December 8, 2008

LIFE IN THE SUGAR ESTATE

Posted in Economics, Guyana, History tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by randallbutisingh

LIFE IN THE SUGAR ESTATE

Excerpts from “Reminiscences of My Story”.

It was at Port Mourant that I got to know about life in a Sugar Estate, because I lived and taught there.  At that time, housing was better there in the Corentyne than in Demerara. There were no logies (mudfloored houses enclosed with zinc sheets, which was worse than the stables which housed the mules) but small two-roomed cottages on three-foot blocks.  At the crow of the cock,  at about 4 a.m., which was an accurate timepiece,  the women would arise.  They had no alarm clocks, so they depended on the rooster which is invariably correct as Guyana (British Guiana then) is a tropical country, near to the equator where the days and nights are equally long.  The first cock-crow is at 11 p.m. and signals that all are in bed, except for the vagrant, the thief or the policeman who is on duty.

So at 4 a.m. at a signal from the roosters the women would arise and there would be a hive of activity.  You could see rows of oil lamps in the cottages and hear the winnowing fan as the women prepared the food that they will eat for breakfast and take with them to the sugarcane fields for lunch.  Their food was monotonous; rice or roti (flat pancake made from flour, baking soda and salt) with daal (lentil soup) and curried vegetables,  potatoes, boulangers or pumpkin.  Whatever was cooked was placed in one container, a tin saucepan and this became cold before it was ready to be eaten.  Formerly the workers did not carry water but drank the black, fresh water from the drainage and irrigation canals.   At Port Mourant, the workers were provided with impervious canvas bottles for storing  potable drinking water.

By 6 a.m the workers were ready to catch the open Locomotive,  formerly they had to walk, sometimes a distance of three or more miles, which took them to their work place.   They then had to cross over the canals to get to the fields.  Flat-bottomed vessels were provided for this purpose, but formerly men and women had to wade through the water which was sometimes chest high to get to the other side.

In those days, the lot of the worker was hard.  They worked throughout the day in the burning sun, with a brief pause at mid day to eat their lunch, which has got cold, and take a little rest under the shade of a tree.  Then they were goaded on to work by ‘drivers’,  men selected from the workers who demanded  “the pound of flesh” for their white masters, the managers and overseers of the plantations.  Sometimes for favours, these men would recruit women for the overseers who were young unmarried men.  Fortunately, because of the religious and social traditions of the immigrants, this was not too common.  There are very few Eurasians as compared to Mulattoes.

After a hard day’s work, the workers would catch the locomotive and return home.  Formerly the workers had to walk, sometimes as far as three or more miles, the women singing along the way drumming on their saucepans and the men tinkling their cutlasses with their files to relieve the strain of the long journey.  Reaching home, it was a bath and relaxation for the men, but the women had to cook the dinner and clean up the house.  After dinner, it was early bed;  or the men would spend a little time with their friends listening to the Ramayan which told of the exploits of their favourite Incarnation, Lord Rama, his consort Sita, and Hanuman, Lord Rama’s greatest devotee.  It was the Ramayan, chiefly, that sustained the spirit of the immigrants and gave them the fortitude to carry on in such a harsh environment.

Randall Butisingh

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2 Comments »

  1. Patanjali Ramlall said,

    Accurate description sir. However, your picture of logies were a bit on the decent side and no water bottles. The logies I remember were all mudwalled, a little mud box, with no swinging doors, a walk-in, a body,(middle part)for bedroom and at the back,a crude out-cropping of a fireside so archaic that the old folks referred to it as “the cow mouth” through the mud wall for ventilation, however still covered. And next to it a cruder fixture for washing dishes, we referred to it as a “receiver”. I was fortunate to visit Plantation Lusignan Estate quite often, up to the age of eleven.
    Fortunate because my uncle who was a grocer kept two or three customers there and I had to take orders and carry groceries two to three miles from the nuclear Housing Scheme of Annandale; fortunate because I recalled the estate in its dying moments – from ’55 to ’60.

    It was sad to see the discontinuation of a way of life. And more heart-breaking, to experience the pain of impoverished conditions in which our people laughed and cried, sang and danced, lived and died, married and gave births; they observed all religious festivals and survived on starvation diets, many lacking basic staples, struggled sine complaints, and grateful to the colonial masters for a mere pittance! Still intact with patients was the famous Lusignan Hospital in which my father, Dispenser Punee Ramlall slaved….. 12 hours daily, with only half a day off on Sundays for two decades and more.

    Lusignan Hospital, so I was told, was the largest and central Sugar Estate Hospital with 180 beds. It was rated 4th in the colony for number of beds and had its own mortuary, Punee Ramlall performed post mortems, and there was one heck of a dispensary. There were continuing Nursing and First Aid Classes for interested students. My maternal grandmother was in charge of the creche in the estate’s heydays and was “mother” to a few thousand in her career.

    I remember the squalid layout of latrines over open trenches. I was also told that the trenches overflowed in the rainy seasons and the indescribable stuff from those trenches floated in and around the housing areas. Thanks to a prolific young statesman, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, he fought for, and got the Sugar Masters to alleviate the deplorable conditions of the estate labourers where hellish conditions were the order of the day, by agreeing to give interest-free loans for their relocation to Nuclear Housing Schemes along the coast of British Guiana. Artesian wells were lined quite a bit apart on the main mud roads of the estate and citizens lugged water in a punishing manner.

    Except for the parts on my grandmother, my father and his work, and Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s valiant struggles, I am close to being original since I spent time on and off in the estate from 1952 onwards.
    I was told the old hospital now houses convicted guests of the government, nice way to treat a landmark, isn’t it? Punee Dispenser must be smiling.

    Patanjali Ramlall

  2. randallbutisingh said,

    Thanks Pat for supplementing my article on ‘Life in the Sugar Estate”with your able and fascinating pen. I truly appreciate. Looking forward for many more like that.

    All the best.


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