Friday, October 28, 2011

Wild Coast by John Gimlette

John Gimlette has written a well researched book on "The Guianas" (p. 5) comprised of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Guyane Française (also known as French Guyana). The Guianas lie between the great rivers of South America, the Orinoco and the Amazon. Between these boundaries, over 40 other rivers exist, none navigable more than 90 miles. Once upon a time, sugar cane was king, and created inestimable wealth for Great Britain, Holland, and France. The slaves exploited for this enterprise would rewrite the history books in early abolition efforts. Gimlette's travels originate in Guyana and head east through Suriname to the Guyane/Brazil border. He often jumps between historical details and his present-time travelogue, on the turn of a dime. Most of the book is devoted to Guyana, with much focus on Jonestown and the southern savannah called Rupununi.

Georgetown is given short shrift, despite being a World Heritage site, but we learn some interesting facts, e.g., a "European had to have twenty-five slaves in order to vote" (p. 26). A chapter is devoted to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, an event which really had nothing to do with Guyana, "It was an American matter" (p. 82). The author pays great attention to the Rupununi Savannah in the south of Guyana, below the Rain Forest. He quotes Evelyn Waugh's book 92 Days, who was underwhelmed by a visit in the 1930s, sampling "every variant of Guyanese discomfort: fevers, saddle sores, boils, rashes, 'deep and tenacious' ticks, and bites 'like circles of burning flesh'" (p. 89). He visits a famous resort "Rockview" (p. 89) which had a pet tapir. He mentions Waterton's discovery of curare for blowpipe tips (p. 104). The waterways were filled with nasty critters, not just caymans, but "a vast society of flesh-eating beasts" including "the nine inch perai", "stingrays and electric eels - the 500-volt variety" (p. 106). Land critters also abound, including the labaria, a deadly snake (p. 160). The Guyana section wraps up with Berbice, center of a massive slave revolt in 1763. The Dutch have not forgotten and have an "expression: 'Naar de Barrebiesjes gaan' ('Get thee to Berbice '), the equivalent of "go to Hell'" (p. 171). Berbice nearly became South America's first and only republic of slaves (p. 176). Guyana abounds in old wooden architecture, like the dilapidated 1881 hospital in New Amsterdam (see photo).

Ah, mysterious Suriname, autonomous since 1975. What other country has a banknote for 2 1/2 dollars (photo)? In 1650, the Dutch thought they were clever and swapped the island of Manhattan for Suriname with the foolish British ! After all, "nothing grows up north" (p. 192). Much of Suriname's history revolves around the runaway slaves or "maroons" (p. 202). Suriname had become a "byword for brutality in the name of profit. In Candide, published in 1758, Voltaire's hero arrives here to be robbed by judges and sea captains, and to meet a slave whose been shorn of his limbs...Candide finally renounces his faith in Providence and decides to head for home" (p. 203). Ultimately, the maroons signed a treaty for their freedom. It is glossed over in the book: "It was another five years before the Saramaccaners signed a treaty" (p. 203). Other tribes were among the macaroons: "the Kwintis, N'Djukas, Bonis, Paramaccaners and Matawais" (p. 205). Maroons spoke a form of Creole or "Talkie-talkie" (p. 208).

Most interesting is the recounting of the tale of John Gabriel Stedman who was brought in to lead the quelling of a slave revolt in 1771. Ironically, he became a sympathizer to the slaves and wrote a famous abolitionist treatise Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana on the Wild Coast of South America in 1790 (p. 261). It was so explicit, that Stedman feared for himself and burned thousands of copies rather than sell them. In this century, V.S. Naipaul called it a"a nauseous catalogue of atrocities" like those about the Nazis (p. 262). It was recently published by the Johns Hopkins Press in 1988, when Richard and Sally Price found the original drafts.

Which leaves us with Guyane, still a department of France. Historically a penal colony since 1848, this country is perhaps best known to the outside world for the film Papillon, about inmates on Devil's Island. That island, St. Joseph, and Royal Island made up the Iles du Salut (Salvation). The likelihood of prisoners dying in French Guyana was so great that banishment became known as la guillotine sèche, the chop without the mess. The rule of doublage (p. 300) required that every man serve the same period again as a 'free' man in the colony, each man expected to support himself. The Dreyfus Affair was the swan song of the penal colony, when a Jewish Captain was suspected of leaking secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was sent to Devil's Island in 1895 at the age of 36. The French novelist Emile Zola is outraged and publishes his famous letter 'J'accuse' in 1898. Dreyfus returns to France a year later. His legacy includes formation of the World Zionist Organization as Herzl was inspired by the case. Devils Island continued to house enemies of France including the Việt Quốc in 1931. In 1938, no new inmates were imported as a result of world outrage. After the war, France offered Guyane as a homeland for the Jews and also planned to provide shelter for DPs (Displaced Persons) (p. 315).

Strange as it may seem, since 1968, Guyane is also the site where 50% of commercial satellites are launched (p. 317) from the Centre Spatial Guyanais in Kourou. Launches from the equator are advantageous for geostationary satellites due to the increased velocity of the earth's rotation.

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