Stereotyping and stigmatising 19th century Blacks in British Guiana
By Mellissa Ifill
May 29, 2003
In contemporary Guyanese society, the various ethnic groups have deep-seated mental images of one another. These images - generally labelled stereotypes - are a combination of little truth and great imagination and their lure lies in their simplicity which does not explain individual variations. Stereotypes are apt to become a type of racial orthodoxy, with an amazing endurance. Incompatible facts are disregarded, rationalised or reinterpreted to conform to the stereotype. Although stereotypes often have a seed of truth, more so, they point toward the state of political or economic relations between differing groups. In other words, stereotypes reflect both the mindset of those who create them as they seek to describe those about whom they are created.
Many stereotypes of blacks in contemporary Guyana were formed since slavery and the immediate post emancipation eras and although time and historical analyses have revealed most of these stereotypes as absurd myths which were designed to reinforce and strengthen the social and economic position of the plantocracy, they nonetheless endure and continue to be perpetuated from generation to generation. This article discusses the construction and function of two main stereotypes of blacks in British Guiana in the early 19th century, the nature of these images and links these to their role in generating and maintaining white political and economic control in colonial society.
During early colonialism, the Africans were interpreted as a perverted people due to their racial/cultural/ethnic origin and this rationalised conquest, exploitation and the installation of systems to ‘administer’ and ‘train’ these Africans. ‘Knowledge’ was created that represented all subject groups, especially Africans as “abnormal” - who needed to reform their behaviour in order to become ‘acceptable’. Slavery was justified as a civilising mission and emancipation was also paradoxically a civilising mission.
The ‘superstitious’, ‘heathen practices’ of the Africans were seen as destructive and debased and therefore needed to be erased from their consciousness. The African needed to imitate the Anglo-Saxon Christian culture which was held as the ideal for all to follow. This construction of the African identity in a dehumanising manner was crucial to the maintenance of the social structure which legitimised the European privileged position in local society. Blacks meanwhile, stripped of most of their ancestral culture, thought that it was necessary to emulate the whites in order to declare their equality to whites and climb the Anglo-Saxon civilisational ladder, although all their best efforts would not be “good enough”.
The main stereotype of blacks used by prominent whites was “laziness”. This stereotype was used both during and after slavery. The planters justified the slave system by invoking the Africans’ supposed innate laziness as the rationale for maintaining forced labour. Whites claimed that although the black man by physique was perfect for slave labour, he was sporadic and erratic in disposition. Slavery therefore, helped him by organising his physical strength while negating his character defects.
Not surprisingly, after emancipation, most planters explained their labour predi-cament as due to the ‘idleness’ of newly freed blacks. The complex labour dilemma in British Guiana was attributed to one crude notion: black indolence, which was described as the most important reason for their financial problems. Many blacks had indeed turned their backs on plantation labour which held obnoxious and objectionable memories of slavery. Some became involved in porknocking, others in woodcutting and charcoal making in the interior regions, others organised themselves into groups and purchased estates in the attempt to create an autonomous and independent economic livelihood. Despite their involvement in these activities, which were all associated with hard physical labour, the planters nonetheless presumed that the withdrawal of Africans essentially meant that they were lazy. The Royal Gazette of 28th August 1838 differentiated between the good black and the worthless black. The good black continued to live near the sugar plantation and worked hard in that industry. The worthless black went up the river, and reverted to his vicious and barbarous nature and became woodcutters. In other words, to protect their own vested interests, the plantocracy and its allies were positing that the only legitimate economic activity for blacks was to work on the sugar plantation.
With the introduction of immigrants groups, the Africans were aware of the perception among many planters that their labour was worth three or four times that of most of the other groups and so attempted to secure wages that reflected this worth. Demands for just wages and better working conditions were also interpreted as an indication of the laziness of the blacks, who whites argued wanted to work for ridiculously high wages only some days so that they could be idle for the rest of the week. A theory and practice became extremely popular during the decade after 1838 that basic consumer goods used by blacks should be priced high since if the blacks had to shell out great sums for the goods he needed, he would be forced to toil long hours to acquire sufficient finances to purchase them. Later in the 19th century, black aspirations to engage in traditionally white professions such as teacher, minister, shopkeeper, agent and lawyer were met with expressions of derision and scorn with these educated blacks seen as “good shovelmen spoilt”.
The revolutionary African Village Movement initiative was absurdly interpreted as yet another symptom of the ‘hopeless’, ‘lazy’ character of the blacks, who were perceived by whites to have worked assiduously to acquire money to purchase their own land and homes so that they could have the opportunity to idle their lives away.
The difficulties faced by villagers during the 1850s and 1860s confirmed the perception that the African was lazy, how else could he have failed in this endeavour? No recognition was given to several disadvantages faced by the villagers over which they had no control including among others: the refusal of the planter dominated legislature to assist villages using public funds and their deliberate attempts to frustrate villages in order to ultimately gain effective control of them; the complicated drainage structure that required considerable investment; and the redivisioning of individual holdings which led to uncertainty of ownership and rendered all but subsistence cultivation unworkable.
Another major stereotype of the blacks in 19th century British Guiana was that they lacked thrift. According to the British, thrift signified the presence of a vital moral attribute - the sacrifice of immediate gratification for future security - and it was believed to be the foundation of Britain and white superiority. Whites remarked that blacks in 19th century British Guiana appeared to lack this attribute, more so than any other immigrant group. Blacks were usually represented as extravagant squanderers, who dared to aspire to positions way above their station.
The vast sums of money accumulated by blacks that they used to purchase village estates were ignored and claims persisted that blacks lacked the ability to save. Despite subsequent evidence throughout the century such as deposits in government savings banks and the establishment of friendly societies which indicated that blacks had considerable savings, the stereotype persisted.
Whites argued that their spendthrift nature was depicted by their penchant for luxurious clothes and expensive weddings. It infuriated the white oligarchy that blacks bluntly refused to adhere to the Victorian philosophy that attire was an indicator of social difference and that one ought not to dress higher than one’s class and societal position. The Anglican Josiah Booker, in a discourse on education in the colony in 1874, was scathing in his criticism of the education accessed by blacks. According to Booker, education merely taught blacks how to parade on Sundays “decked up in a style far above their station in life”. Booker suggested that education provision be restructured so that blacks would be advised of the futility of aiming to become “fine gentlemen and ladies” and that they should not mimic “the manners of their betters”.
The African wedding celebration, which was based on a surviving West African cultural tradition to celebrate rites de passage such as birth and marriage in a jubilant communal manner was strongly criticised as evidence of extravagance and vain social pretensions of the African community. The expenses incurred for weddings were seen by clergymen as ludicrous, particularly as they believed, the only value of these celebrations was to give one day’s merriment to friends and family most of whom they invariably described as poor, pretentious, conceited, wasteful and idle. The whites didn’t appreciate, nor did they care that the celebrations had their foundation in traditional African cultures. From their perspective, these practices were barbaric, non-western and deserved condemnation.
The stereotype of blacks that emerged both before and after emancipation is primarily a manifestation of the conflicting agendas of whites and blacks in a context where whites held all the positions of power and were determined to maintain the status quo. Whites were expected and purported to civilise blacks so that blacks would comply with British sense of order, cultivate a taste for the trappings of ‘civilised life’ and develop a disposition to work that matched their physical capacities.
In the post emancipation era however, the old social order was threatened. Blacks surpassed the expectations and white derived plans for their existence and became too socially and politically ambitious, refused to leave all the position of influence to the whites and continually strove to get acknowledgement of their human dignity.