May 6, 2011

British Guiana Then: Guyana Now



     “My novel takes place in many sites,” I was explaining to Norman, a friend of my neighbors who was helping me with a laptop problem. “For the main character in the beginning of the story, Madame de Leval, it ends up in British Guiana (I pronounced it GEE-ANNA)”

     Norman immediately turned away from my laptop, looked at me, and snapped “It’s GI-ANN-A!”  (officially pronounced  gahy-an-uh, -ah-nuh)

     “Well, I haven’t heard anyone pronounce it before,” I said. “I wasn’t certain how it was pronounced.”

     “My family is from there,” Norman said. “My great great grandfather was the first slave trader there.”

     “When was that?”

     “In the mid 1800s.”

     “I beg your pardon, then,” I retorted, equaling the response he gave me. “He was NOT the first slave trader there.”

     “My father researched it, and he was.”

     “No, he wasn’t!”

     After a few minutes of lively debating, during which Norman was getting increasingly hot under the collar, I proceeded to my house to gather some evidentiary papers, including British Guiana newspaper articles and documents dating from the early 1800s, confirming my side of the story. I took them over to show Norman.

     “Madame married Franco,” I said. “They eventually moved to Franco’s family plantations in British Guiana. These records will show that Franco was involved in slave trading there at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the 1800s.”

     I didn’t mean to do it, but Norman was devastated.

     “It’s part of my family history,” he said. “Now I have to change my perception.”


     While waiting in a food line at the mall, I began talking to an older woman with a cane. During the conversation, I invited her to eat with me—we were both alone.

     She asked me what work I did, so I shared my writing with her, especially my novel.

     “I lived next to Guyana,” she said.

     I jumped at the opportunity to hear about the country. Then I asked about the pronunciation, telling her about the argument.

     “Well,” she explained, “You were both correct. You pronounced it right for Guiana, and he pronounced it right for Guyana.”

     Sometimes, two people can disagree and both be right.


     All this remembering came about because an Associated Press article published February 17, 2011, stated that Guyana officials are rebuilding a stately colonial church destroyed by fire that once served as a base for U. S. cult leader Jim Jones.*

     Which shows how ignorant I am—I never connected Jim Jones with a site that will be a scene in my novel. I didn’t connect Georgetown with British Guiana.

     I picked out excerpts of two comments to the A. P. article:

This Associated Press report is stretching the truth by asserting that Sacred Heart Church was a base for Jim Jones. Sacred Heart granted Jones permission to use the building only for a few days and should not be defined therefrom. For about 150 years Sacred Heart had served the Catholic community in Georgetown, citizens who contributed greatly to the upliftment of the city.*

 Jones had sent some staff members to his commune site, and he visited and tried to publicize himself by giving a sermon in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown….Jones’ staff (approached) Father Andrew Morrison, and they asked Morrison if they could use his Sacred Heart Church to give a service, without being candid about the nature of Jones’ preaching. Father Morrison and his parish council agreed. Jones’ appearance at the church was well advertised. Father Morrison was present at the service and was appalled. In the days that followed, Morrison apologized publicly for what he called a blatant hoax and fraud having taken place in his church. Some people in Georgetown saw Jones as having imported cheap tricks, and Jones was disappointed that techniques that worked in Indiana and California had not worked in Georgetown, Guyana. And Jones wondered whether he was losing his touch.*


     So, full circle, from the early 1800s to 2011, British Guiana/Guyana holds a fascinating history. At least for me. I hope I do it justice when I write that segment of my novel.







MADAME ROSALIE BACLER de la VAL: A Character Sketch

Doing Historical Research in Philadelphia

America’s First Manned Gas Balloon Ride

Compagnie du Scioto Meeting at Café le Procope: Novel #3A

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