Guyanese Perspectives on Jonestown

by Dr. Khaleel Mohammed

(Dr. Khaleel Mohammed is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, where he specializes in Islam, Muslim and Jewish Dialogue, and Gender Issues. He is a native of Guyana. Dr. Mohammed can be reached at khaleel.mohammed@sdsu.edu.)

Abstract:

For many Guyanese, Jonestown was something that could not have happened in their native land. Many staunch church-goers still deny details of the happening, and seek to attribute the news reports of the event to some satanic plot to defame a true servant of God. Others view it as something that is to be used as a learning experience for those who incline towards “cults.” In this ethnographic research I interview priests, preachers, and laypersons, trying to examine how Guyanese deal with the issue today. I examine questions of the possibility of recurrence, and the repercussions on the image of the Christian community in a society that knows several different religions.

Prelimary Draft:

GUYANESE PERPECTIVES ON JONESTOWN
Khaleel Mohammed
Department of Religious Studies
San Diego State University

Great site keep up the good works we need to bombard cyberspace with all of the good things that Guyana has to offer. I am tired of the false persona that Jim Jones has ascribed to my country. Whenever I say to some one that I am from Guyana I am always asked. “Is that the place where Jim Jones killed all of those people?” or “Where in Africa is that?” So I congratulate you and all like you. May G D continue to inspire you. [1]

The above e-mail, written two decades after the horrible happenings in Jonestown, eloquently attests to how many Guyanese still view the affair. Much has been written about Jonestown, but strangely, despite the fact that the Jonestown was in Guyana, and members of the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Forces were the first on the scene, not a single reliable expose has come forth from any Guyanese in authority.[2]

This observation was one that I decided to probe, for as a Guyanese, I know that my people are not especially known for their taciturn nature, and I was curious to investigate the reasons behind their screaming silence. I therefore decided to conduct a survey, interviewing those who were either directly involved in the camp or in the post-November 1978 events. To this effect, I placed an ad on a Guyanese website which stated basically that I was interested in learning what went on in Jonestown, and to find out what had led the Guyana government to allow such strange happenings within its borders.

I got several answers to my advertisement, but strangely none of the people wanted to give direct information as to how I could contact them. Several offered, for a price, information that was readily available, such as excerpts from newspapers, and downloaded material from websites.  Many expressed frustration that once again, inquiry into Jonestown was coming not from within Guyana, but from someone in North America. Nonetheless, there were a few who were finally happy that a Guyanese not affiliated with the government was finally investigating this act, and felt that they could be a bit more open in expressing their feelings.[3]

Despite the fact that the government under which Jonestown occurred has been removed, several of the career civil servants who contacted me insisted on remaining unidentified. And once they heard that I was coming to work in the United States, specifically in California, they became more apprehensive.  Faced with such difficulties, I decided to amend my research goal This paper therefore, through an ethnographic approach, seeks to present Guyanese perceptions as to why Jonestown could happen, and the repercussions from the worldwide focus on a country that had previously garnered little attention on the world press.  I do not discuss the theories of the suicide/murders for two reasons: (1) none of the interviewees could offer any reliable information (2) there are several conspiracy theories present; I do not feel any constructive purpose would be achieved by adding to those theories.

Of the fifteen people who initially indicated an interest in answering my questions, only eight were willing to remain available for interviews after finding out that I was moving to the United States.[4] Of those eight, only four will allow themselves to be identified, and the remaining four adamantly safeguard their identity, on condition that they have to personally meet with me in Guyana. In deference to their concerns, I have chosen to refer by initials only to those who do not wish to be fully identified; these initials are NOT indicative of their actual names. I have agreed to their conditions because there is the ring of truth in the uniform reason they present. They have, they declare, several bits of information, including the identity of those who destroyed evidence by fire, those who received bribes to cover up certain happenings, and those who aided and abetted Jim Jones to obtain all the necessary documentation to function as a welcome dignitary in the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.[5] Their silence thus far, and their refusal to be identified now are, they declare, as a result of threats made by the American investigators. The story they tell, with amazing uniformity, even though those that I contacted worked in several different areas of different ministries and likely did not know each other, is that they were threatened not by the Guyanese authorities, but by the influential US personnel. The threats were in two main forms: those who had relatives in the US would see those relatives deported, and/or would themselves lose their jobs in Guyana since that country’s government did not want to have anything uncovered that would anger the US.[6]

It became quite evident that despite the several works on the Jonestown massacre showing Jim Jones to be a tyrant, he had a charisma that appealed to Guyanese who were heavily socialist. Nicky Porter, head of the Israelite Nation Church in Toronto, who now goes by the title Elder Shadrock states that, “Guyana was a socialist country and much of the land in the interior was unexplored. Jim Jones came with a socialist manifesto.and he was fulfilling the government’s goal of settling the interior.”[7] K.B puts the matter into a more popular perspective:

The Guyanese reception to North American missionary activity has always been warm. To a country that is not particularly rich, the missionaries brought schools, books, trained teachers and other forms of aid. Jim Jones made it clear that to him Guyana was a promised land, and the circumstances at the time made it extremely attractive-to a people influenced by the predominant third world’s increasing annoyance at the US and its capitalist policies, to the a people to whom Castro and Guevara were heroes, Jim Jones offered much. Castro and Guevara, Lenin and Trotsky were all figures that, while famous, did not function in Guyana. Here was a man, not from the nation, SELECTING Guyana to be his center of rejection of the United States. He did not preach about a white Jesus nor did he preach that Guevara and Castro were devils; rather he preached that their way was proper and that the Americans and their racism were rejecting truth. It is therefore easy to see why he was given such a warm welcome by the government; had he been rejected, that would have been notable. In fact, the government called Mr. Henry Cameron out of retirement to work closely with Jim Jones and his people, to make available all the facilities that the country could offer them.

B.M. who is one of those who refuses to be identified, corroborates the above by stating that Jim Jones was the perfect answer to the Guyana government’s predicament. In a country beset by racial strife, here was a white man, a figure of automatic authority in any former British colony, willing to go into the wild interior and settle there.[8] He had untold wealth, and was going to harness the numerous rapids and waterfalls to introduce hydro-power to this third-world nation. The concept had been widely discussed, but never implemented, for the finance needed to transfer the power of the mighty Kaieteur Falls was simply not in Guyana. The Guyana government had attempted to court several foreign powers, including neighboring Brazil to harness the numerous rapids and waterfalls in the interior. Those efforts had met with little success, and with the Arab oil-embargo, the expense of producing electricity for the nation often proved too much. Electrical outages were an almost daily occurrence in Georgetown, the capital city. Many of the outlying areas did not even have access to government electrical power supplies.

C.E. outlines the issue thus: The overwhelming majority of Jones’ followers were African-American-and this was also in the government’s best interests. The Indo-Guyanese majority in Guyana had, during the years of the Jagan government[9], received preferential treatment. The Burnham[10] government had offered similar treatment to the African-Guyanese, and had succeeded in keeping the police force and civil service administrative positions largely staffed by distinctively pro-government African- Guyanese. But, in conformity with its socialist manifesto, the government wanted to involve, or provide a model that would spur African-Guyanese to involve themselves in agriculture, upstaging the effort of the Jagan government years earlier.

In the very early 1960’s, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had pioneered a vast resettlement and jungle clearing effort on the Corentyne coast in Berbice[11] to create the Black Bush Polder. The mostly Indo-Guyanese recipients of the land had made that area of the most productive agricultural areas in the country, consisting of some 24,000 acres of agricultural lands, spanning four settlements: Lesbeholden, Mibicuri, Yakusari, and Johanna. This had been a standard of success that the People’s National Congress had tried to emulate, and had implemented a policy of optimum land utilization, inviting people from several countries to settle in the Guyana hinterland. In seeking to take advantage of its being in power, the PNC government had forcefully carved out an African-Guyanese settlement in the Black Bush Polder. This settlement, known as Zambia, had not met with the success of the other four Indo-Guyanese areas. 

Given that African Guyanese would presumably take an example from the African-American following of Jim Jones, it was in the best interests of the Guyana government to facilitate the success of his Jonestown enterprise, with his aim of establishing an agrarian, self-sufficient economy in defiance of the U.S and all capitalist powers. C.E. points out that Jim Jones had not merely established a church but had rather applied and received permission to establish the Peoples’ Temple Agricultural Mission.[12] If it succeeded, it would rival, and hopefully outdo what the PPP government had achieved. This then, while not the primary reason, was one of the factors why Jones was given such a long rein by the Guyanese government.

K.Y. points out too that since the PNC government sought to fully exploit for the Afro-Guyanese voters, the Afrocentrism that had become rampant based on the Black Power movement in the U.S. Jim Jones coming to Guyana with a group of predominantly African Americans to escape his own country’s racism, showed that Guyana was somehow a model of tolerance at best; at the very least it was a haven for people of African origins, regardless of their citizenship. Guyana was, like the African countries that had defied the US and adopted the socialist outlook, becoming the South American land of promise for the African people.

K.B. also points out that at the time of Jim Jones going into the interior, the PNC government was trying to entice the nation’s youth, in face of the economic difficulties of the nation, to settle the hitherto untamed jungle. The Guyana Youth Corp had been formed and under kibbutz style operations, settlement clearings and agriculture were being attempted. These efforts, however, met with little success. For most Guyanese, the way to success lay outside of Guyana-and emigration figures were at an all-time high, which is what explains why the Guyana population figures have remained largely frozen for the last three decades. This “brain-drain” was beginning to have several negative effects on the government-it had to import doctors from India, Korea and the Philippines while its own nationals excelled in the medical and other professional fields in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

The arrival of Jim Jones’ Americans was an indication to Guyanese that their country was indeed a promised land. Americans brought coveted US currency with them, and would be an attraction to Guyanese to join them in farming the interior, moving away from the coastline. This concurs with the information that was provided by Deborah Layton  in her book Seductive Poison.[13]

Jim Jones minions also took advantage of the low salaries of the Guyanese officials to offer bribes and thus gain concessions that would not normally have been granted. Policemen, magistrates, and several high-ranking civil servants were virtually in the pay of Jim Jones. K.B admits to having received “incentives” from Jim Jones’ personnel to facilitate the issuance of several permits and licenses that would normally not be issued to anyone, much less foreign nationals.

These are the financial and political/ideological reasons that allowed Jonestown to become a viable enterprise. In addition to this, as Nicky Porter points out, the geography of Guyana allowed the little settlement to maintain its isolation. There was no overland route to the Port Kaituma area, and since there was no such thing as a Guyana Airforce, nor were the police known to have an effective fleet of aircraft, Jim Jones was able to have a jungle kingdom. Guyanese superstition did not look unfavorably against those brave enough to face the unknown, possibly evil spirits of the jungle.  While Jim Jones’ followers may have been, at worst, regarded as eccentric then, there was no effort to deport them or remove them. Guyana has traditionally not had any problem with immigrants, and it would have been unthinkable to seek to remove those who had come there to flee the persecution of the U.S., settling in the name of socialism and God.

It is difficult to assess with any amount of reliability the conspiracy and mysterious theories that are hinted at or openly propounded by some. Much ink has been spilt focusing on Dr. Leslie Mootoo, government pathologist at the time of Jonestown. In light of his initial findings, many current Guyana government officials refuse to believe that there was mass suicide. The theories that there was in fact mass homicide are rapidly taking root. It is possible that much of this is due to the plethora of material (and painstakingly  detailed conspiracy theories) now available via the internet, although the people interviewed claimed not to have availed themselves of such cyber-data.

Are there any repercussions for Christian missionary activity? While a small nation of only 750,000, Guyana is a place of intense religious feeling. In the wake of concentrated American evangelistic efforts, and Saudi Arabia Muslim missionary activity, it would seem that the Jonestown debacle would present a roadblock to any movement with pronounced cult-like tendencies. Dr. Alice Brown, Protestant Chaplain at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, experienced in missionary activity in Guyana, notes that while Guyanese are uncomfortable with discussing Jonestown, they seem to harbor no ill-feeling towards missionary ventures. The other interviewees also saw no repercussions on Christian missionary activity, whether they were cult-like or not. In fact, there seems to be a widespread feeling that much is yet unknown about Jim Jones and what happened at Jonestown because the U.S. government was somehow afraid of him, and that he had some strange mystical powers. While the interviewees all feel that he had been a tyrant, they feel that much of his behavior was the natural result of being persecuted and hounded for his beliefs that opposed the imperialistic outlook of the United States. In the wake of Jim Jones, Christian missionary activity is at an all-time high in Guyana, although such activity comes from larger church groups and not individualist preachers.

Yet, I found some Guyanese that see a sort of benefit in the Jim Jones episode. Dr. Kadir Baksh, well-known Toronto lawyer and radio talk-show figure on Guyanese affairs, feels that international focus on Guyana after the November 18 horror eventually   forced the PNC government to abandon its practice of rigging elections.  This came about because much of the C.I.A. conspiracy theories, true or not, led to disclosure of facts that let it be known how the U.S. government had engineered the emergence of a corrupt government in Guyana.  As if to wash its hands of this crime, the U.S. was among the nations that sent observers to ensure fair elections. Such foreign focus led to stricter electoral procedures and the re-election of the man John F. Kennedy had declared was to be unseated at all costs, and at whose order the C.I.A launched a campaign that fomented the nation’s most sanguinary internecine strife.[14] For many Guyanese, there are several ironies to Jonestown. That so many Americans died, that so many of them were African American, paved the way for the reemergence of a government that the Americans and many Afro-Guyanese had long stood against. The socialist polity that Jones wanted to found in the Guyana interior is now the political philosophy of the present Guyana government. 

Kadir Baksh adds:

I find it quite strange that while Jim Jones and his people were in Guyana, the government sent some of its biggest names to work with them-such as Henry Cameron, a decorated retiree-and then, after the catastrophe, sought to distance itself from Jones. This was because the government was expecting miracles, exploited the religiosity of the Guyanese people and now wants to cover everything up. The government was quite aware that Jim Jones was a controversial figure, but allowed him to have a faith-healing service at the Sacred Heart Church in Georgetown. The Guyanese who came were duped into believing two things: (1) That the power Roman Catholic Church had approved Jim Jones ministry, and (2) Jim Jones did have fantastic healing powers.[15] And then after the catastrophe, Shirley Field-Ridley also used her power as a minister to curtail every bit of independent investigation, forbidding the GBS[16] and other stations to adequately cover the event.

In summary, while this survey did not unearth any dynamic new theories or evidence, it brings into focus certain realities that have not been hitherto considered in assessing the Jim Jones affair. The then-Guyanese obsession with the Black Power movement, the nation’s respect of Castro and Guevara with the growing third world’s discontent with U.S imperialism are among some of the factors that paved the way for Jim Jones welcome. The government’s desire to have people populate the wild interior, harness its hydro-resources, and improve on the country’s agrarian potential are also factors that motivated the government to aid Jones in is enterprise. The nation’s need for U.S. dollars also is a factor. The U.S. government still steadfastly prevents access to many of documents on the issue, and this had led many Guyanese to feel that there is a lot of misinformation about Jim Jones, and that he should not be judged in the wholly negative manner that the press has presented.[17] The results of this survey indicate that the theories of Weber and Durkheim regarding the emergence of prophetic personalities are still cogent.[18] The current needs of impoverished socialist Guyana, with its invitation to foreign investment, the religiosity of its people and their admiration of American evangelists still provide a most fertile base for the reemergence of a Peoples Temple.  

Appendix

People who agreed to be mentioned

(1)   Dr. Kadir Baksh, Former Customs Officer, Government of Guyana.
(2)   Shakoor Manraj, Former Lawyer, Guyana
(3)   Nicky Porter, now known as Elder Shadrock, Founder of the Israelite Nation in Toronto, Canada
(4)   Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, Chaplain: Brandeis University, MA. Dr. Brown is not Guyanese. I have still, however, chosen to consult her since, in her ministry to Guyanese, she gleaned much in terms of assessing Guyanese perceptions of Jonestown.

Initials of those who did not want to be identified:

K.B.
B.M.
C.E.
K.Y.

September 28, 2003

Endnotes:

[1] [The site at http://guyana.gwebworks.com/guestbook/html/guestbook_pg9.s is no longer active.]

[2] My thanks to Dr. Rebecca Moore for making available to me her copy of the Guyana Television “Jonestown-20 years After” produced by Martin Goolsaran. While of amateurish quality, the video is excellent in terms of material, and shows perhaps the last interview with Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the pathologist who was sent in by the Government of Guyana to investigate the cause(s) of deaths.

[3] This is probably in reference to Martin Goolsaran who investigated the event in his capacity as a representative of Guyana Television. One of the most important bits of information on that video was where Cecil Griffith, former managing editor of the Guyana Broadcasting Service, reveals that the then Minister of Information, Shirley Field-Ridley ordered him NOT to give any information or publish anything over and above what the government had disclosed. This was despite the fact that the BBC and other news media were giving detailed information.

[4] My personal information on some Guyana websites were placed when I was still resident in Canada. During my initial investigation, I was commuting between Boston and Montreal on a weekly basis, and could make the trip across to Toronto for some personal interviews. Once I moved to San Diego, this was no longer feasible and many would-be informants simply refused to respond to my messages.

[5] the jonestown report notes the alarming number of official records that have been somehow lost, burned, withheld by the U.S. government. As Jim Hougan notes, there is an “imposed institutional amnesia…” (the jonestown report, (4) November 2002: 5. He leans toward the view expressed above, stating that “.It is possible (even likely) that the Guyanese were trying to eliminate evidence of bribes paid by the Peoples’ Temple to various government officials. It is also possible that there is more involved.”

[6] Two of the potential interviewees indicated a fear of Jim Jones himself: that he had not died, but had disappeared and would return to chastise those who caused him to have his followers commit suicide. This belief is somewhat partly borne out by Martin Goolsaran’s interview with Leo Crème on his “Jonestown” program. In this interview, Leo Crème, one of the former employees of Jonestown adamantly states that Jim Jones escaped, because he was too great to die.

[7] Jones called his approach “apostolic socialism.” See Maaga, Mary. 1989: 8. Hearing the Voices of Jonestown. Syracuse: University Press. Many Americans may find it incredible that the government of Guyana had so much hope for Jim Jones. For more evidence, see Layton, Deborah, 1998. Seductive Poison, New York: Doubleday. 154ff. Here she documents the visit not of any government official, but of Guyana’s then Prime Minister, Linden Forbes Burnham to Port Kaituma. Jones also had a master’s ability to court public officials; see Wooden, Kenneth, 1981.  Children of Jonestown.New York: McGraw-Hill. 91-115:, aptly titled “Politics+ Public Relations=Power.”

[8] Compare with the foreword by Charles Krause: “(J)ones offered the promise of a socialist society free of materialism and racism at a time when such society was particularly attractive.” (in Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison, 1998: New York: Doubleday, xiv) When I informed B.M. of this statement of Layton’s, he focused on the issue of freedom from materialism that was so appealing to the Guyana government’s recognition. The government had banned several items that it deemed unnecessary for the nation: among them imported cooking oil, Canadian and U.S. apples, prunes and several industrial items.

[9] Cheddi Jagan was head of the People’s Progressive Party, hereinafter referred to as the PPP.

[10] In 1966, with the assistance of the CIA, and amidst widespread reports of electoral fraud, the People’s National Congress (PNC) assumed power in Guyana, by an alliance with the United Freedom party (UF). After assuming power, the head of the PNC, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, a charismatic politician gradually assumed the de-facto totalitarian figurehead leadership of Guyana. Like Cheddi Jagan had done before him in regards to the Indo-Guyanese, he exploited the racial divide of the country, reaching out to the Afro-Guyanese population.

[11] Guyana is divided into three counties: Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice. Cheddi Jagan, leader of the PPP party was from Berbice, which is known for its Indo-Guyanese majority.

[12] Maaga, 6-7. According to Maaga, 3824 acres were leased, and the preparation for agriculture was done by the slash and burn method.  Jones had actually applied for a size of land larger than the Black Bush Polder project: he had asked for 25000 acres, but was only allotted the 3824 (see Hugh Vandeyar “Jonestown” in Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee III. 1989. The Need for a Second Look at Jonestown. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press: 190.

[13] 1994, New York: Doubleday. xiv, 154ff.

[14] See Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. 1965. A Thousand Days: John Kennedy in the White House. Boston:Houghton Mifflin.

[15] This information is corroborated by Martin Goolsaran’s interview with Father Andrew Morrison, Journalist and Priest. See Jonestown: Twenty Years Later, GTV, 1998.

[16] Guyana Broadcasting Service.

[17] Refer to earlier citation re Martin Goolsarran’s interview with Leo Crème. Olive Roberts, also interviewed in that program, seems also to indicate an admiration for Jones.

[18] Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society, Vol 2. Ed. Guenther Roth And Klaus Wittich. Berkeley and L.A,University of California Press.  Durkheim, Emile. 1995. Elementary forms of Religion. Tr. Karen Fields. New York: Free Press. 241ff. See also Johnson, Doyle. “Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership: the Case of the Peoples Temple” Sociological Analysis 40 (1979): 315-23. Note that here I am not referring to Durkheim’s views on suicide, but simply his theory as to what facilitates the appearance of prophets.

Originally posted on March 11th, 2013.

Last modified on December 30th, 2020.
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