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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

Lawrence Aje
Thomas Lacroix
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Remembering Rose Hall and Beyond

Home and Far Away: Remembering Rose Hall Sugar Plantation1

Cyril Dabydeen

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  • 1 This personal essay was written for the Rose Hall Panel held at Senate House during the 3G confere (...)

1Time, memory and place infuse everything I write and construct as narrative. I was born in Rose Hall Sugar Plantation, which is deep in my consciousness and my voice (literary, if you like); it gives me my inflection and authenticity. It’s the first twenty-five years of my life: memorable and defining, for ‘time is timeless,’ as T.S. Eliot said. But far more than the historical and perhaps linear is that the sugar industry in Guyana is now in major crisis with the near shutting down of the industry. Not unexpectedly, I reflect back on plantocracy with Bookers-McConnell and Sandbach Parker estate companies in the fifties and sixties, all indelible in my growing up; and indeed, true significance lies in what’s re-enacted, like my own first memory as the particular becomes the universal. In our village back then my grandfather was known as ‘Albion Driver’; but I recall him being brought down by a sudden illness: a stroke he suffered there in the bottom-house at a family gathering. The emotional drama became imprinted in me: my grandmother, so distressed; my mother, distraught. I must have been three or four years old then. ‘Ow, he dead’, one family member might have cried—the image subconsciously aligned to my writerly provenance, I believe. My grandfather was crippled by the stroke and he remained so for two or more years before he passed. But tragedy of this nature was not uncommon, not unique to our family; and, in the inchoate sugar-estate life I lived everything was circumscribed.

2My grandfather was called ‘Albion Driver’, not because Albion was emblematic of England, but because he’d been recruited most likely from the neighboring plantation district literally called Albion. He had a questionable status as a Driver in the labour system: an Indian as he was, whose own father might have come on the last indentured ship to Guyana, he was no doubt someone with a particular acumen recognized by the foreign overseers—one who might have inspired the workers to produce in order to make the plantation thrive, such being the prevailing hierarchy in the zeitgeist. My grandmother also derived her dubious status as a maharagin—from being the Driver’s wife in the eyes of the villagers, all in the process of survival and social well-being. I grew up internalizing my grandmother’s and mother’s lives, their existential angst; my father was no longer on the scene.

3But the family’s perceived status declined considerably upon the Driver’s passing, tenuous and fragile as it had been in the first place because of the hodgepodge life all around; and for me everything appeared more than nascent since the sugar-estate life was formative, impressionistic. See, I was often behind the counter from a young age in the family’s cakeshop catering to the workers in our Adelphi Settlement, a part of the wider Rose Hall plantation area; it was how we made ends meet. Indeed, Rose Hall was the raison d’être of our existence, for our being who we were, and would turn out to be. The estate overseers were drawn mainly from the underclass of Scotland and Ireland, in the early 1950’s, whom I watched riding by on their sturdy mules along our village road as cane-punts literally snaked along in the canal system on the way to the Rose Hall factory.

4Occasionally one overseer wandered into our shop to purchase soft drinks to assuage his thirst in the unbearable tropical heat. I would observe this tall, heavyset backra-man interacting with my grandmother who was becoming a matriarch of sorts to us; and good-humoured this overseer was, indulging us no doubt. I watched him as he watched us with intrigue; watched me, too. He got along well with my grandmother and mother, I figured. Did he have other intentions? I was too young to know. One of my younger brothers this overseer-man gave the nickname Duncan, which remained; I still refer to my brother by that name. The cane-punts, really iron barges, loudly clanged as they meandered along towards the behemoth cane factory at Rose Hall; and not far away were the palatial-looking homes of the white managers and overseers, a special world unto itself in the plantation system.

  • 2 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘Overseer English’, as ‘Frisson,’ Whetstone (University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Ca (...)
  • 3 Cyril Dabydeen, Drums of My Flesh (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2006): 7–229.

5On occasion we pulled joints of cane from punts meandering along in the swirling canal, as part of our village pastime, almost treacherous as this seemed: we wanted to eat raw sugar-cane. Our own village house bordered one such canal I looked out at from our high-house window (really low). Large clusters of water hyacinth amidst other flora on occasion infested the canal; and, sometimes an alligator surfaced. Coastal Guyana was part of the wider Amazon basin, you see; I named one of my seminal poetry collections Coastland (1989) because of tropes about the immediacy of this life. A short story I later named ‘Overseer English’ with orality embedded, brings me back to Rose Hall, layered deep in my consciousness.2 Other stories and poetry I later wrote with metaphors being resonant, as in my Berbice Crossing (1997) collection; this is also deeply reflected in my Selected Stories (2011) in the Guyana Classics series. In the novel Drums of My Flesh (2006), I interiorized old and new images tied to motifs of place as the Rose Hall experience became distilled, like a palimpsest; I wrote and re-wrote from the echo-chambers, more than what appears contrived in an imaginative or numinous way.3

6Memorably for me, though, were the workers’ gritty lives: relatives, neighbours, friends among them, some with totemic names like Yoga Singh and Vishnu Singh derived from the classic Hindu texts. The will to live with their hard labour and frustrations experienced mixed in with grittiness, as I cogitated and reflected upon; their actual lives all around with their rage, their loves—lives actually lived—seemed indeterminate but authentic with a Bhojpuri cadence somehow linked to their expressions (though we didn’t really know this). Loyalty in being who they—we—were, it was, not just being anonymous people with the nomenclature ‘coolies’ bandied about, but assuredly people with their humanity and dignity, even if they were just eking out a sparse living.

7It was already a racially mixed society with new and changing values tied to rhythms impacting our lives, shaping or demarcating who we were: all in my growing up with sensory markers. I regularly watched the workers coming home from the canefield with soot-marked faces, cutlasses slung across their shoulders; and this was the authentic sugar plantation life of Guyana I knew. The workers often entered our cakeshop in order to quench their thirst. In the late afternoons they returned, more than ritual—our small shop was akin to a community centre, where they clapped cards and played dominoes and argued over their frustrations and labour in harvesting cane as existential, and about local politics and race with their colloquial verve mixed in with their mannerisms. Our village-settlement was mainly that of Indians (but Africans too there were, like the old man, Dada, whose welfare my grandmother was concerned about).

8Some workers with pride boasted about their cane-cutting zeal and their competitive edge, if such, as others reflected subconsciously like a salve on a recreated subcontinental Indian life’s tradition—what seemed passed down to us as lore, especially associated with the Hindu deities of Ram and Sita of the Ramayana and the Bhagavada Gita. Muslims talked about their own faith and belief, even as Christianity started becoming prevalent, though essentially urban. Lasting impressions formed with time passing by that I wrestled with. I recalled an older villager invoking legendary Indian cricketers like Ranjitsinghji, and another to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali with pride: this text remained with me long after. Some villagers also made casual references to ancient Greek Aesop in their idiomatic expressions tied to folk wisdom—all integrated in their lives focussing on survival.

9But they became truly communal and alive during Indian festivals like Diwali, Phagwah, and Eid with the sense of their ethnic pride and togetherness as new and old rhythms manifested themselves. I have written previously about how India reinvented itself among us in sometimes unpredictable ways. Temples and mosques were adjacent to Christian churches, though not actually close by. Indian customs, if indecipherably, mixed in with West African lore and seemed organically linked, especially as a dialectal language emerged with sometimes Scottish and Irish rhythms passed down that I unconsciously internalized. Rituals commingled with a nascent national identity: we came into being Guyanese. A demotic English-speaking creole world derived from the Rose Hall plantation world became distinctive and organic—more so than what prevailed in the urban centre of Georgetown; it grew with a new registry.

  • 4 Wilson Harris, ‘Interview by Michel Fabre‘, World Literature Written in English, 22.1 (Spring 1983 (...)

10I became a young school teacher at St Patrick’s Anglican School situated right across the Rose Hall sugar-cane factory a few hundred yards away. I was acutely aware of the students and their parents’ lives (Indian and African together), like my own—all that awakened in me in our Canje district situated in the ‘ancient county’ named Berbice. ‘Berbice’ itself derives from the Arawak word biribishi (a type of banana). The county, significantly, was founded by the Dutch sugar planter Abraham van Pere, in 1600, which every schoolboy in Guyana knows—established during the time of the Dutch and European Renaissance. The winding Canje Creek (river) was memorable, as I looked down at it from the vantage point of the high Anglican church’s tower adjacent the school. Novelist Wilson Harris called the Canje ‘one of the lowest rungs in the ladder of ascending purgatorial rivers, the blackest one could imagine’.4 He was hyperbolical, I assume.

11In Guyana’s history, the Canje has a special significance: for here the Berbice Slave Rebellion took place, in 1763 (pre-dating the totemic Haitian Slave Revolution in Caribbean history), at Magdalenenburgh situated far down the river. Time and distance formed trammels. Other villages and settlements registered the Rose Hall sugar-plantation influence upon us in our Canje district: with names such as Betsy Ground, Goed Bananen Land, Reliance, Canefield, Cumberland, one or two initially being army outposts, I discovered—like Betsy Ground or Goed Bananen Land to bolster plantocracy and colonial dominance. More significant for me, though, was that on March 13, 1913 at Rose Hall Estate fifteen sugar workers who protested their harsh-working conditions were killed; this tragedy is now officially commemorated as the ‘Rose Hall Martyrs’—over one hundred years later, in 2016. Inarguably, then indentured workers should be ‘at work, in hospital, or in goal’—as expressed by the planter William Russell and no doubt generalized among other plantation managers.

12As a youngster I sometimes visited a logie—initially a slave dwelling—a bare narrow wooden structure housing the cane workers of African and Indian backgrounds at the back of our Adelphi Settlement, all part of the seminal life lived. I became immersed in this while growing up, if with only a vague sense of Indian indenture system in my consciousness: that 239,000 Indians (coolies) had been brought to the Guyana plantations (many also returned, which caused its own trauma). This history might have started to fade or hidden from us in palpable ways, for no one formally taught it in our schools that were run denominationally (most likely, because of the teachers were of African background with colonialized outlooks). However, a sense of ourselves burgeoned as a new identity kept forming in the context of anti-colonial angst—all in the sixties due not least to political activism and new ideals as part of our growing self-awareness. Of note is that with the Royal Reader canon of my early school days prevailed, and no teacher or teacher-training institution I attended seriously interpreted colonial history for us; no one placed more than cursory interest in our Indian heritage, for it was all part of the legacy of the British Empire.

13But new political ideals and norms began to inspire new ways, if only to counteract the prevailing hegemony (not least because of what was occurring globally at the end of World War II). As a young school teacher I looked across the sugar-cane fields with their tassel-like tops wavering in the trade winds when I taught my charges in a set curriculum. One or two African heroic figures stemming from American history came to the fore; but nothing about stalwart Indians figures such as Gandhi, save for what I learnt from my own general reading, emerged.

  • 5 Cyril Dabydeen, Dark Swirl (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 1989, rpt. 2007): 9–103.

14But ethnic pride was talked about by older villagers in the amalgam of the popular culture passed on via Bollywood movies, for instance, with their song-and-dance sequences. Sentimentality and romanticism the villagers absorbed as they coped with their own life’s burden in being simply sugar-cane labourers. New possibilities hardly existed. I recall being very excited when famous Indian playback singer Hemant Kumar visited our district to sing his plaintive melodies—a new pride prevailed. Simultaneously I coped with and internalized British history, mostly of daring piracy juxtaposed with Elizabethans like Francis Drake and others like Walter Raleigh—the latter known as the ‘discoverer’ of Guyana. Much later when I visited the Tower of London I was impelled to dwell on Raleigh’s years in the Tower and his subsequent execution because of his failure to find mythical El Dorado—like my own romantic quest; Sir Walter Raleigh indeed haunted my imagination for a while. All this in the amalgam of registry associated with African lore and ceremonies such as que-que, and to the massacouraman—a malignant water-figure—as motif, which I wrote about in my novel, Dark Swirl (1989).5

15The polarities of Guyana’s coastland and hinterland stirred in me the view of a wider geographical space, more than topographically, though we were coastal people yet with the elusive South American-Guyana jaguar I symbolically associated with the Indian Bengal tiger in my imagination. More tropes communicated themselves to me via the generic Royal Reader; I began thinking we were all connected by stories. Inevitably it became my unconscious quest to search for ways to find permanence as a new voice incorporated itself as my inflection as I became more absorbed in all that occurred around me. At this time a sugar-estate trade union activist became a family member, and he and I wrestled with ideas about ‘transformation’ of the workers’ lives—he, with his quasi-Marxist aims for betterment of the society as a whole. New visions, new parameters.

16Rose Hall becomes entrenched in my memory and linked to what’s temporal, and becomes permanent as I reflect back on my sugar-estate life-experience as significant metaphor. In my Coastland: New and Selected Poems (1989), one particular poem, ‘The Husband’, reappears as motif when I wrote ‘Canecutter’s Mandolin’ in my God’s Spider (2013) volume:

Here in this village –
not Venice
in the Mediterranean –
he plays the mandolin
after another long day
in the canefield.

Villagers listen to him –
and his wife’s lips
are set tight, as she wonders
who he might have
become as he keeps on –

Imagining him being
a classical guitarist,
Flamenco style, but now it being
only a villager’s pain –
as he holds the mandolin
closer to his chest.

Everyone applauds –
a sound not unlike
tropical rain, as his wife
thinks he’s only
besotted with rum –
nothing more.

  • 6 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘Cancutter’s Mandolin’, God’s Spider (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2013): 17.

Later he’ll pick a fight
with her as he plucks
the guitar strings harder –
chopping with the cane-sounds in his ears –
all the while.6

  • 7 Wilson Harris, Conversation with Cyril Dabydeen, unpub. (University of Kent, UK, at the Conference (...)
  • 8 Cyril Dabydeen, North of the Equator (Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2001): 1–138.

17In my transformative thinking, my poems and stories reflect the interiority of our lives and the rhythms stemming from ‘the bottomless pool of origins’, as Wilson Harris urges the writer to explore.7 In my case, my sugar plantation self is what’s embedded in me with a sense of difference layered in one’s ubiquitous consciousness. Harris features in my God’s Spider poems due to his special quest into pre-Columbian mythology which, if not just subliminally, I’ve associated with in my own shaping imagination. Intertwining selves is what I’ve reflected upon, and believed in—which in years later in Canada I would replay with my sense of post-colonial interest—as I first lived in Canada in the Lake Superior region and became imbued with the conventional mythology of ‘the idea of the north’. This grew with a sense of paradox in my voice linked to destiny—and I would call one of my fiction books North of the Equator (2001), where I juxtapose my Rose Hall self with old and new images in my own quest and narrative structure.8

  • 9 Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968): 97.
  • 10 Jack Healey, e-mail letter to Cyril Dabydeen, Oct. 8, 2017.

18Inevitably, I’ve come to the awareness of seeking to mythologize the ground upon which I walk, not unlike what W.H Auden enjoins the writer to do, as I engage with audiences in my literary readings in the ‘north’. All the while, the imagination continues to flit back and forth with liminal and shifting spaces, because of what’s elusive or becomes mysterious in the creative process as time goes by, but simultaneously awakening new energies in me because of my early Rose Hall experience: for beingness, if ontologically, is all. Psychologist Carl Jung famously said it best: that ‘anything psychic is Janus-faced’ as it looks forwards and backwards at the same time, which for me is beyond imaginary homelands, but what brings me closer to origins and existential reality. Not unexpectedly I keep wrestling with arrival and departure with the aim to extend the language—in combining the alphabet with ‘volatile elements of the soul’.9 This sensibility and awareness with my innate Guyanese instincts enjoins me to also reflect on what’s conceivably my many selves; and it may be a ‘special imagination’—as the Harris-and Northrop Frye scholar Jack Healy recently said to me10.Thus in a recently published poem, ‘To the Reviewer’, I challenge the reader-critic:

who doesn’t know where I’ve come from
who doesn’t know about sugar plantations
& whacking away with a machete in the sun

who doesn’t know really know about
workers’ rights & trade unions with
grit of men and women in a far place
like Rose Hall Plantation being at it

who doesn’t know what’s deep in
the heart the kernel of an emotion,
doesn’t understand real hardship

another point of view another place
or time with a solid memory –
what brain-cells never lie about,
being myself only in a far place

  • 11 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘To the Reviewer’, in ‘A Special Feature of Five Poems by Cyril Dabydeen’, e-Skyla (...)

deep in the bones what’s under
the skin & in the soles of one’s feet
once more hardening in the sun.11

19Significantly I will continue to view memory as ‘the mother of the Muses’ and ‘the soul itself’—as Italian novelist Umberto Ecco views it—with Rose Hall deep in me, as ultimately

With a dune of sugar the imagination
Licks itself; the heart beats faster—
The Middle Passage’s below deck.

With Raleigh at the Orinoco, take me
As I come, indentured or indigenous,
Whose world?
Let me walk a straight path
Let me come to you with only
A sharp tongue

Where I will reach those limits—
Where I will only protest with the cry
Of peace, finally.

  • 12 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘My Country, North America, the World’, Coastland: New and Selected Poems (Oakvill (...)

20(‘My Country, North America, the World’)12


Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968.

Dabydeen, Cyril. Coastland: New and Selected Poems. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1989.

Dabydeen, Cyril. ‘Frisson’, Whetstone (University of Lethbridge, Alberta: Canada, Fall 1991): 28–34.

Dabydeen, Cyril. North of the Equator. Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2001.

Dabydeen, Cyril. Drums of My Flesh. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2006.

Dabydeen, Cyril. Dark Swirl. Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 1989, rpt. 2007.

Dabydeen, Cyril. God’s Spider. Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2013.

Dabydeen, Cyril. ‘A Special Feature of Five Poems by Cyril Dabydeen’, e-Skylark (London, #4, 2017): 10–15.

Harris, Wilson. ‘Interview by Michel Fabre’, World Literature Written in English, 22.1 (Spring 1983): 2–17.

Harris, Wilson. Conversation with Cyril Dabydeen, unpublished (University of Kent, UK, at the Conference of the Commonwealth Association of Language and Literature Studies), August 28, l989.

Healey, Jack. E-mail letter to Cyril Dabydeen, Oct. 8, 2017.


1 This personal essay was written for the Rose Hall Panel held at Senate House during the 3G conference and was revised for this volume.

2 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘Overseer English’, as ‘Frisson,’ Whetstone (University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Fall l991): 28–34.

3 Cyril Dabydeen, Drums of My Flesh (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2006): 7–229.

4 Wilson Harris, ‘Interview by Michel Fabre‘, World Literature Written in English, 22.1 (Spring 1983): 2.

5 Cyril Dabydeen, Dark Swirl (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 1989, rpt. 2007): 9–103.

6 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘Cancutter’s Mandolin’, God’s Spider (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2013): 17.

7 Wilson Harris, Conversation with Cyril Dabydeen, unpub. (University of Kent, UK, at the Conference of the Commonwealth Association of Language and Literature Studies), August 28, l989.

8 Cyril Dabydeen, North of the Equator (Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing, 2001): 1–138.

9 Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1968): 97.

10 Jack Healey, e-mail letter to Cyril Dabydeen, Oct. 8, 2017.

11 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘To the Reviewer’, in ‘A Special Feature of Five Poems by Cyril Dabydeen’, e-Skylark (London, #4, 2017): 12.

12 Cyril Dabydeen, ‘My Country, North America, the World’, Coastland: New and Selected Poems (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1989): 57.


Cyril Dabydeen’s recent books include: My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press), My Multi-Ethnic Friends (Guernica), and Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (Mawenzi House). Previous works include: Jogging in Havana, Black Jesus and Other Stories, Berbice Crossing, My Brahmin Days, North of the Equator, Play a Song Somebody, Imaginary Origins, Dark Swirl, The Wizard Swami, and Drums of My Flesh (IMPAC/Dublin Prize nominee, and Guyana Prize winner). Cyril has appeared in over 60 magazines (e.g., Critical Quarterly, Warwick Review, Kunapipi, Fiction International, Wasafiri, Prairie Schooner, Canadian Fiction Magazine, Canadian Literature, and in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Caribbean Verse. A former Poet Laureate of Ottawa, he has taught Writing at the University of Ottawa, and also worked in governments; he managed the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Anti-Racism Program for a decade. He holds post-graduate degrees from Queen’s University in English and in Public Administration. He twice adjudicated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award (Poetry) and the international Neustadt Prize for Literature (University of Oklahoma).

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