Dr. Basdeo Mangru
by Bina Mahabir

"History is the memory of a nation"
—Dr. Basdeo Mangru

HISTORY, particularly the East Indian Indentured experience in Guyana, is close to his heart.

It is the unique history of a committed people and their struggling nation. He can talk about it for hours without getting tired. His vast knowledge in that aspect of the South American country’s past unfolds as he warms up to his “pet” subject. It is a country’s rich history not told by many; a commanding history not known to many, especially the younger generation.

“History is the memory of a nation,” he strongly believes, “and that history should never be lost.” To lose it would be tantamount to losing the soul of Guyana’s nationhood - a tender yet strong nationhood that includes all the trappings that come with independence, free republic, democracy and other social conditions the Guyanese people have struggled for over the years. It is imperative that that history be told! And somebody has to study and chronicle the country’s rich historical past on the pages of the history book. Dr. Basdeo Mangru chose to walk the path of a historian. Most importantly, he passes on this rare knowledge onto the younger generation.

He teaches Guyanese and Caribbean history to students at York College, one of the City Universities of New York (CUNY), situated in Jamaica, Queens. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the college. He also teaches history at John Adams High School in Richmond Hill, Queens. A large percentage of Guyanese and West Indian children attend that high school.

His resource material for teaching Caribbean History is taken from `Indians in Guyana - A concise history from their arrival to the present’ and his other published works. It is a 108-page book he has written in honour and memory of his ancestors who have crossed the “kala pani” (black water) to the “New World” of El Dorado in the then British Guiana.

In his book, he cited four main reasons for writing it, the main one being in “response to the lack of readily available literature on these enterprising people.” Also, it was supposed to urge the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) “to add another theme to its syllabus, giving Caribbean students a wider choice in areas of concentration.”
A tall, distinguished individual, Dr. Mangru nurtures a deep passion for teaching; a passion, which enraptured his young heart and blossomed over the years into a state of dignified maturity.

As it turns out, teaching is an integral part of his life, and over the years he has developed immense love and respect for the job. Deep down, he still holds the belief that teaching is quite a noble profession. Traveling back in memory lane, he said that he attended Corentyne High School in Rose Hall Town, Berbice. He spent his boyhood days with his parents and eight other siblings, a big family he smilingly said.

After he graduated from high school, his options were limited: “it was either teaching or civil service," he pointed out, and since civil service meant he had to leave home and his family, he chose the other best thing - teaching.
And "I love to teach," he quietly stated. Indeed, that is the only profession that he knows. Displaying a sharp wit that belied his age, Dr. Mangru talked easily of his many intriguing experiences with life in Guyana, London and New York City. Like other Guyanese who went away to study abroad, some of these experiences had a great impact on his life.

Interestingly, despite the many years he spent away from home and apart from his family, he never gave up his identity as a Guyanese East Indian. His conviction in the principle of “who you are” as a person is indelibly printed in his mind. Identity, he believes, as an individual one should never lose because once "you lose your identity, you lose your way" and practically every other principle you hold dear.

Dr. Mangru hails from Albion Front, on the Corentyne, Berbice. And he is proud of the fact he grew up in “a big family” which was closely knitted together. This cohesiveness is an integral part of the Guyanese family landscape. It was important particularly in those turbulent days of struggles and hardship to keep the family together, he noted.
In 1966, he entered the University of Guyana (UG) and later enrolled in the master's programme at the university. Incidentally, he was the first M.A. graduate of UG.

Dr. Robert Moore was one of Dr. Mangru's lecturers at the university. During one of his lessons, Dr. Moore lamented the fact that very little is known about the East Indians who sailed from the Sub-Continent of India over 164 years ago.

"He talked about how little we know about our ancestors from India; how they were recruited; the condition of their passage across the ocean and their lives in India," recalled Dr. Mangru. Little did the lecturer know then, that his words would have such a profound effect on one of his students. Dr. Moore's lamentation became the very inspiration and motivation for the young Basdeo Mangru.

However, life was never clear-cut; but in between teaching and studying, he persevered with his dream of researching his "roots". Roots could “lead you to all things” and answer many burning questions, which surfaced over the years, he asserted. As a young Guyanese East Indian, he was committed to studying the history of his forebears.

Dr. Mangru taught at UG for about four years. However, he continued on his quest to learn more about his people.
His hard labour of love and many nights of arduous study did not go unnoticed. Dr. Mangru won several awards and distinctions, including the Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellowship in United Kingdom and the prestigious Rockefeller Residency Fellowship in the Humanities, Asian-American Center, Queens College.

In 1978, he went to study in England, at the University of London. He went back to Guyana and taught for another year at UG. He taught History of Modern India, Caribbean History and the History of Guyana. He received his pH. in History in 1981 from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. According to Dr. Mangru, "majority of records on East Indian immigration to Guyana and the other Caribbean countries are kept at the Public Record Office and India Office Library" in London, England. He did extensive research for his thesis at the two public places in England.

For his doctorate degree, he chose `Migration of East Indian from India - 1854/1884’ as the title of his thesis.
Dr. Mangru wrote two of his three published books while he was living and studying in London. `Indenture and Abolition: Sacrifice and Survival on the Guyanese Sugar Plantation’ and `Benevolent Neutrality: Indian Government Policy and Labor Migration to British Guiana, 1854-1884’ are the books.
The doctor wrote A History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estate, 1869-1948 while he was in New York.

He lives in Richmond Hill, Queens, with his wife. His two grown children are married. Currently, he is working on the manuscript of his fourth book, which he describes as "a collection of essays on East Indians in Guyana”. He wants to recapture life in the colonial days in the then British Guiana and document the many changes and the progress, which have occurred after so many years.

The title of the book is In Search of Paradise and it is expected to be on the shelves by this summer, which is a month away.
A prolific writer in his own right and one of the only Guyanese authors to write about the migration of East Indians from India to Guyana's shore, the doctor said that he loves to write. Although he admits that it is not the easiest of tasks - on the contrary, "it is hard to write" - he just loves to write Guyana’s history. He will continue to write for as long as he could. He writes mostly in the summer time. It takes him about three years to finish a book because of the in-depth research involved in writing his books. He wants to write about “the Guyanese East Indians in New York; how the Indians are adjusting to life in New York City," adding "I want to look at some of the social issues that are affecting them."

Dr. Mangru also wants to write a document on the "riots in Guyana during 1962".
Everybody should be interested in their history, he said. Commenting on all the records of the many nations across the world that Great Britain has in its archives during its rein and power, he asserted, "History is the memory of a nation and that should never be lost."

"We should always know our roots because whenever we lose our roots, we lose our identities."
“We can live here by being a part of the American society, yet hold on to our identity and practice our customs and know our history,” he asserted.

"We have a rich heritage and culture, we should never let go of it,” he pointed out. “We should be proud of it.”
Dr. Mangru teaches full-time at John Adams and part-time at York College. He would love to go back and teach at UG, Berbice Campus.

His book Indians in Guyana is recommended by the Curriculum Specialist attached at the Ministry of Education to be taught in high schools across Guyana. The Permanent Secretary within the Ministry of Education also acknowledges the importance of the book to be included in the high school curriculum.

“The Ministry of Education accepted the book but basically, it has to get funds to purchase the books,” he noted.
Asked if he has any database of the numerous records of the East Indians who migrated from India since he has been writing about their migration, he replied in the negative.

“I don’t keep them, but the Guyana Journal, another publication in New York, has some.”
What are his feelings for his country of birth?

“I still love Guyana. I still love the freedom and camaraderie in Guyana.” He also misses “the easy pace of life” Guyana offers.
“I find joy in teaching and writing about my people; that history needs to be told,” he said with a smile

[Editor's Note: This article was written published some years ago and has been posted here, courtesy of Ms. Bina Mahabir.]



March 20, 2004
© 2001