Clem Seecharan: history man

Clem Seecharan left his home village in Berbice, Guyana, with a yearning to understand his country and his people

Clem Seecharan with Sir Garfield Sobers at London Metropolitan University. Photograph courtesy London Metropolitan UniversityClem Seecharan. Photograph courtesy London Metropolitan UniversityCourtesy Clem SeecharanCourtesy Clem SeecharanCourtesy Clem Seecharan

He’s from Berbice, I am a Demerara boy. Yet here we are, meeting on a wet spring day in a pub in the English Midlands. Not roti and curry, but scampi and chips for us in Coventry. Not rum but red wine. We’ve both come a long way. But the setting is somehow just right. Clem Seecharan likes rum shop life; we first met at the rowdy Everest Cricket Club in Georgetown a decade ago. I nearly remember it.

Professor Clem Seecharan arrived in Britain in 1986 with just US$12 in his pocket. He is now the head of Caribbean studies at London Metropolitan University, and one of the most distinguished Caribbean historians of his day — “The best since Rodney,” his friend, mentor, and fellow Guyanese academic David Dabydeen calls him. His latest book, Muscular Learning: Cricket and Education in the Making of the British West Indies in the Late 19th Century, has just been published. The next one, In Mother India’s Shadow, is not far down the publication track. When we meet, Seecharan is soon to leave the rain of England for the monsoons of India, to put the finishing touches on this latest opus. These trips to the East are not a personal journey, but an ethnic one — “Not to discover my roots, but to discover my people’s roots,” as he puts it to me.

If, heaven forbid, he were to drop dead in India, Seecharan’s legacy would already be secure, in the shape of his book Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934–1966. Published in 2005, this volume has been generously and deservedly heaped with praise. Guyanese literary luminary Ian McDonald, writing in The Caribbean Review of Books, called it “magnificent . . . a classic book which preserves [Campbell’s] legacy for new generations”. The Association of Caribbean Historians chose Sweetening Bitter Sugar for the coveted Elsa Gouveia Prize. The prize jury was unequivocal: “By any measure, Clem Seecharan has produced an extraordinarily impressive book of signal importance in Caribbean history and historiography. In 675 thrilling pages, this magisterial account skilfully manoeuvres the reader through one of the most painfully fragmentary periods in Guyanese history”. And in my own humble, non-professional view, this great tome — rejected by at least one publisher on account of its size — manages to transcend racial and other politics in Guyana to produce a scholarly, readable, and memorable text.

The alchemist of Seecharan’s rise to fame is the diminutive meister of Caribbean literature (Warwick branch), Professor David Dabydeen. “I owe everything to him. He brought me from rearing cattle in Guyana to Warwick, and turned me into an intellectual,” says Seecharan today. It is a mutual fan club. Says Dabydeen of Seecharan: “His work is rigorously scholarly, and yet vibrates with passion, to such an extent that one of his essays on West Indian cricket inspired me immediately to write a poem on [Rohan] Kanhai. It’s rare for a historian to excite the imagination of a writer, but that is Clem’s genius.”

As if that’s not enough, Dabydeen also played Cupid, introducing Seecharan to his wife Chris. She is the co-architect of his success, Seecharan says. “She took to me and took me in and supported me because she saw something in my mind. Without her and David, I would never have achieved anything.” Seecharan, who earned the first PhD from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Caribbean Studies, is hoping that soon his journey around academe will take him back to a personal chair at his alma mater. Dabydeen would support any such move. “I am proud to call Clem my friend,” he says. So are many others. For, unlike so many fellow academics, this professor is very, very approachable. His London book launches are fetes, not salons.

Today, Seecharan wakes up and gazes out of the window of his home in the Warwickshire village of Fillongley, and sees the cows grazing. It reminds him of Guyana, and his humble origins in Palmyra, East Canje, Berbice. “It’s like being back home,” he says. The son of simple folk from a family of cattlemen, he spent his childhood in a cross-racial community on the edge of New Amsterdam. “It was a mixture of Indian peasants and the black proletariat. I was colour-blind,” he remembers.

The scholar in him stirred at a young age. Dabydeen found that out when he dropped in on the Seecharan house in Palmyra. “I visited his parents, and was moved by the humility of their lives, growing vegetables, minding cows. I was struck once again by Clem’s extraordinary achievements, given the fact that his parents were not literate or formally educated people. His father told me, ‘Da bwoy a read book since he baan, only book he hold in he haan. Me had to build am bookcase to keep de house tidy. O Gaad how you see books!’”

Soon, the Berbice Technical Institute in New Amsterdam could not satiate Seecharan’s thirst for knowledge. At fifteen, he won a scholarship to the elite Queen’s College in Georgetown. The best and many of the brightest — including Dabydeen — were there. “I felt there was an intellectual void in me,” Seecharan remembers. “The yearning to know and to better understand Guyana was there, but there was really no history on the place that shaped me over the years for me to look at.”

Queen’s College may have intimidated some; not Seecharan. He went in with his head held high, and left the same, after a few scrapes along the way. In the febrile 1960s, he was an “out and out Jaganite”, a supporter of People’s Progressive Party head Cheddi Jagan. “I spent a lot of time at Freedom House,” he says, cryptically. The then Queen’s College headmaster, a classical scholar, got very upset when Seecharan brought “communists” to speak at the school. He threatened to expel the teenage politico. They came to an arrangement instead. McMaster University in Canada followed, then Britain and Warwick.

Like so many of us “exiles”, Seecharan is a United Nations on legs. “West Indian first, Indian next, and British — I am a triumvirate, and happy in all of them.” He was a regular visitor to Guyana until recently. But today’s Guyana breeds suspicion and fear in him. “I love Guyana. I write about it all the time, but the last three or four years I have been in despair,” is his lament. “My Guyana is not one of guns and drugs — I can’t deal with it.”

The Guyana of Seecharan’s work is a brown, East Indian one. He, more than anyone, has rediscovered the roots of his people. When he started in Indo-Guyanese history, “Very few knew about it. It was shrouded in myth,” he says. “It was a journey of discovery for me to discover the history of Indians in the Caribbean.” In the beginning, only a few other academics — such as Basdeo Mangru at the University of Guyana, and Brinsley Samaroo at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad — were working in the same field.

Seecharan announced himself with verve. He still does. His first step: publishing the work of Joseph Ruhoman, the first important Indo-Guyanese writer, discovered in the University of Guyana library. Seecharan followed this with Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana, 1919–29 in 1997, and Bechu: “Bound Coolie” Radical in British Guiana, 1894–1901 in 1999; both books explored his people’s past through the lives of individuals.

Then as now, Seecharan is not afraid to challenge shibboleths, academic or otherwise. On one big issue, he is crystal-clear. Indenture was most definitely “Not a new system of slavery. Leaving India was a work of courage. People were not kidnapped or tricked. They made a conscious decision to go to the Caribbean for a better life. Especially resourceful single women with tremendous strength and imagination. The history of Indians in Guyana is the history of strong women,” is his considered view. The indentured were driven by the push of poverty and plague in late nineteenth-century Bihar and the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh), but the pull of a new life in the Caribbean also proved strong.

“People made a conscious decision to leave. Conditions were poor in UP and Bihar. Anything was better. It was a stepping-stone to get ‘beyond the dark water’, and only the most enterprising did it.”

Seecharan’s intellectual love affair with India and all things Indian has meant frequent travel to his forefathers’ land. But he is no one-dimensional man, in terms of the ethnicity of his subjects. His Guyana is one of many colours. His 2005 book on Jock Campbell — white English and Irish colonialist, scion of the Booker family, turned social reformer in British Guiana — is a tour de force. To write it, Seecharan spent time not only in the usual libraries and archives, but also simply listening to Campbell himself. As a historiographer, Seecharan achieved the seemingly impossible task of rising above the race, politics, and class biases of too many other writers on the sugar colonialists. He took Campbell at face value; it paid off in spades.

Campbell (and Seecharan) recognised the place of cricket in the social fabric of the sugar estates and towns of British Guiana. Palliative, but providing a field on which races could mix and compete non-violently. Cricket is an obsession with Seecharan. He runs the only academic course on West Indian cricket in Britain at his university. Each year, he invites a distinguished speaker to give the Frank Worrell Memorial Lecture. (Michael Atherton, former England captain, married to a Guyanese, a TV commentator hailed by some as the “new Richie Benaud”, delivered the 2006 lecture.) And Seecharan’s latest work is on cricket. Muscular Learning explores the sociology of cricket in the British Guianese sugar belt before the turn of the last century.

Seecharan has been honoured by the UK Guyanese diaspora, too — he was the winner of a Guyana High Commission (UK) award in 2003. His “academic” events at London Metropolitan University in north London are an excuse for cricketophiles to make their own Bourda out in the cold London air. The young man who arrived with US$12 in his pocket, living with and off an aunt in London, has been transformed twenty years later to a very convivial but still very distinguished professor. You might call him “the Indo-history man”. We both drink to that in the pub in Coventry.