British Guiana

“Checking Out Me History”: Medievalism in British Guiana Schools, c.1950–1960 | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom.


Flag of British Guyana (Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

The origins of British imperialism date from the late medieval period.[1] The subsequent rise of the English, and after 1707, British Empire is a well-told tale. Eventually the empire covered one quarter of the world’s surface. The focus of this article is the former British colony of Guyana and a poem written by the Guyanese-born poet John Agard (b.1949) titled “Checking Out Me History” (2004).

The poem offers a fascinating but brief glimpse into the reception of medievalism in the colony’s schools in the lead up to Guyanese independence in 1966. Agard’s poetical testimony will be supplemented with oral reminiscences from my own father, Dr Joseph Basdeo (b.1957).[2] As I argue here, the teaching of seemingly harmless medieval events and legendary figures was viewed a tool of colonial oppression.

John Agard (Wikimedia Commons)

My father, Joseph, was born in British Guiana—for so the colony was named before independence—and went through the colony’s “British” school system and his testimony, combined with an analysis of Agard’s poem, can make a brief but meaningful contribution to recent discussions about the imperial roots of medievalism and how it was historically taught. After all, the study of the reception of medieval history among subject peoples of the various European colonies, after all, is something of a “blind spot” in many of the recent calls for decolonizing the field.[3]

Passport picture of my father Joseph Basdeo (Age 14) prior to travelling to the United Kingdom to join his mother

In order to contextualize Agard’s poem and Basdeo’s oral testimony, this article begins with a brief history of Guyana and its educational policy in the colonial era. This does not focus to a great extent on medieval scholarship, but is necessary in order to establish the focus on the British representation of medieval history in this South American colony.

Britain and Guyana

The relationship between England and Guyana stretches back to the early modern period.[4] In 1595 Walter Ralegh, seeking to find El Dorado, made a voyage to the region. He published an account of his voyages one year later titled The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. No permanent English colony was established in 1595, however;[5] instead it was the Dutch East India Company who first established sugar plantations and introduced African slaves into the region, in 1621.

The Discovery of Guiana by Walter Raleigh (Facsmile in my personal collection)

The Dutch company, eager to attract foreign investment into the colony after the Netherlands gained independence from Spain, invited British merchants to settle and begin trading in the region. Guiana by the eighteenth century was, therefore, a colony that was under Dutch control but in which the indigenous Arawaks, black slaves, and merchants from various European nations could be found.

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) the British Empire in 1796 seized control of the region from the Dutch, who were allied with the French. The colony was then formally ceded to Britain during the London Convention in 1814 and the colony was named British Guiana.

The Abolition of Slavery

Having abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833, Britain needed labour to help their new colony thrive. Unable to rely on slaves from Africa, the British brought across workers from India to work on plantations. To the mix of Arawaks, black slaves, white Europeans, was now added yet another ethnicity, and Indians’ experiences in British Guiana have been well-researched by Basdeo Mangru.[6]

Early Colonial Schools and the Negro Education Act

When they assumed control of the colony in 1814 the British government pursued a laissez-faire approach to education in Guiana, believing that it was plantation owners’ responsibility to educate their workers. Missionaries did make some attempt to establish schools in British Guiana. The early efforts of missionary societies to establish schools in the “preach and teach” manner, however, were frustrated by white plantation owners who wanted to keep the slaves uneducated.

However, after the abolition of slavery the government thought it wise to educate the freed slaves and Indian indentured labourers in order to foster the creation of an “obedient” working class.[7] The result was the Negro Education Act (1834) which applied throughout all British Caribbean colonies; education was provided through missionary societies—who set the curriculum—and primary education until 11 years of age became compulsory.[8]

Sunday School teachers with class books and coins, British Guiana, 1950s. Photo B-739. ULCA 19/8/3/3, box 2, f7 British Guiana, ca. 1950s

Colonial Government Schooling

By 1925 the British government took charge of setting the curriculum in the colonies and in Britain, where since 1870 education had likewise become compulsory. By 1925 the government-mandated curriculum in British Guiana consisted of “Three Rs” as well as British history, geography, and the sciences, with all textbooks printed in the United Kingdom.[9] (It is difficult to track down school textbooks issued for use in Guyana because of their ephemeral nature; they were essentially a combination of exercise book and textbook, containing printed questions under which pupils would write answers—a photo in the archives of the United Lutheran Churches of America’s archives illustrations this practice).[10]

It was in the school system outlined above that John Agard was taught. Having moved with his father to London in 1977 he embarked upon a literary career and is now known not only as a poet but also a children’s author. His career has also been successful—Agard won the Queen’s Poetry Medal in 2012, an honour previously accorded to W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, and Philip Larkin.[11] And English schoolchildren are familiar with his works, for two of his poems—“Checking Out Me History” and “Half Caste”—are regularly featured as the set texts on the poetry section on the English literature GCSE examination.

The old British nursery rhyme Old King Cole

“Checking Out Me History”

Agard’s “Checking Out Me History” is written in Patois—a Caribbean dialect—which is intended as a deliberate act of rebellion against the language of the colonizers under whom he was raised (although Guyana is situated on the South American mainland, it is generally classed as a Caribbean nation). Thus did Agard’s words in 2004 anticipate the sentiments behind some recent calls from US-based activists who maintain that the forcing of people of colour to speak English correctly can be construed as an act of white supremacy.[12] However, Agard has never gone to such extreme lengths in actually denouncing the English language itself.

There is no regular rhyme scheme either—this is not a “European” poem in any sense. A flavour of the Patois and the rhyme scheme is given below:

Dem tell me

Dem tell me

Wha dem want to tell me

Bandage up me eye with me own history

Blind me to my own identity.[13]

“Dem,” clearly refers to the British educators that Agard had in his schooldays. There is a belligerent “them and us” attitude. However, his educators would not have necessarily been white and British, for by the 1950s—as my father told me—it was not only white Europeans who taught in schools but also Guyanese people.

As we have seen, the curriculum imposed on Guyanese schools was devised in the United Kingdom, which had the effect of presenting an Anglo-centric worldview.[14] Essentially, then, “dem” refers, not to any of Agard’s individual schoolteachers, but to the material he was taught. The Anglo-centric curriculum that Agard was exposed to in his youth blinded him, so he thought, to the realization of his own history identity.

Fantasy Medievalism

The entire theme of Agard’s poem is in fact a search for identity by reconnecting with his people’s “lost” history. Agard maintains that the teaching of several aspects of English medieval history, fairy tales, and folklore are responsible for having obscured important aspects of his own identity.

Indeed, it was mostly a fantasy medievalism that Agard recalls having been taught. He makes reference to several events and people: “1066 and all dat,” “Dick Whittington and he cat,” “how Robin Hood used to camp,” and of how “ole King Cole was a merry ole soul.”

1066 and all that…

Agard’s use of “1066 and all dat” is an allusion to two things. This of course is the date of the Norman Conquest, a key point in English history which English primary school pupils are still taught. The statement is also likely to be inspired by R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar’s popular 1066 and all that (1930). Originally serialized in Punch, it mocked the Whig interpretation of history—the idea that history was the story of progress—and the idea that history was composed of “good” and “bad” things.

Robin Hood from C. Macfarlane’s History of the Highwaymen (Personal collection)

Yet Agard’s use of “and all dat” should be read as him being dismissive of the Norman Conquest, and other events from early English history. There was no reason why Agard should have been taught about 1066, or indeed any other early event in English history. This was a sentiment echoed even by E. Wynn Williams, a colonial administrator in Guyana, who remarked upon

“the pointlessness of teaching the Anarchy of Stephen’s reign or the religious difficulties of Queen Elizabeth” to Guyanese pupils in the 1920s.[15]

Dick Whittington and Old King Cole

Agard also trivializes the teaching of other parts of English medieval history by referring to “Dick Whittington and he cat.” Richard Whittingham (c.1354–1423) was in fact a real historical person but the legend of him selling his cat to a family whose home was rat-infested and thereafter getting rich is entirely fictional.[16] If Agard learnt this legend in his youth then it would have been unimportant and irrelevant to a Guyanese school pupil.

The same goes for his learning of “Old King Cole.” The identity of the King Cole of popular nursery rhyme fame has been attributed to various late-antique and medieval figures from the British Isles and searching for a “real” King Cole has been the subject of a few nineteenth-century antiquaries’ researches.[17] But just as with the tale of Whittingham, the rhyme of “Old King Cole” was irrelevant to Agard growing up. Hence he only quickly refers to these figures and instead goes into greater detail about Toussaint Louverture who led the Haitians to independence.

Toussaint L’Ouverture (British Library)

Robin Hood and Florence Nightingale: An Odd Pairing

Most interesting for scholars of medievalism is Agard’s recollection of having been taught about the legendary English outlaw Robin Hood. By the 1950s, the question of whether Robin Hood was “real” or not was confined mostly to academic journals. It is doubtful that the legend of Robin Hood was ever taught at a higher level in British schools and the GCE O-Level books from Britain that I have searched contain no reference to the outlaw.

Indeed, since the late-Victorian era Robin Hood was known more in popular culture as a figure in children’s books or, of course, Hollywood movies.[18] However, Robin Hood stories were taught to primary school children in history lessons in the 1930s, for a report to the British Board of Education in 1931 complained that such “trivial” stories should really be taught as part of English literature lessons and not as history.[19] It may have been in his earlier school days that Agard was taught the outlaw’s story, or perhaps Agard had learned of Robin Hood from watching the Errol Flynn movie in the cinema during the 1940s, as some Guyanese people remember.[20]

Where Agard learned the history of Robin Hood is perhaps less important than what the outlaw represents in the poem. Modern Robin Hood scholars such as Stephen Knight contend that the outlaw’s story represents, and indeed celebrates, justice, “resistance to oppressive authority,” and that

“the central values of the tradition of the good outlaw [are] … liberty and equality.”[21]

Knight is not the only Robin Hood scholar to make such a point—indeed the idea that Robin Hood, in whatever medium he appears, symbolizes justice, liberty, and equality is pervasive through the entire field of Robin Hood studies.[22] But Agard declares that

“Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp,

and how Robin Hood used to camp.”[23]

Robin Hood as an Imperialist Figure?

The main attraction of the Robin Hood story for western audiences is the fact that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. However, no great or heroic deeds are attributed to Robin Hood in “Checking Out Me History,” we are only told that he “used to camp.”[24] Instead the retelling of the outlaw’s story in British Guiana is a tool of colonial oppression; the outlaw may have served as an emancipatory figure in Anglo-American culture but to Agard, in Guyana during the 1950s, Robin Hood’s presence in the colony was as an imperialist figure.

To cement Robin Hood’s imperialist credentials he is of course paired with Florence Nightingale, the allegedly saintly “Lady with the Lamp” who cared for sick soldiers in Balaclava during the imperialist Crimean War (1853–56).[25] If Agard was truly taught about Robin Hood in his school, then the outlaw’s legend was a part of the overall British system of education that was foisted upon the Guyanese.

The real symbols of resistance to unjust authority for Agard was not a remote English outlaw living in a forest but the likes of Nanny de Maroon, who fought a guerrilla war against British colonialists in Jamaica with the help of escaped slaves, and the aforementioned Toussaint Louverture.

The seemingly saintly Florence Nightingale

Symbols of Resistance

My father had a generalized idea that “history” was taught, although he cannot quite remember the specifics. Agard’s poem is different here. In Agard’s poem, the medieval Robin Hood is coupled with the Victorian imperialist figure, Florence Nightingale; a dismissive reference to the medieval Dick Whittington paves the way for the eighteenth-century Toussaint Louverture’s appearance. Agard does not therefore care for standard “periodization” that is undeniably Euro- and American-centric.[26]

We noted earlier that Agard was dismissive towards much of European “history”—although much of what he recounts was folklore—and this reflects the increasing ambivalence that Caribbean writers, in recent years, have manifested over the European colonization, not only of their land, but also of their idea of history; intellectuals and cultural leaders from the region—songwriters, poets, novelists—have attempted to recover what they see as a “lost” ancestral culture.[27]

Yet this can only ever be a partial rebellion. For while Agard makes brief references to the Caribs and Arawaks, the people whom he really admires are in fact “modern” figures. Toussaint Louverture was inspired by that “modern” European event, the French Revolution, and sought to extend its principles to the Haitian people. It is not controversial to state that without European ideals of liberty, as they were enshrined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, there might have been no Haitian Revolution. As Simon Gakandi states of other Caribbean writers, in the poem Agard can be opposed to a Eurocentric idea of history but he can never be truly independent of it.[28]

Nanny of the Maroons

How to Teach an Ethnically Diverse Society

Agard charges his “British” educators with not having taught him about the history of the indigenous people of Guyana:

“but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too.”[29]

Basdeo’s testimony differs from Agard in this respect, for although Agard does not recall having been taught about the Arawaks Basdeo—who did not have a stellar attendance record—says he was briefly taught about the history of the Arawaks. But British Guiana was ethnically diverse, and one of the problems for the British was deciding what to teach the children of such disparate ethnic groups. In December 1964, just on the eve of Guyanese independence, the racial breakdown of the population was as follows:

Racial Composition of the Population of British Guiana in December 1964

(Table reproduced from research conducted by Mohammad Abdur Rauf).[30]

Racial Group  PopulationPercentage
East Indians320,07050.2
Africans199,83031.3
Mixed75,99012.0
Amerindians29,4304.6
Portuguese6,3801.0
Chinese3,9100.6
Europeans  2,4200.3
Total638,030100

Although my father recollects having been taught Arawak history there was very little effort on the part of the British colonial authorities to shape, through education and the creation of a common culture, the various ethnicities into one Guyanese nation.[31] Agard identifies as Afro-Guyanese,[32] but when questioned Basdeo foregrounded his Indian heritage. Where Agard wishes he had been taught about Toussaint Louverture instead of “Old King Cole,” there is no reason to suppose that a child of Indian descent in British Guiana may necessarily have found Toussaint’s story inspiring.

Researchers in the field of curriculum studies have concluded that within a nation state such as USA or UK, the question of what should be taught in schools is usually decided through “consensus” between voters and their representatives. Where this consensus is absent, much like in colonial societies—in British Guiana universal suffrage was not granted until 1953—the question of what is taught is reflected by the wishes of the dominant social group.

In the Guyanese case the dominant social group was white British colonists.[33] That is to say, although the British—in Rauf’s table listed as “European”—were not demographically dominant they maintained political hegemony. The Conservative government in Britain, furthermore, showed little interest in developing the school curriculum in Britain during the 1950s, much less in the colonies, a lacklustre approach which was reflected in the Guyanese curriculum whose teachers seemed content to remain with a syllabus which had hardly changed since the 1920s. English medieval history therefore remained on the Guyanese syllabus.

Conclusion

I have given some insight into how medieval history, as it was taught in the former British colony of Guyana, was received by two men who received a colonial education. Agard and my father are, of course, looking back over half a century but their insights are valuable.

Agard “decolonizes” medieval subjects not by reforming them but by completely repudiating them whereas Basdeo expresses no strong opinions on his school learning.

To Agard medieval subjects were meaningless as a boy and, with the poem being written in the early twenty-first century, the subjects he was taught mean nothing to him now either. Especially interesting is the fact that, as this paper has shown, Robin Hood, a figure who has been widely thought of as a freedom-loving and indeed inclusive figure—owing to the legend’s inclusion of Muslim characters—is actually a tool of oppression.

Agard’s reflections certainly give medievalists food for thought when approaching the study of seemingly unproblematic subjects such as, not only Robin Hood, but “medieval” nursery rhymes like “Old King Cole.” This last point requires, perhaps, among those who call for decolonization, an engagement with and recovery of the “lost” reception of medieval studies in European colonies during the age of imperialism.


References

[1] Stephen Basdeo, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020), 2.

[2] In light of the fact that Joseph Basdeo is my father I used a semi-structured interview technique, allowing for a more free-flowing discussion rather than a formal interview. For more information on how to conduct oral history see Corinna M. Peniston-Bird, “Oral History: The Sound of Memory,” in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 105–21. A recording of the interview has been securely saved and uploaded to my website where people may listen: Stephen Basdeo, “My Education in Guyana by Doctor Joseph Basdeo,” Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, accessed August 15, 2020. Available at: https://gesteofrobinhood.com/about/curriculum-vitae/my-education-in-guyana-by-doctor-joseph-basdeo/

[3] See the following examples in which, although the authors call for the “decolonizing” of medieval studies, calls to engage with the history of how medievalism was taught in colonies are absent: John Dagenais, “Decolonizing the Middle Ages: An Introduction,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30 no. 3 (2000), 431–48; Dorothy Kim, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” In the Middle August 28, 2017, accessed 26 July 2020. Available at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com

[4] For complete histories of Guyana see the following works: Vere T. Daly, The Making of Guyana (London: Macmillan, 1974) and Vere T. Daly, A Short History of the Guyanese People (London: Macmillan, 1975)

[5] V.T. Harlow, “Introduction,” in The Discoverie of the Large and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana by Sir Walter Ralegh, ed. V.T. Harlow (London: Argonaut Press, 1928), xvii.

[6] Basdeo Mangru, The Elusive El Dorado: Essays on the Indian Experience in Guyana (Lanham, MY: The University Press of America, 2005); Basdeo Mangru, A History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estates, 1869-1948 (London: Edwin Mellen, 1996); Basdeo Mangru, Champions: Indo-Guyanese Welfare 1838-1938 (New York: Adams Press, 2017); Basdeo Mangru, Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy and Labour Migration to British Guiana, 1854-1884 (Hartford: Hansib, 2012).

[7] R.T. Smith, British Guiana (Oxford University Press, 1962), 145.

[8] Shirley C. Gordon, “The Negro Education Grant 1835-1845: Its Application in Jamaica,” British Journal of Educational Studies 6 no. 2 (1958), 140–50 (p. 142).

[9] M. Kazim Bacus, “The Primary School Curriculum in a Colonial Society,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 6 no. 1 (1974), 18: For people who wanted their sons’ and daughters’ education to continue beyond primary level there were private fee paying secondary schools, while to gain a university education Guyanese students would usually attend a college either in the UK or USA.

[10] Sunday School teachers with class books and coins, British Guiana, 1950s. Photo B-739. ULCA 19/8/3/3, box 2, f7 British Guiana, ca. 1950s.

[11] Anon. [online], “Poet John Agard is selected for Queen’s poetry medal,” BBC News December 20, 2012, accessed July 26, 2020. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk.

[12] There are several examples of such reasoning that have been printed in various news outlets but I offer only one here: Jolie A. Doggett [online], “Are You Asking Me To Talk The ‘Right’ Way Or The ‘White’ Way?” HuffPost September 24, 2018, accessed July 26, 2020. Available at: http://www.huffpost.com.

[13] John Agard [online], “Checking Out Me History,” Poetry by Heart (2004), accessed July 27, 2020. Available at: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk

[14] Anon. [online], “Guyana: History and Background,” State University (2020), accessed July 26, 2020. Available at: http://www.education.stateuniversity.com.

[15] E. Wynn-Williams, Report on Education in British Guiana, [dated 7 January 1925] cited in Clement Toolsie Shiwaran, “Indians in British Guiana: A Study in Effort and Achievement, 1919–29,” Ph.D. diss. University of Warwick, 1990, 248.

[16] There are other versions of this legend, all of which involve Whittington selling his cat to somebody and thereafter rising through the world.

[17] Anon. “Punch,” in Littell’s Living Age, ed. E. Littell, vol. 15 (Boston: E. Littell, 1847), 48.

[18] Stephen Basdeo, “The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700-c.1900: Rethinking Gentrification in the Post-Medieval Tradition,” Ph.D. diss. University of Leeds, 2017, ch. 6.

[19] R. R. Reed S.M. Toyne, The Planning of a History Syllabus for Schools, Historical Association Pamphlet no. 128 (1944), 12.

[20] See Dmitri Allicock, “Comment May 20, 2012,” Guyana: Then and Now, accessed August 15, 2020. Available at: https://guyanathenandnow.wordpress.com/early-days-in-british-guiana/: “all the great classic movies such as Gunga Din, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Robin Hood and Singing in the Rain, kept the locals up to date with the fashions, styles, norms, etc, of the outside world. Cinemas were our windows to the outer world.”

[21] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), xix.

[22] Valerie Blythe Johnson, “A Forest of Her Own: Greenwood Space and the Forgotten Female Characters of the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood in Outlaw/ed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 21–39: Of course, pre-twentieth century texts usually depict the outlaw story as emancipatory for men, and Valerie Johnson has shown that the idea of the Robin Hood story being emancipatory for women is far from clear cut.

[23] Agard, “Checking Out Me History.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Crimean War was imperialist because it was a conflict between three empires—Britain, France, and Russia—and Britain only fought in the war because Russia’s influence over the crumbling Ottoman Empire threatened Britain and France’s commercial interests in the Middle East.

[26] See Nick Hostettler, “Rajani K. Kanth and Eurocentrism: A Critique,” in The Challenge of Eurocentrism: Global Perspectives, Policy, and Prospects, ed. Rajani Kannepalli Kanth and Amit Basole (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), xxiii–xxxv.

[27] Simon Gikandi, Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 3.

[28] Ibid, 4.

[29] Agard, “Checking Out Me History.”

[30] Mohammad Abdur Rauf, Indian Village in Guyana: A Study of Cultural Change and Ethnic Identity (Lieden: E.J. Brill, 1974), 35.

[31] Perry Mar, “Ethnic Conflict and Political Control: The Guyana Case,” Social and Economic Studies 39 no. 3 (1990): 65-94.

[32] Anon. [online], “John Agard,” British Council: Literature (2020), accessed July 31, 2020. Available at: https://literature.britishcouncil.org/.

[33] K. Wiles, The Changing Curriculum of the American High School (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), 3.

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