Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
All too often, Indo-Caribbean women are regarded with stereotypes of being docile, silent and at times, invisible.
Along the timelines of our history, there have been women who defied each of these stereotypes, breaking the expectations placed upon women of their time. They broke from the carefully constructed chains, with voices loud and messages clear as day.
Kowsilla, also known as Alice, was one of these women.
Indo-Caribbeans staged riots for their rights on multiple occasions. One of the most notable was the industrial strike at Plantation Leonora in 1964. Kowsilla was an activist, determined to improve the lives of women in Guyana. She joined the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO), formed in 1953 by Janet Jagan, the wife of Dr. Cheddi Jagan. She was the leader of the Leonora Branch and an executive member of the organization. Kowsilla was born in 1920 in Seafield, Leonora, West Coast Demerara. Very little was ever recorded of her life; she was born to very poor parents and eventually became a single mother to four children.
The climate in Guyana was particularly troubling and violent during the sixties; particularly for Indo-Caribbeans due to the PPP leadership. This had resulted in a steam of violence between Indo and Afro-Caribbeans. Leonora was already known for its resistance in 1939 and decades prior in 1869. It was also the heart of East Indian life on the West Coast.
On March 6th, sugar workers staged a strike at Plantation Leonora against British Colonial Estate Manager Roy Ryder.
Kowsilla and more than a dozen other women stood faithfully, side by side, on a high bridge in view of a PNC tractor that was driving full speed toward them under the direction of the colonial managers. Each of them hoping better working and living conditions would be the result of their disobedience. Kowsilla and fourteen other workers were mown down by the tractor driver, Felix Ross.
Among the other injured women were Jagdai and Daisee Sookram, and Kisson Dai, who suffered broken backs, hips and even the loss of a kidney. Kowsilla’s body was severed in two. She was 44 years old when her life came to an end. Felix Ross was acquitted of his crime.
Kowsilla and her party stood resolutely, despite the scab shouting “You all ain’t hear what the boss-man say? Get off the blasted bridge!” as he drove the tractor towards them.
An eyewitness recalled Kowsilla telling the other women, “Don’t budge. We can’t let the rich man thief we children dem future.”
Kowsilla’s death and sacrifice did not go unnoticed. Their stance incited the recognition of the bargaining agent for sugar workers; The Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA). It proved a disappointment to the workers because it later became a supporter of the oppressive PNC party. Though the MPCA failed, it paved the way for the The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU). Ten years later GAWU gained recognition by the Booker Tate sugar plantations in 1973 with the union sweeping 98% of the industry’s workforce.
It was the sheer bravery of these women that incited major change to the labour movement in the years to come.
Kowsilla's act required boldness and bravery, the will to risk one's life for the greater good of her people. When we think of women like Kowsilla, it's with both grief and gratitude. It’s almost impossible to not imagine the countless other women whose courage broke barriers— but are grateful for each and every one of them.
Kowsilla's own sacrifice has been dubbed "an extraordinary act by an extraordinary woman." Her memory and story must be kept alive.