The intervention in British Guiana, 1953
By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role on the World
“To secure desired result some preparation of public opinion seems to be essential [sic]” (British delegation to the UN, 1953)
In April 1953, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) under Cheddi Jagan won 18 out of the 24 seats in British Guiana’s first elections under universal suffrage. But Jagan’s programme of social and economic reforms was the wrong type of democracy for British planners – since it threatened control over the territory’s resources by British and allied business interests. Britain sent a cruiser, two frigates and seven hundred troops to its colony, suspended the constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government 133 days after it had assumed office.
In British Guiana the key resources were sugar and, to a lesser extent, bauxite. Twenty-eight thousand people out of the country’s total working population of l00,000 were employed in the sugar industry. About 20 per cent of the population lived on the sugar estates, more than half of them in estate-owned houses. Almost all the sugar cane was grown on seventeen large plantations owned by private companies. One of these – Booker Bros. McConnell – had a controlling interest in the majority of the plantations. The colony’s bauxite exports accounted for one fifth of total world production; 90 per cent of the colony’s output was in the hands of a single company, the Demerara Bauxite Company, a subsidiary of the Aluminium Company of Canada (ALC). Together, sugar and bauxite accounted for 90 per cent of the country’s exports: the country was therefore effectively owned and controlled by Britain in alliance with two transnational companies.
In 1953, Britain had great future plans for the colony. It was seeking to massively increase the extraction of timber and, according to the Governor, a “great development is also taking place in the gold mining industry and quite recently there has been an upsurge of interest in the search for strategic minerals”. However, to attract the foreign capital to develop these resources required “that in the coming years conditions in British Guiana should continue to be such as will attract it – conditions political as well as otherwise…Nothing must be done which could sap confidence.”
British Guiana’s colonial function was to provide cheap raw materials to Britain and other rich nations. Its bauxite provided 85 per cent of the supply for the Canadian aluminium industry, contributing to the large profits (Canadian $29 million in 1951) made by ALC. In turn, Britain secured most of its aluminium supplies from Canada. According to ALC’s 1952 company report, a substantial amount of its aluminium shipments went to the “defence needs” of Britain and the US.
A British government report of 1953 observed with some understatement that: “The mining companies (mostly Demerara Bauxite Co.) have made profits of approximately £lm a year for the past four years and have distributed £600,000 a year in dividends… There may well, therefore, be scope for some increase in mining taxation in the territory”. The Colonial Office later noted that the sugar companies were open to criticism for being “‘big business’, very efficiently run, but run for the sole benefit of their owners or shareholders”.
The less fortunate in this state of affairs were those upon whose backs the system functioned. The people of British Guiana endured “squalor and poverty” in a society with a “long glaring contrast between rich and poor”, the Manchester Guardian commented in 1953. An earlier official report described the population as living “closely crowded in ranges on the verge of collapse, lacking every amenity and frequently almost surrounded by stagnant water”. By 1949 there were “dilapidated and obsolete ranges, long condemned from all quarters”. These ranges were built by the sugar estates to house the indentured labourers.
The Governor noted: “The sugar estates are to a considerable extent the crux of the situation … It is there that the extremist is so well supported. It is so easy for him to point to the dreadful housing and social conditions which exist (and to ignore the improvements) and compare them with the comfortable quarters and the neat compounds and the recreational facilities of the staff who are predominantly European. It is also easy for him to allege unfair profits being transferred to absentee landlords and to blame, as is done, the British government for the conditions which exist.”
It was mainly because Jagan’s PPP sought to improve the “dreadful housing and social conditions” that it was elected to office. The British Commonwealth Relations Office stated that the PPP “was in fact elected to power on a mildly socialist programme, the implementation of which would have been in general of great value to the territory”. The Colonial Secretary – a key figure in ordering the overthrow of the government – noted a week after the PPP’s electoral triumph that its programme was “no more extreme” than that of the British Labour Party. “It contains none of the usual communist aims and it advocates industrial development through the encouragement of foreign capital”.
The Colonial Secretary then magnanimously suggested: “We should … accept the verdict of the electorate”. But Britain would “take action without delay if [PPP leaders] seek to use their position to further the communist cause”, whether elected or not.
In practice Jagan’s and the PPP’s plans went beyond the acceptable. They called for redistributing resources towards the welfare needs of the workforce, increasing minimum wage levels and health services and strengthening the position of the trade unions. They also urged curbing the exploitation and dominance of the sugar multinational, Bookers, and exposed the sugar companies’ privileged position in terms of their access to public funds which bolstered the profits the industry generated and sent abroad.
Jagan’s worldview was also beyond the pale to the British, correctly noting, for example: “Present British foreign policy has meant a crushing burden of rearmament and dependence on the dollar areas for food and raw materials, which can be paid for, not by the export of industrial goods to the dollar areas, but only by the continued exploitation of dollar earning raw material, food and mineral resources from Malaya, Africa, British Guiana and other parts of the Colonial Empire. A11 the so-called development plans for the colonial territories have been devised with this aim in view”.
In August 1953, the PPP ministers called for a strike by the sugar workers who were fighting for the Sugar Producers’ Association to recognise their union. By 10 September, the Governor of British Guiana was noting that the sugar industry was “at complete standstill”. Bookers stated that the strike meant “a loss of profits” and that “the present situation can only be dealt with effectively by the Colonial Office”. Indeed, “unless something drastic is done, Bookers will cease to exist as a large firm in 5 years”.
Although the sugar strike effectively ended, it left its mark and it was clear that the PPP retained the wrong priorities. All in all, the PPP had “overstepped the limits of what we regard as decent government”, one British MP later explained.
On 9 October, the British Governor announced that the constitution was being suspended and the elected ministers were being removed from office. A few hundred British troops landed and three warships remained stationed off the Guianan coast. The Queen signed the order suspending the constitution and overthrowing the government.
British pretexts and reality
British concerns were clear. The Colonial Secretary noted on the day that intervention was decided upon that the PPP had “completely destroyed the confidence of the business community and all moderate opinion”. Later, he said that Britain “took action before that further deterioration showed itself in the action of the business community”. He also stated that “a number of American or overseas firms … were already abandoning their projects in British Guiana” and that they “were very apprehensive about the dangerous political climate”. The danger was that conditions were being created that were “inimical to investment either domestic or overseas”. Thus the PPP were “threatening the order of the Colony” and undermining “its present economic stability”.
In December the Colonial Secretary again warned of the threat of democracy, noting that if Britain had permitted new elections in British Guiana instead of suspending the constitution “the same party would have been elected again”.
Since overthrowing nationalist leaders who advocate improving the social conditions of the poor is not good public relations, a suitable pretext was necessary. So when the intervention was announced to the Guianan people on 9 October, the Governor stated that Britain was acting “to prevent Communist subversion of the government”. The elected ministers and the PPP were: “completely under the control of a communist clique…Their objective was to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian state subordinate to Moscow and a dangerous platform for extending communist influence in the Western hemisphere”.
This public stance was repeated (presumably also with a straight face) by the man who had previously said in secret correspondence that the PPP programme was “no more extreme” than his own party’s. The Colonial Secretary told the House of Commons that it was all “part of the deadly design to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian state dominated by communist ideas”. Britain was “faced with part of the international communist conspiracy”.
The declassified files further give this game away. Britain’s delegation to the United Nations cabled the Colonial Secretary a week before the overthrow and stated: “If our action can be presented as firm step taken to prevent attempt by communist elements to sabotage new and progressive constitution, it will be welcomed by American public and accepted by most United Nations opinion. If on the other hand it is allowed to appear as just another attempt by Britain to stifle a popular nationalist movement…effect can only be bad…To secure desired result some preparation of public opinion seems to be essential” [sic].
The US supported the British attack on British Guiana, saying that it was “gratified to note that the British government is taking firm action to meet the situation”. The British embassy in Washington declared that the State Department “have worked in very well with us over this crisis … if the Jagans wished to come to this country in order to publicise their case they would not be allowed visas. This goes for any of their buddies too”.
The opposition Labour Party supported the intervention. James Griffiths, the former Colonial Secretary, agreed in the House of Commons with the Governor’s statement that the PPP leaders’s aim “was to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian state subordinate to Moscow”. Labour leader Clement Attlee also agreed, only questioning whether the government had exhausted all the options before acting; thus Labour accepted Britain’s right to overthrow democracy, only disputing its timing.
Griffiths also sympathised with his successor as Colonial Secretary, noting that “the office is an interesting, exciting, hard and responsible one for we are dealing with 70 million people who are growing up. They are adolescents who are politically immature”.
The subsequent British task was to ensure that business as usual would prevail under conditions of economic stability. The elected government was replaced by one nominated by the Governor, which contained many members who had been defeated candidates in the April elections. Two of the PPP leaders – Cheddi and Janet Jagan – were sentenced to six months hard labour for violating restriction orders; other leaders were detained without trial for three-month periods.
In a House of Commons debate two weeks after the overthrow of democracy, the Colonial Secretary observed, presumably again with a straight face, that the British Government “must steadily … seek to build up a political system in British Guiana which will give the inhabitants a chance of developing democratic institutions”. Britain would now foster “some body representing Guianese opinion upon whose advice the Governor may rely” but “upon whose advice he will not be bound to act in the interim period”.
Eighteen months after the intervention the Governor commented that he needed “one company of regular troops until representative government has been successfully restored”. The presence of British troops would provide “a short term insurance against disorders” since “while political activity is at an enforced standstill it would be rash to dispense with all troops”.