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The Grave-Painting Tradition in Guyana

By: Attorney Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth




History of Guyana

Guyana is located on the northern tip of South America, between Venezuela and Suriname, and north of Brazil. The Caribs, Akawois, and Arawaks were the most populous and most powerful natives, known as Amerindians. The Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize the area. After that, there were shifts in the reign between the British and the French. Britain ultimately prevailed and ruled “British Guiana” (as Guyana was known during that time) for over a century.

The British colonized Guyana in order to capitalize off of its sugar. To do this, they first enslaved Africans to labor in the fields. The British ended slavery in the 19th century and replaced it with a system of indentured servitude. The British began importing Chinese labourers for a short period and eventually began importing Indians.


The Indians were told that they would work for a certain period of time and then return home to India. In reality, the inhumanity of indentured servitude was not much different than slavery. After importing hundreds of thousands of indentured workers to Guyana, the British ended this system because it was no longer profitable. Many Indians remained and formed the majority of Guyana’s population.

The Grave-Painting Tradition in Guyana


African and Indian Guyanese would eventually develop their own traditions and customs. One of those traditions would be painting the tombs of those who passed away.


Many burial grounds in Guyana have tombs that can be seen above ground. This is unlike many graveyards in the United States where the coffin is buried and only a headstone can be seen.


The tombs are generally white. Overtime, nature and the elements fade the paint and the engraving on the tomb’s headstone.


It has become a tradition for family members returning to Guyana to repaint the tombs of their loved ones. They also have to also cut the grass and land that has started to overtake the tombs. This can usually be done with the aid of local villagers who are often willing to assist.


This tradition has become even more important as the decades pass. The high emigration rates, especially from the 1980s, have many Guyanese families leaving Guyana for the United States, Canada, and England. Their return visits are becoming more infrequent.


As a result, it is crucial that Guyanese returning to Guyana upkeep the tradition of maintaining the burial grounds or the history and tombs could be lost forever to Guyana’s terrain.


Guyanese should also encourage the government to assist with the burial ground maintenance, with the impending foreign oil development projects in Guyana. The Guyanese have already lost so much history by virtue of their enslavement and indentured servitude. They should not have to lose more history to colonialism or foreign development.


This post is dedicated to a lovely cousin who undertook the task of repainting the graves of our loved ones.

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Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a trial-winning business and trademark attorney. She primarily helps new and small businesses with trademarks, formation, and name clearance searches. She writes articles on the importance of trademarks, trademark law updates, and also West Indian history (with an emphasis on India, Trinidad, Guyana, and the United States).


MDGR Law, P.A.

PO Box 101794 Fort Lauderdale, FL 33310-1794

(754) 800-4481

melissa@mdgrlaw.com



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