Jonestown Revisited

(The following essay by Guyanese historian, poet and novelist Jan Carew comprises a chapter from the forthcoming book, A New Look at Jonestown, by Eusi Kwayana. The essay is reprinted with permission of the book’s author and the widow of the Mr. Carew.)

Kalinyas, the Carib Kaseek, was my Great-uncle, and he had agreed to take me to the Jonestown site long after the tragic events there had shocked the world. We stood on a hilltop above the Kaituma River and while waiting for Trios, Kalinyas’ grandson to join us, we looked up at the sky and saw a convention of Harpy Eagles circling high above us. The cloudless sky was a hard, icy blue that absorbed and diffused some of the sun’s fury.

“They’re usually solitary birds, those great eagles, and we should know this in our bones, because they’re our relatives,” the old man explained matter-of-factly, shading his eyes with a gnarled hand that was networked with veins like shallow roots, “but since the event,” he continued, and he invariably referred to the mass suicides at Jonestown as “the event”, “they gather every year to contemplate the thousand spirits that cannot find a resting place.”

He meant “commemorate” but the old man had his own original way of what he called “mashing up the English language” and if I tried to correct him, he simply ignored me. I did not try this time. But I thought that perhaps, more than any peoples on earth, the Caribs understood the business of mass suicides. The curving chain of emerald islands that separates the Sea of the Caribs (the Caribbean) from the Atlantic, has many sites where, faced with the choice of slavery or death, the Caribs had chosen death. There is Morne Sauteur in Dominica, Carib’s Leap in Grenada, Mount Pele in Martinique, Manzanilla in Trinidad, all of these sites bore silent witness to Carib mass suicides. The women suffocated their babies against their bosoms, and men, women and children sang their death songs before leaping over the cliffs. The Caribs died singing that new generations of fighters would arise from the blood-seeds of their sacrifice.

“The spirits of the thousand strangers who died on our sacred Carib land are still very much alive. They roam uneasily inside a circle of pain. That’s why the great eagles gather once every year to contemplate the event. Those were homeless folk living in an age of homelessness. They came here hoping to island themselves in a house of peace. But now their tormented spirits are doing an endless walk-about. They couldn’t find a resting place here on earth, and they though Heaven would open its doors to them, because that’s what their lying leader told them,” Kalinyas said.

He had a dark brown face that was webbed with lines like a contour map of our land of many rivers. I never knew how old Kalinyas was, but he reminded me of one of those ancient trees that becomes stronger and more indestructible with age. He had wide shoulders, a barrel chest and legs like tree trunks. And from wearing sandals all of his life, his toes had spread out so comfortably that none of them touched the other.

The great Harpy Eagles soared lazily on tides of the wind, and as if the Sky God had shot an arrow from the sky, one of them plummeted towards the earth. At the last minute it leveled off and skimming a grassy knoll, rose skywards again with a bushmaster snake in its talons. When it was halfway between its companions and the ground, it released the shining serpent. Another eagle, which had already detached itself from the winged gathering, dived towards the bushmaster, struck it a blow to the head, retrieved it in its talons and the two flew away screaming their triumph like lost souls in a firmament of hell. An updraft lifted them higher until banking sharply, they displayed the full splendor of their sun-silvered wings, and then they winged their way towards a distant nesting place to share the meal with a brood of young eaglets. Rooted to the spot, I felt a flicker of anxiety in my heart. The other eagles flew towards the sun until they became specks of dust against its incandescent orb of fire.

“It’s a sign,” Kalinyas declared. I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t choose to enlighten me any further.

When I was a youth, and my parents had sent me to Aquero for summer holidays, Kalinyas had told me many times that our human souls were tied to Harpy Eagles by a spirit-knot and I had believed him unquestioningly. But I had gone overseas for many years since that time, and now I had returned with an ingrained habit of disbelief. But the piercing scream of the eagles continued to echo and re-echo in my brain, and suddenly, it was as though fresh spring water had washed away the cobwebs of disbelief.

Trios joined us in the mid-afternoon. His moon-face was wreathed in welcoming smiles when he saw me. The last time I’d seen him he was a babe-in-arms, and now he was a teenager attending College in Georgetown.

“So you, too, are being trained in the science of disbelief,” I teased him.

“They say he’s bright,” Grandfather Kalinyas said deprecatingly, “but all they’ve taught him in those Georgetown schools can fit into the bottom of a thimble, and still leave plenty of room for my middle finger.”

We were subjected to a ritual of purification when the sun fell like a stone behind the treetops. Our bodies were bathed in smoke from burning aromatic herbs, and we spent the night in a House of Silence. The hiss and crackle of burning logs grew fainter and fainter as the hours went by. The rustle of thoughts walking softly inside my head and the whisper of falling dew took me on journeys into the innermost sanctums of myself.

When morning came, my eyes looked outwards again and greeted the sunrise. Kalinyas asked, “Are you ready, Manaharva?” “Manaharva” was my secret Carib name.

“I am ready, Kalinyas.”

“Are you ready, Trios?”

“I am ready, Grandfather.”

We went down to the river, washed ourselves, had breakfast and set out for Jonestown.

“I want you to see Jonestown with Carib eyes, and to feel it with a Carib heart,” Kalinyas said.

“That’s why I came, Kalinyas.”

“Grandfather alone saw everything and lived to tell the tale,” Trios said soberly.

“Without your coming, Manaharva, I would have gone to walk amongst the stars, shackled by my secret forever,” Kalinyas said.

“Uncle will write about it,” Trios reassured the old man, “he’s a writer. We study his books in school.”

He had the old man’s burning anthracite eyes and his massive and slightly stooped shoulders. Kalinyas had traveled from the distant Bara Bara hills, the last sanctuary of the True Caribs, to rendezvous with us. I had taken that journey by river with him many years ago. But I still remembered the rhythms of the sun dance as our long canoe parted the dark, mirror-like waters of a network of rivers and creeks. Sometimes the sun appeared before us, but as the river meandered through green fastnesses, it would jump behind us. And it continued this hide-and-seek dance day after day.

We reached the Jonestown site after taking a shortcut. We paddled along a canal that bypassed some of Kaituma’s meanderings.

“Through many seasons of moon, our Carib rainmakers brought heavy showers to redeem Jonestown from its shame and horror,” Kalinyas explained as we followed a trail through swelling waves of undergrowth. It was clear that looters, vandals and souvenir hunters had inadvertently hastened a natural rhythm of decay and regeneration. Boardwalks between dormitories, cottages and community centers had rotted or had been thrust aside b the sprouting natural growths. There were only a few patches where the pink earth was still exposed and these looked like open sores. All of the buildings had been cannibalized for plumbing fixtures, roofing material, boards and furniture. But heaps of mildewed clothes, toys, shoes and hats had remained untouched. Abandoned shoes littering the area where the communal suicides had taken place were somehow the most poignant and vivid reminders of that apocalyptic tragedy.

As if to underline the point that Kalinyas had made earlier about what Carib rainmakers had done, a sudden downpour forced us to seek shelter under a tree with bright russet leaves. The rain ceased as suddenly as it had started. The wind gathered threatening rain clouds and herded them over an azure-rimmed horizon. The heat and humidity became more intense in the wake of the passing shower.

We continued until we came to the building that stood in what used to be the center of the community. Apparently, when the chanting worshippers gathered around this building, their shoes had fallen off when the final spasms of death and convulsed their bodies. Close to where the Reverend Jones and his wife had been found sprawled across steps leading to his private altar, a circle of shoes had been occupied by wild flowers and bromeliads that glittered like amethysts and rubies. In the center of the circle, a sapling had lifted a child’s patent leather shoe a foot above the ground and it hung like a strange fruit that some rare and exotic plant had produced.

“You must write our truth,” Kalinyas said fiercely.

“I did not reply because I knew that he was ready to speak about THE EVENT. But another downpour drove us to seek shelter in a building with large jagged holes in the roof. For awhile the atmosphere was suffocating, and then the rain stopped falling. Billions of drops of water dripping from wet leaves sounded like distant surf as the old man continued.

“They wrote so many words about Jonestown! Those Yankee-people are strange. When they travel they want to carry the whole of their country on their backs. But look around you. Can you see how everything they left behind them is vanishing. This sacred land will be ours as long as a green skin covers the living world. When strangers tear away the green skin, the earth will be nothing more or less than a coffin for the dead. They came without knowing or wanting to know about the history of this Kaituma heartland of the Caribs. This is a holy place for us, and no strangers have ever been able to stay here for long without making peace with our ancestors. The Spanish came in long time past days, and their colony vanished; then the Dutch came, and all that’s left of them are the itabus[1] that slaves dug to link up rivers and creeks; then the British came. For a while, it looked as if they’d leave us alone. But during a long and terrible drought, somebody found gold in a dry riverbed. He shouted the news of his find at the top of his lungs, and a storm of city folk descended on us. They picked up nuggets in the riverbed like shells on a beach. Unknown to them, though, the rains came up country and deluged the far hills for weeks… and one fine morning a wall of water fell on those miners and drowned them all. When the bodies floated up, some of the dead were still clutching nuggets in their fists. I know the spot where that disaster happened, but I’ll die with the secret… They wrote so many words about Jonestown,” Kalinyas repeated, “but they wrote about themselves. For them, we were invisible, and yet, for the short season they were here I saw them without being seen. I was there the afternoon when death surprised them just as the sun was going down. They chanted and clapped hands for a while, and then there was a terrible silence. With candleflies in bottles to light my way, I walked amongst their dead. They’d died in circles like worshippers around invisible altars. The children were buried under the flesh of their mothers. All alone I sang the Carib death-songs, and afterwards, I called upon their spirits either to reconcile themselves with the spirits of our ancestral dead or go back to the land of their ancestors. I told them, “No one among you bothered to ask the living Caribs and the spirits of their ancestors for permission to share their sacred land” and I shouted under the stars, “Don’t you know that this place we call Kaituma, means the Land of the Everlasting Dreamers?”

Trios said somewhat tritely, “The President[2] couldn’t give our land to Jim Jones, because he didn’t own it in the first place.”

“They wrote about their folk living and dying here,” Kalinyas continued, “We, the Keepers of the Land, the Everlasting Dreamers, were invisible to them. We are the Keepers of the dreams of the living and the dead, and yet they never said a word to us. What could they ever know about the smell of our sacred earth or the dreams of our people! You must write our truth, Manaharva!”


[1] Meaning “another way,” itabus or itabo describes that part of a river which branches off and rejoins the main channel by another route, usually after evading a large obstacle like a rock.

[2] A misidentification: Forbes Burnham was Prime Minister until 1980.