A Handful of Dust: Return to Guiana

In the early 1930s Evelyn Waugh traveled into the interior of British Guiana, on the old Spanish Main. There were three Guianas then, British, French, and Dutch, wedged between Venezuela and Brazil. British Guiana was the largest of the Guianas. It was 80,000 square miles, about the size of Great Britain, but with a population of only half a million. Much of this population—mainly East Indian and African—lived on the Atlantic coast, where the big plantations were. Inland, just a few miles from the colonial coast, was South American wilderness, going back to Brazil: hardwood forests, Amerindian villages, boulder-strewn rivers, falls: and, after that, the laterite savannahs, with giant red anthills, and palm trees marking the course of occasional shallow rivers.

It was on that savannah that the betrayed Waugh hero of A Handful of Dust (1934), looking for forgetfulness after his English travails, found a horrible form of social extinction: kept a prisoner on the almost empty savannah by the head of a dominant Anglo-Amerindian tribe, and made to read aloud the works of Dickens again and again.

Guiana has always been a land of fantasy. It was the land of El Dorado; it was the site of the Jonestown commune. But what is remarkable about the Waugh fantasy is that two years after the book was published a young man from the plantation coast of Guiana started on a journey that was to echo the destiny of Waugh’s hero.

In 1936, when he was eighteen, Cheddi Jagan, the grandson of indentured immigrants brought from India to work on the coastal plantations, left British Guiana with five hundred dollars to go to study in the United States. He stayed in the United States—in Washington, New York, and Chicago—for seven solid years, until 1943. He did various jobs while he studied: he finally became a dentist. Toward the end of his time in the United States he married a beautiful American woman. He also had a Marxist illumination.

When Cheddi Jagan returned to Guiana in 1943 (his American bride following soon after, to astound the Jagan family), it was as a man with a fixed political cause. Whatever he may have thought about his Hindu or Indian or Guianese background, whatever historical or social bewilderment he may have grown to feel, was submerged in his Marxist ideas of surplus value and the universal class struggle. That was vision enough. And for fifty years, like a version of the Waugh figure—through the ending of the war, the reemergence of Germany and Japan, the winding down of the European empires, the disintegration of black Africa, the coming and going of the cold war, the end of European communism, through the independence of Guyana itself (spelt after independence in this new way, for no good historical or etymological reason)—Cheddi Jagan has sat waiting for his moment.

Almost from the start he had “the oppressed sugar workers as his base”—to use words from the back cover of the 1966 East German edition of…

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