mettle from which the people were made. This was their demonstration of love and pride for their job that meant everything to them. The sugar estate was their final bastion.

These were the people, who, from their homes could tell whether something was going wrong at the factory only by hearing the fluctuating sounds of the machines instead of the “soothing rhythm” they were so accustomed hearing day and night.

This is `Alice Street’ in Seafield, named after fallen heroine, Kowsilla who was run over by a tractor driver.

These were the men, among whom were Messrs. Nain Singh, Karmalie, Merchant, Bisnauth, Beharry, Leander and Hyman. There were also Parker and the other sea punt men who braved the Atlantic transporting sugar from Leonora to Georgetown by sea in wooden punts, driven only by sail, until they became captains of the motor driven barges which later replaced the wooden punts, and many, many others whose toil and sweat were reflected in the millions of tons of sugar that were manufactured during their time on the estate.

I will be amiss if I do not recognize the contribution made by other sections of the work force, both factory and field and others. They also played important roles, for in the manufacture of sugar, each operation complements the other. Each had a common goal foisted upon them by the white man’s ego, and with servile alacrity, they worked towards realizing that goal.

Children, especially boys, started working at a very tender age in order to help improve the economic situation of their parents. They took to what was called the “creole gang,” which was a gang of mainly boys, who fetched earth for building ‘stop offs,’ bail cane punts and those who served as ‘battu boys’ to white overseers and managers.

The ‘batu boys’ were like male servants to their bosses, and their job entailed cleaning boots, running errands, groom the mules for their bosses and lead and follow the mules as the case may be, while the bosses ride.

The adult labour force in the fields were divided into gangs, of which there were many including the shovel gang, weeding gang, cane cutting gang and jobbing gang, each headed by a ‘driver’(local supervisor).

Apart from the cane cutters, these categories of field workers worked from 6 am to 5 pm daily, with the most highly paid female worker receiving about $1.50 per week.

Strikes were prohibited, and agitators were restricted from crossing estate boundary. In addition no one was allowed to be absent from duty, unless he or she was sick in hospital or was in prison. All functions were held on Sundays which were usually non working days.

As times went by, conditions both in the fields and the logies progressively worsened and field workers had to drink impure water from the middle walk (canals) in the backdam. In order to prevent epidemics, workers frequented the hospital at weekends to swallow their dose of cascara and salts, a mixture that was always plentiful at the hospital.

So the people toiled for hours unending, only to come home to their logies, and latrines that were built across trenches for both men and women. There was no decency in logie life, but for those people survival was very important, for they knew that no one has ever deceived the whole world, nor has the whole world ever deceived any one.

They suffered silently, they cried silently and they endured silently, but with cautious optimism, they stuck to their routine day in and day out.

The swelling of the logie population was beginning to pose a serious problem for the estate’s authorities, and conditions were getting worse and logie life was, with each passing day becoming a nightmare.

Trade union and political leaders, including late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan soon took up the workers’ fight, and together with local leaders, the struggle had begun in earnest.

By this time, several changes had taken place, and workers had won the right to strike for better wages and conditions of work or for any grievance they may encounter while working.

As the struggle for better working and living conditions intensified, so was the struggle for trade union recognition, that is, a union of the workers’ choice. But the struggles over the years were not without their toll.

Indeed it was during the struggle for trade union recognition, that Kowsilla (Alice) was ran over and killed by an estate tractor in March of 1964. She was among scores of other stalwarts engaged in a squatting exercise by the factory bridge for recognition of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) when she was murdered.

Others, mainly women, jumped into the middle walk and elsewhere to avoid being driven over by the tractor. Many sustained injuries, but the death and injuries were not in vain, for today the majority of sugar workers are represented by the GAWU., the union of their choice.

As living conditions in the logies became increasingly unacceptable, strong representations were made to the authorities, and after some time, the first housing scheme was established at Seafield in the 1950’s and the workers were granted loans from the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF), and for the first time the dismantling of the logies started at Leonora.

Housing schemes were also established at Para Field and Pasture, all in Leonora, and also in neighbouring Stewartville to accommodate some of the logie people from Leonora.

While most of the older people who have built these houses have already died, the houses are now taken over by their children and in some cases their grand children.

For them, it is just getting it on the “silver platter.” But they are proud to be the offsprings of those fighters who gave their entire lives to satisify the while man’s desires.

Has Leonora lost its Glamour? For me it is now GOLDEN MEMORIES AND SILVER TEARS.