Sir Lethem: Threats, Oil & Culture in Guyana

Lethem. A border town located in Region 9. Synonymous with Rodeo, chicken on a stick, Schin beer, vaqueros, and one of the most wonderful road trips from Georgetown in our opinion. But why is it named Lethem, and what did the person really contribute to Guyana to earn the naming of a town after him?
 
 
 
Officially designated a Town in 2017, Lethem is named after Sir Gordon James Lethem, a Governor in British Guiana in the 1940s, who previously served as Governor in Nigeria, Seychelles and Leeward Islands. He was knighted in 1936 and was originally meant to go to Sierra Leone after the Islands, but at the last minute his posting was changed to British Guiana. This was his final post before his retirement to his sheep farm in Scotland in 1947 where he spent the remainder of his life. 
 
Lethem was known for his progressive views and his efforts to get extra involved in the countries in which he was stationed, and working to visit the far-flung areas within the country. In an article published in 1944, Sir Lethem spoke at length about what British Guiana and its main industries, and noted that he was 'startled' that many Scots didn't know about the British Empire, especially Guiana. He even noted that "Oil may be found one day"! 
 
Even after his retirement, made statements like "the time has come for a great radical revision and for a more effective power to be put in the hands of the African," and later went on after his retirement, to become very involved in politics in Scotland, even becoming a member of the Liberal Party and later becoming Vice-President of the Scottish Liberal Party.
 
During his time in Guyana, Sir Lethem was present during or involved in a number of transformative moments in Guyanese history:
 

- Sir Lethem proposed the construction of a cultural Centre after the Great fire of February 23, 1945 burned the Booker's Drug Store (Now Guyana Stores) and spread to the British Guiana Museum (which was previously a Colonial Hospital & Asylum), leading to its subsequent demise along with the valuable papers & samples of Natural History stored there. Lethem suggested that the Centre comprise the Royal Agricultural & Commercial Society (RACS) of British Guiana Reading Rooms, the British Guiana Museum and an auditorium. This was approved and constructed at the same location and is the current site of the Museum today. 

- During World War II, he also legalized political parties in British Guiana and advocated for reform. Lethem was the person who formally announced Germany's surrender in World War II in 1945.

- Sir Lethem was the patron of the British Guiana Philharmonic Society. He often had to manage the pressure of expectations that the colony would incorporate or include American policies during the establishment of American military bases in the colony. the first "Dance" was held at the USO near to the Kingston Lighthouse under the patronage of Sir Lethem. 

- Sir Lethem also felt that appropriate drainage and irrigation was necessary for the eradication of diseases like Malaria, population control and a number of other development factors. His insistence and subsequent expensive proposal (roughly calculated to be G$10B today) for a drainage system was met with both criticism and compliments. The malaria control experiments of the day included the use of DDT and citizens were worried about the effect of drainage on the sugar industry, but he strongly advocated for the drainage projects. 

Many of his writings, opinions and papers are preserved in the UK, most notably at Oxford University. He was also an Arabic scholar. 
 
Like many public figures, he wasn't always consistently popular. During his tenure in Guyana, he received death threats because Amerindians held him responsible for not being able to self-govern, even though he had made attempts to advocate on their behalf. During his tenure in Seychelles, he was known as controversial for cutting expenditure on public works, which caused public outcry and concern. He did later secure funds from the colonial development fund that went toward building roads in the Seychelles. 
 
Today, the town of Lethem lies on the Takatu River, which provides the border between Guyana and Brazil, and is well known as a hub between the two countries, as well as a central point for the villages and communities that exist in this part of Guyana. Many residents belong to the indigenous Macushi and Wapishiana Amerindian Tribes, and is the only Town close to the Rupununi Savannahs, a 5000 square mile area that contains virtually untouched grasslands, swamplands and rainforested mountains.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Birmingham Post, May 26, 1959

Daily Record, October 30, 1944

Daily Record, November 6, 1944

Birmingham Post, July 05, 1941

Illustrated London News, August 25, 1962

Musical Life in Guyana - History & Politics of controlling Creativity - Vibert Cambridge  

Guyana: From Slavery to the Present: Vol 2. Major Diseases - Ramesh Gampat

Guyana in Pictures - Karen Sirvaitis

Seychelles National Archives

Oxford University Bodleian Library

Gutenberg Press

Stabroek News - Snippets of History

British Colonial Policy & the Transfer of Power in Guiana

People
British