The ‘coup’ in British Guiana, 1963

The ‘coup’ in British Guiana, 1963

By Mark Curtis

An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses

In 1953 Britain overthrew the democratically elected government in British Guiana, which was then a British colony given an element of self-government. The April 1953 elections had resulted in victory for the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) under Cheddi Jagan, a popular, nationalist government committed to a redistributive economic programme intended to reduce poverty. The PPP’s plans also threatened the British sugar multinational, Bookers, which controlled British Guiana’s main export, sugar. Britain dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the government, under the pretext – known to be false – that they were acting against ‘part of the international communist conspiracy’ represented by Jagan’s policies. With many of the elected PPP leaders put in jail, the Colonial Secretary ruled out elections since ‘the same party would have been elected again’.

Almost exactly ten years later, British Guiana was faced with the same threat – again clearly one of democracy – that British and US planners were keen to counter. By 1963, Cheddi Jagan’s PPP was again the ruling party in government, having won the 1961 elections. Britain, however, did not want to grant independence to British Guiana if Jagan were to become the first post-independence leader.

There were two differences from 1953. The first was the means: instead of a military intervention, the British effected a ‘constitutional coup’ to ensure that Jagan would not be re-elected. The second was the background: that by 1963, Britain simply wanted to get out of Guiana and hand it over to the US – it was no longer acting to primarily protect its business interests but as the lieutenant of the US, which successfully lobbied London to promote a coup on its behalf.

‘The sooner we get these people out of our hair the better’, Commonwealth Secretary Duncan Sandys told Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in January 1962. Macmillan’s adviser, Burke Trend, agreed, saying ‘we are sick of trying to hold the balance between these quarrelsome people and want to wash our hands of them as rapidly as we can’.

US files show that British officials ‘assert in private that British Guiana is in the US, not the UK, sphere of interest and they probably consider that its future is not properly their problem but one for the US’. Britain still had substantial commercial interests in the territory – most importantly a $400-500 million investment in the sugar industry – yet it was concern about placating the Americans that was uppermost in British minds at this time.

Background to a coup

British Guiana was a desperately poor country with a population of just over half a million people, half of whom were of Indian origin and around a third of African origin. The economy was dependent on sugar and bauxite with the sugar estates and mining industry ‘owned by outside capital’, the Joint Intelligence Committee noted. The sugar industry was in the hands of two British companies, Bookers and the Demerara Company, both of which ‘have extensive interests in other sections of the economy including importing, general stores and real estate’. These companies made handsome profits while the overwhelming majority of the population endured grinding poverty.

The US files vary between describing Jagan’s PPP programme as ‘communist’ and ‘nationalist’. A US intelligence report from March 1961 notes that it was unlikely that Jagan was seeking to establish a communist regime; but rather ‘we consider it more likely that an independent Jagan government would seek to portray itself as an instrument of reformist nationalism which would gradually move in the direction of Castro’s Cuba’. It would be ‘assertively nationalistic, sympathetic to Cuba, and prepared to enter into economic and diplomatic relations with the [Soviet] bloc, although such a government would probably still be influenced by the desire to obtain economic help from the UK and the US’.

In October 1961, the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, Roger Hilsman – the architect of the brutal ‘strategic hamlets’ programme in Vietnam – noted that US government thinking at the time was that Jagan was not a ‘controlled instrument of Moscow’ but ‘a radical nationalist who may play both sides of the street but will not lead British Guiana into satellite status’. After independence, Jagan’s PPP would ‘follow a policy on non-alignment in international affairs, but would probably lean in the Soviet direction’, according to another US intelligence report.

The British believed, according to the US files, that ‘Jagan is not a communist’ but ‘a naïve, London School of Economics Marxist filled with charm, personal honesty and juvenile nationalism’. A Whitehall brief of June 1963 noted that under Jagan there was the danger of a ‘Castro/communist regime in British Guiana’, though this would be a threat ‘for political and psychological rather than military reasons’.

Therefore, the threat posed by Jagan’s PPP was essentially a radical nationalist one, replicated on numerous occasions throughout the postwar era, but invariably described as ‘communist’ for public relations, as in the 1953 overthrow. This threat was compounded by the recognition in internal State Department files that Jagan ‘leads the largest and most cohesive party in the country. He is the ablest leader in British Guiana’.

The US feared before the August 1961 elections that, if Jagan won, he would ‘make a more determined effort to improve economic conditions’ by possibly accepting a loan from Cuba, whose regime was providing a model for others in Latin America, and may threaten ‘nationalisation or confiscation of foreign and local businesses’. The PPP drew its support from the Indian community ‘including not only poverty-stricken rural and urban workers, but also a considerable number of small businessmen in Georgetown and other centres’, a US intelligence report from March 1961 read.

In April 1961, at meetings in Washington, the US had proposed to Britain ‘ways and means of ensuring that an independent British Guiana was not dominated by communists’. Foreign Secretary Douglas Home said that Britain was ‘anxious to do everything possible to make sure that British Guiana developed on the right lines’. A group was set up in which US and British officials looked into ‘the possibilities of taking action to influence the results of the election’ scheduled for August 1961, Douglas Home noted. But despite US pleas, Britain refused to cooperate in the US plan to actively prevent Jagan winning the election, arguing that it was better to work with him and steer him away from unacceptable policies through financial and economic aid.

The PPP won 20 of the 35 seats in the assembly in the 1961 elections – 45 per cent of the vote – against 11 seats won by the People’s National Party, the principal opposition party, under Forbes Burnham. After the election, the US State Department recommended a programme that mixed offering Jagan technical and economic assistance with a covert operation ‘to expose and destroy communists in British Guiana’ and to find ‘a substitute for Jagan himself, who could command East Indian support’. Noting that these two goals might just be in conflict, President Kennedy’s Special Assistant, Arthur Schlesinger, wrote that ‘this means that the covert program must be handled with the utmost discretion’. The US track emphasizing working with the Jagan government had been agreed with the British, who were still rejecting covert action to oust him. But by October 1961 the files show that US planners were voicing objections to this strategy and wanted to review it and re-open the matter with the British. No US aid was, in fact, ever provided.

In February 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Rusk told Foreign Secretary Douglas Home that ‘I have reached the conclusion that it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan’. Jagan had ‘grandiose expectations of economic aid’, too many ‘communist connections’ and was professing policies that ‘parallels that of Castro’ [sic]. He said that: ‘The continuation of Jagan in power is leading us to disaster in terms of the colony itself, strains on Anglo-American relations and difficulties for the Inter-American system… I hope we can agree that Jagan should not accede to power again. Cordially yours, Dean Rusk’.

This was too much even for the British. Macmillan wrote that he read Rusk’s letter with ‘amazement’, telling Douglas Home: ‘how can the Americans continue to attack us in the United Nations on colonialism and then use expressions like these which are not colonialism but pure Machiavellianism?’. Douglas Home replied to Rusk and, referring to his view that ‘Jagan should not accede to power again’, countered: ‘how would you suggest that this can be done in a democracy?’ Britain, he said, could also not go back on its promise to grant independence.

However, the British government soon acquiesced in US planning. The big issue was when London was going to grant full independence. At a constitutional conference in March 1960 the principle of independence had been conceded and a new constitution agreed. It was envisaged that independence would take place two years after the introduction of the new constitution in August 1961, ie August 1963.

In March 1962, Colonial Minister Hugh Fraser visited Washington. After meetings with Kennedy and others, Fraser came back talking of an alternative constitution involving proportional representation rather than the present first past the post system. But any proposal on this, he wrote,  ‘must not flow from us but from the demands of the British Guianese themselves’. A change in the constitution was necessary since, as a US intelligence report in April recognised, new elections held on the same basis as in August 1961 ‘would probably return a Jagan government again’.

In May Macmillan told Cabinet Secretary Norman Brook that ‘it is surely to our interests [sic] to be as cooperative and forthcoming as we can’ towards the US desire for ‘a satisfactory solution’ in British Guiana. His note to Brook asked him to set up a committee to consider the future of the territory – presumably to work on the fixing of the constitution following Fraser’s meetings with the Americans – and also stated that this note was not being copied to any of the ministers concerned.

At this point some of the British files have been censored but it seems that Macmillan wrote to Kennedy at this time informing him of a change of British policy – the beginning, in fact, of British constitutional coup planning to effect regime change.

Covert action

The US, however, still continued covert planning. ‘Here is a paper from Dean Rusk which comes out hard for a policy of getting rid of Jagan’, one US note from July 1962 reads. The files then refer to CIA plans for ousting Jagan. ‘Should our covert program succeed, we would wish to be in the position of being able to give the successor regime immediate aid’, Schlesinger told President Kennedy in September 1962. It is very unlikely that these covert plans in a British colony could have been conducted without at least a nod and a wink from Whitehall.

The CIA helped to organise and fund anti-Jagan protests in February 1962, which resulted in strikes and riots, and during which, in fact, the British sent troops to restore order. But the centrepiece of the CIA’s cover operation was funding the general strike that began in April 1963 and lasted for 80 days. Using $1 million allocated for the purpose, CIA agents gave advice to local union leaders on how to organise and sustain the strike and provided funds and food to keep the strikers going. This strike was publicly cited by British officials as evidence that Jagan could not run the country.

In March 1963 a note from the US Consul General in Georgetown, Everett Melby, confirms the agreement between the US and Britain: ‘that proportional representation (PR) as an electoral system for British Guiana (BG) represents the most practical electoral device for replacing Premier Cheddi Jagan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) with a more democratic and reliable government’.

The use of the term ‘more democratic’ is simply the facade maintained even in internal communications for what was in effect a coup. Later in the same memo, Melby noted that ‘with the existing electoral districting, he [Jagan] would probably win a majority of seats’. ‘An independent Guyana will be within the US sphere’, Melby noted, adding: ‘It is not in the national interest to have a communist government on the mainland of South America. An independent Guyana with Jagan in office represents such a threat and as such should be removed’.

Melby then urged the US government to formally decide on PR for the country. Finally, he noted that he would shortly present ‘an outline of several projects which, after the PPP’s removal, may be effective in discrediting Jagan with some of his supporters’.

In June, now Prime Minister Douglas Home met Kennedy in talks in Britain. The brief for Douglas Home noted that: ‘If Jagan maintains his hold over the Indians, it is inevitable that in a few years he will lead the government… The normal course would be for us to go ahead with independence under the present government. Were it not for Jagan’s communist leanings we should have no hesitation. But we are willing to consider with the President, the possibility of independence under an alternative (Burnham) government’.

During these Anglo-American talks, British officials formally proposed to the Americans to ‘establish a Burnham-D’Aguiar [the latter the other opposition party leader] government and then grant British Guiana independence’. Duncan Sandys, now Colonial Secretary, ‘said we had to be careful that Jagan should not be put in a position where he would ask for dissolution [of the current government] and new elections, because he would certainly win again’.

On 18 July Macmillan wrote to Kennedy outlining (in the words of the latter’s in reply in September) ‘your plan for a series of moves in September or October which would result in the removal of the Jagan government’. ‘We want to cooperate with you in all ways to help you make your program a success’, Kennedy said. He wanted to help steer Burnham and D’Aguiar ‘on the right path, creating and launching an alternative East Indian party and a real economic development programme’. Kennedy ended by saying that ‘this problem is one in which you have shown a most helpful understanding of my special concern’.

Macmillan explained British strategy in his reply to Kennedy. The aim was to summon the three political leaders in British Guiana and ‘impose a solution’ by establishing ‘a new electoral system designed to counteract racialism’ (ie, proportional representation). It was likely, Macmillan wrote, that Jagan would refuse to cooperate, in which case Britain would suspend the constitution. If he did cooperate, ‘we shall have to postpone his removal until he shows that he is deliberately obstructing’. Also important was to keep the UN out. A recent proposal for a UN commission needed to be avoided ‘since it would be bound to recommend early independence, and would be more than likely to advise the retention of the present electoral system’.

The coup was staged at the end of October 1963 in a constitutional conference. Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys announced the new electoral system under proportional representation and the holding of fresh elections under the supervision of an official appointed by the British government.

Jagan immediately attacked the British for continuing to refuse to set a date for independence and for obviously rigging the electoral system to bar him from office. He wrote to Douglas Home pointing out that PR had been rejected in Britain by both the Conservative and Labour parties and that the previous Colonial Secretary, Iain McLeod, had also rejected a call for PR at the 1960 constitutional conference.

A file of 26 November 1963 shows Anglo-American planners gloating at their coup victory. In a meeting between Douglas Home and Dean Rusk, ‘the Prime Minister said that this had gone off slightly better than had been hoped’, the file reads. ‘It had even been slightly awkward that Dr Jagan had given so little trouble’.

Jagan may have had (naïve) hopes that the incoming Labour government in October 1964 would have squashed the PR plan. Within days of taking office, however, it had dashed these hopes. ‘Bowing to United States wishes’, the New York Times wrote, the new British government ‘ruled out early independence for British Guiana’ and was proceeding with elections under proportional representation.

In these elections, held in December 1964, the PPP increased its vote over the 1961 elections (to 46 per cent) and won the most seats. But Forbes Burnham was asked to form a government under the new proportional representation system which gave the two opposition parties together a majority of seats. Now that the acceptable leadership had taken office, Guyana could be granted independence, which proceeded in 1966. The Anglo-American constitutional coup to remove the nationalist threat had successfully countered the democratic voice of the unpeople of British Guiana. This, it should be added, had been done in the conscious knowledge that, as noted above, Jagan was ‘the ablest leader’ in the territory. It had also been done on the understanding that ‘if I had to make a choice between Jagan and Burnham as head of my country I would choose Jagan any day of the week’, in the words of then Colonial Secretary Iain MacLeod to Kennedy’s special assistant, Arthur Schlesinger in February 1962.

The coup was also undertaken with British awareness, described in a previous brief to the Prime Minister, that a Burnham/D’Aguiar coalition ‘would be inefficient’, that ‘Burnham himself is unreliable’ and that ‘any African leader would have great difficulty in governing a country with an overwhelmingly Indian population’. But these were trifling concerns in the pursuit of Anglo-American power.


  1. nancy says:

    I greatly admire your no-holds barred, call it like it is approach to describing the situation. So many analysts get bogged down in constitutional histories or false attempt to be neutral — that any clarity is lost. Look forward to reading the book!!

  2. Unfortunately Burnham turned out to be anything but pro-British. By 1978 he was actively encouraging Soviets to visit Guyana. They showed their disdain for Guyanese authority by walking through immigration ignoring calls to stop.
    The Guyanese Defence Force were given four military helicopters but which ended their days rotting in full view of the international apron at Timheri Airport.

    Burnham had a propensity for his own importance. He posted ‘President Burnham’s Prescription’ around the country with ten points that outlined the way one was expected to live. Nationals were expected to call each other ‘comrade,’ they were expected to support themselves from their land and chicken was eaten daily in a variety of dishes, roast, fried, boiled – those three curried and with a variety of staple vegetables. He was happy to ban foodstuffs favoured by Indians and anything else that might take their fancy.
    That earned the acronym of his initials LFSB to immediately become ‘Look For Something to Ban.

    Racism was actively encouraged, the land of six races where the Indians [India in the Caribbean] were once trusted by the British to lead and manage were pushed to the lower levels of society and the Afro-Guyanese took the managerial posts, usually with disastrous results as one business after another failed. Respected Judges fled the country, churchmen were said to be murdered and the elections
    were said to be rigged. The PNC [Peoples National Congress ] and the PPP as mentioned were the main parties; despite the votes cast along ethnic lines and there being more Indians than Afro-Guyanese the PNC always managed to win. It was always stated as being [in a typically dry Guyanese manner] a ‘rigorendum.’
    Luckily for Guyana nature took a hand and Burnham passed on unexpectedly. His body is said to be interred in a rather naff looking sarcophagus in the Botanic Gardens. I heard a black guide tell some Europeans that ‘Burnham’s death was like the first day of my life.’

    Politically the country changed; first Cheddi Jagan returned and then his wife attempted to take over. That caused problems with immediacy since she was an American citizen. Enter Bharrat Jagdeo. He was voted in apparently fairly, yet following elections bombs and the shootings of journalists also occurred amidst calls from politicians of all sides to remain calm. That was in 2006.

    I was actually present during a rather heated discussion between an Indo Guyanese woman and Bharrat Jagdeo. She ripped into him verbally because the well pump had failed and there was no running water. As a result water was delivered by bowser daily, but sadly on the otherside of the road to the lady’s house. You can imagine my surprise when Bharrat Jagdeo, tired of her barracking, turns and addresses her as ‘Comrade!’ You can imagine Bharrat Jagdeo’s surprise when he turns in my direction to see where the false coughing was coming from to see the source to be a 56 year old Englishman, stripped to the waist, wearing shorts and flip-flops and carrying a water butt.
    Burnham’s sudden removal, albeit natural, and the death of Cheddi Jagan were the best things to happen to Guyana in modern history. Jagdeo seems a good President and fair. However the worth of the Guyanese Dollar is going down, not up. in 1978 it was around GUY$4.8 to GBP1, nowadays its around GUY$390 to GBP1.

    The Rum from there still tastes as good!

    Just reading Secret Affairs; an ace book I recommend.

    1. Your comment spans a period of some 60 years and is confusing. Janet Rosenburg Jagan lost her U.S. citizenship after leaving the country in 1943 due to her ‘Marxist views’. Cheddi Jagan was seen as the founder of the country, though his wife played a major ideological role in the independence movement and founding of the PPP as well as trade unions. She had been a citizen since, I believe, the 1960’s She is credited with major gains in women’s rights, education and the health care system. She survived a number of assassination attempts as well as prison sentences and forced labour after her husband won the 1953 elections.The British immediately sent in troops to depose Cheddi Jagan and Queen Elisabeth became the first chief minister of Guyana.. Janet Jagan became prime minister after the death of her husband in 1997. She was then elected president (by then the presidency had replaced the office of prime minister as the most powerful office). Due to racist tensions sparked by the opposition and continuous rioting and violence she decided to step down. She was attacked because of her colour. Her departing speach in 1999 shows that she was actually an extremely pragmatic and democratic leader. Frank Shimoni.

  3. TC says:

    I Remember this since I was in the middle of it –My father worked for Reynolds Metal Company and we lived in a mining camp called Kwakwani on the Berbice River —at this time my parents had sent me to a British Cathholic school in Georgetown(Boarding school) my Father and Mother just happened to have been in New Amsterdam at the time all heck broke out in Georgetown—-I can remember gun fire and standing in my room looking out at Georgetown and seeing buildings burning here and there–My father ended up coming and getting me by taxie and remember when we left the school the taxie cab driver kept saying he couldn’t get back to New Amsterdam—But Dad kept giving him money to keep moving and not to stop—The British Military was all around also but we did make it back to New Amsterdam where we met back up with my Mother and we boarded a large crew barge with other Americans and British familys and was towed down the river with a tug and anchord–we had a small detachment of Britsih Marines that stayed on the roof of the barge for our safety. We stayed on this barge for about 3 weeks or so what I can remember.Now after all these years I see my Country almost got me killed as a kid.

  4. Juliet Droom says:

    The most accurate account of the National and International happenings of the time that I have ever come across. Thank you for your honesty. In spite of East Indians generally being at the receiving end of abuse in Guyana, I hear and read so much slandering of my race that it literally makes me sick. It is refreshing to read an article so close to the truth.

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