The Last English Plantation: 'Planting power in young hearts'
Chris Searle, The Morning Star
JAN SHINEBOURNE found her inspiration for her novel in her own Guyanese childhood.
Growing up in a plantation village near New Amsterdam in the 1950s, she vividly remembers the period as one when the individual isolation of separate villages was being broken down by the pioneering political work of Cheddi Jagan and his Peoples Progressive Party.
'It was a time of the opening up of our lives,' she says, 'and a time rich in the struggle for unity across race and cultures.' She lived through the growing bond that developed between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese communities, a sharing of lives and experiences that had a profound affect upon the way she grew to envision the world.
In The Last English Plantation she has preserved that experience in a strikingly memorable form. The novel tells of two weeks in the life of an Indo-Chinese girl, June Lehall, of her first days at secondary school and of a revolt and crisis at the sugar plantation where her father works. Within this framework of events, and the intensity of discovery crammed into 14 hectic days, is woven a young woman’s gradual growth to consciousness, the complex relationship between her and her pregnant mother who is desperate for her to move up an entire social class, and the death throes of the British plantation system, futilely propped up by the entry of British troops, who were brought in by Churchill to remove Cheddi Jagan’s government in 1953.
Decay and growth are juxtaposed and counterpointed all through the novel, as its author skilfully manages to portray the demise of an economic and political system on one hand, and the individual realisation in one young mind of the force of her people’s power on the other. Jan Shinebourne speaks of 'the sense of tragedy and loss in Guyana that followed this period of its history despite the formal end of British colonialism'. For what came after was the Forbes Burnham government, installed through the skullduggery of the CIA, which began its reign of racial politics and communal strife.
This disintegrated the unity, portrayed with such authenticity in the novel, and signalled the neo-colonial betrayal of the Guyanese people. Burnham’s deformed rule also recreated the isolation between town and country that the Jagan years had begun to break down. It created new forms of domination that replaced the decrepit economic structures of British imperialism.
When Jan Shinebourne returned to Guyana in 1987 to receive the Guyana Literary Prize for her first novel, Timepiece, she felt very directly that the unity of her childhood was now something of history. The Last English Plantation is both educative in what it explains about Caribbean politics and satisfying in the way that it makes those politics enter the heart. Perhaps the most enduring feature of Jan Shinebourne’s novel is the integrity of her characters and the strength of their dialogue. With their words they produce a formidable energy, and they continually spark poetry.
Jan Shinebourne says that she wants the book to contribute to reinvigorating the historical unity and purpose of the period she describes and hopes that the novel will be read widely by young people in Guyana’s schools.
This is the use to which the progressive culture of her people must be put. In her own words: 'Our cultural politics must represent the vision, power and creativity of our people.'
This review relates to the book
The Last English Plantation
by Jan Lowe Shinebourne