Remembering the Wismar Massacre
Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
On May 26th, we commemorate fifty-seven years since the Wismar Massacre took place in the Wismar-Christianburg-Mackenzie area of Guyana in 1964.
While Guyana also celebrates its independence from the British on the 26th, there is another side to this day that is far more dark. The Wismar Massacre was a significant historical event triggered by the political and ethnic divide in Guyana.
Interestingly, the strikes within the sugar industry by the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union is tied in as one of the triggers to this event. During the strike, the political division that had developed between Indo and Afro Guyanese was prominent. Most Indo-Guyanese were strong supporters of the People’s Progressive Party led by Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan and the majority of Afro-Guyanese supported the People’s National Congress led by Mr. Forbes Burnham. The strike commenced in February 1964 and started peacefully, but as time passed and no solution was in sight, tempers flared. Shortly after, two non-strikers were killed by a bomb blast at Tain on the Corentyne Coast and a G.A.W.U. supporter (we might remember as Kowsilla) squatting at the entrance of Leonora Sugar Factory was crushed by an estate tractor.
Following these incidents, both parties claimed their martyrs.
In the early 1960s, the villages of Wismar and Christianburg were heavily populated by Afro-Guyanese (roughly 90%) and Indo-Guyanese made up the remaining. The villages, located in the mining town of Mackenzie are sixty-five miles from the capital of Georgetown. Following the incidents, violence intensified over the East and West Coast of the Demerara. Many were murdered and arson and bombings became common. On May 20th, the home of Pandit Ramlackhan was bombed and on the 21st an Afro-Guyanese couple was murdered, sparking the brutality that was to commence over the next five days.
The massacre of Indo-Guyanese began in Wismar and lasted for over thirty-eight hours.
It began on Sunday May 24th and concluded on Tuesday May 26. In between the inciting incidents and massacre, a number of Indo-Guyanese homes were set on fire or bombed. In the thirty-eight hours of terror, around 3000 Indo-Guyanese in Wismar and Christianburg were victims. Some 1800 Afro-Guyanese, armed with cutlasses, wooden poles, gas bombs and guns, burnt and destroyed over 230 Indo-Guyanese homes and businesses. People and families seeking shelter from the attacks were confronted and beaten by large mobs of Afro-Guyanese yelling “kill di coolies.” Some families managed to escape the villages and hid in the nearby forests where they were more likely to survive but many were eventually hunted down.
One documented experience was that of a family confronted by a large mob who beat the wife unconscious, repeatedly stabbed the husband, and kicked and molested the two small children. Hundreds more were brutally beaten and many women and girls were raped, some more than once. Only eight women were documented to have been raped, but it’s likely that this number was much higher and many chose not to come forward due to the social repercussions that were associated with rape. Amongst the brutalities, one man was burnt alive. Another man, a PPP supporter named Mr. Ramjattan, was found decapitated. Injuries ranged from gunshot wounds, knife wounds, burns, broken bones and mutilated bodies.
One man had both his legs and feet broken.
By the end of the massacre, over 1500 Indo-Guyanese became homeless. On the evening of May 25th, two river steamers were commissioned to take the first group of 1300 Indo-Guyanese refugees to Georgetown. Upon arriving, they were booed, jeered and pelted with bricks by Afro-Guyanese residing in the city. Of the 1300 that arrived, 300 found shelter with relatives while the rest took refuge in the pier warehouse in Georgetown, sleeping on the concrete floor with tarpaulins and rice bags. Another temporary shelter quickly went up at a factory outside Georgetown and many other refugees were later sheltered in predominantly Indo-Guyanese areas. In the days that followed, about 500 Indo-Guyanese who had been hiding in forests surrounding Wismar and Christianburg came out of hiding and were taken to the available refugee camps.
In the thirty-eight hours of the massacre, many members of the Police and Volunteer forces look part in the looting, beating and killing. No Afro-Guyanese were arrested and only two were recorded to have been wounded by bullets. British Troops arrived a day after the massacre ended to support citizens in the aftermath. Their only suggestion was to continue evacuating the area and to impose a curfew.
After all that had already occurred without their help, the curfew did little to ease the fear of the Indo-Guyanese community.
In 1966, PNC leader Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham sent a strong message to the Indo-Guyanese community when he recommended May 26th as the official Independence Day for Guyana from the British. He had also gone ahead and changed the name of the town Mackenzie to Linden, after himself. It is said that Burnham’s motivation for renaming the town was to mark it as his greatest political victory—that he had reigned supreme over Indo-Guyanese. The renaming was a message to the Indo-Guyanese community that if they tried to challenge his authority, they might expect a similar fate as the community did in 1964.
While the PPP had also fought hard for the freedom of Guyana and was pleased with the end of British rule, they could not participate in the celebrations to the fullest as it was on the exact date that hundreds of Indo-Guyanese were brutally attacked and murdered.
The Wismar Massacre proves to be one of the country’s worst incidents of racial violence, but also one that has been kept secret and not often spoken of. During the period following the massacre, many Indo-Guyanese did not come forward to the Police about specific incidents, and many Police turned a blind eye and did little to punish those who committed crimes. The political divide was still very much prevalent and did little to encourage reparations within the two communities.
To this day, many survivors have chosen to not speak about the traumatic event or pass on the stories to younger generations.
As we acknowledge Indian Arrival Month and celebrate Guyana’s Independence Day on May 26th, let us all take a moment to remember and acknowledge those who suffered during this brutal act and recognize that this day is still very much a sensitive one for many in our community. To this day, the Indo-Guyanese community hasn’t received any formal apology, nor has there been any attempt from the government to compensate victims. There is hope that one day Independence will be officially changed, including all Indo-Guyanese in the celebration and to acknowledge and respect the victims of Wismar.
Guyana Under Siege - Aims to highlight, discuss, and offer ideas and solutions to the problems in Guyana. (n.d.). http://www.guyanaundersiege.com/History/wismar/wismar%20page.htm.
The New York Times. (1964, May 27). East Indians Flee Race Violence In British Guiana Mining Area. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/05/27/archives/east-indians-flee-race-violence-in-british-guiana-mining-area.html.
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Thomas, M. (2019, November 20). Guyana's Independence Date is bitter-sweet for some. Toronto Caribbean Newspaper. https://torontocaribbean.com/guyanas-independence-date-is-bitter-sweet-for-some/.
We must also commemorate Wismar Massacre on May 26. Kaieteur News. (2019, May 27). https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2019/05/27/we-must-also-commemorate-wismar-massacre-on-may-26/.
The Wismar Comission Report. (n.d.). http://www.guyana.org/features/wismar_report.html.