The holes in history

Anita Sethi went to Guyana to find out more about her family — and found that the most meaningful history isn’t always in the archives

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

The paper was achingly fragile. So thin and worn that chunks of it had vanished entirely. So brittle that I was only allowed to touch it if I knew exactly what I was looking for inside the covers of the large, antique book.

Black ink in italic handwriting scrawled across the pages, spelling the names of people born in the years 1899, 1900, 1901 in the villages of Berbice, in what was then British Guiana. Beside each person’s name and date and place of birth were the name of the ship in which their parents had travelled to this corner of South America, and their original place of origin in the Subcontinent. Ship names like Foyle and Ganges floated in the furthest margins of the pages.

I was in the National Archives of Guyana, named for the historian Walter Rodney, looking through records of birth dates and the ships on which indentured labourers came from India in the nineteenth century. I had finally made it to Georgetown after a rollercoaster ride through the villages of Berbice, past chocolate-coloured rivers rising with the thundering rain, past beautiful pink and pale white lilies floating serenely amid the chaos of human life.

At the entrance to the archives building, a sign warned of the dress code: no strappy tops and sandals. I slipped a shawl over my bare shoulders, despite the heat.

“Wah ya look for?” asked the archivist, as I gazed around at maps and huge books and boxes. I showed her the names and birthdates of my grandmother and her brother, and what my great-uncle had told me about his own parents, although dates and correct birth names for this earlier generation are not absolute.

“You need to have the exact information,” the archivist replied, her hands skimming over the faded pages, her finger tracing the names, some of them illegible. She ran her finger across curling inky letters and ruled lines to see if the facts recorded there matched the places and dates of birth I was looking for. My heart jumped as I saw a name that resembled the ones I wanted — Gowrie and Persaud and Subnauth — but as I inspected more closely, the surnames did not match up, or the village of birth was inconsistent.

With each new page, my heart rose with hope that this would be the one to hold the key to my history. And with each page the despair grew that I would not find what I wanted. The thin paper had huge chunks eaten out of it, and lay like a crumpled butterfly’s wing. Names and dates and places had literally vanished.

Here I stood, staring down at a hole in history. I had travelled 5,500 miles across the ocean, in the hope of filling in the gaps in my own narrative. Instead I was staring down at a quite literal gap in the only book which might have held the key facts about the stories of these lives.

That morning I had left my flesh-and-blood relatives far away in their village on the Berbice coast and ventured to this place of paper, which I had thought would hold the true facts to fill in the gaps in my family’s knowledge. But I was met with blanks, albeit among fascinating historical records of other people’s lives. I wished I were back in Berbice, to swap this ruined paper for the people I had left behind, and probe them further about anything they might have forgotten, the details I had not yet had the skill to tease out of their memory.

The archivist advised me to visit the National Registry, where birth certificates were filed. There I might trace my grandmother’s brother’s accurate birth date, and possible facts of his ancestors alongside.

“But not everyone have birth certificate, you know.

“People dem not always know accurate dates.”

Then how, I wondered, was I supposed to supply absolutely accurate information about these histories, when the experts themselves conceded that real and concrete facts were hard to pin down?

Before leaving, I inspected the rest of the room. Another huge book with faded pages sat on a table, this one an archive of newspapers from colonial British Guiana.

“May I look at that?” I asked, hungry to delve into the history of my ancestors’ era.

“Not unless you know what exactly it is you looking for.”

So instead I gazed at a huge map of “The Dutch colony of Berbice, 1740” hung on the wall, with a sign next to it explaining its origins: “Berbice was notorious for its miserable living conditions: the climate is hot and humid. There is even an expression in Dutch, ‘to go to Berbice,’ meaning ‘to die and go to hell.’ Mortality was high among the Europeans, although they had a better chance of survival than the slaves. In 1793 the plantation slaves revolted against their masters. It took a year to suppress this rebellion. With the former Dutch colonies Essequibo and Demarary, Berbice is now part of the Republic of Guyana.”

To go to Berbice . . . to die and go to hell. But now I wished to be back in Berbice, hearing the stories of my living relatives.

A worker at the archives showed me how to get a bus to Regent Street, and I wandered among stalls selling chutney music, a medley of Indian fashions, and African carvings, and further still to whitewashed wooden St George’s Cathedral.

An afternoon rain had thundered down, cooling the air. As I walked amid the quick of Georgetown life and the present moment, the image of those curling papers floated in my mind: their inky skins, their tantalising dates and ship names, the long voyages captured within them, and the holes where records of human lives were once held.


Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Georgetown from Trinidad, Barbados, and New York, with connections to other destinations