Skip to main content
Select Source:

Burnham, Forbes 1923–1985

Forbes Burnham 1923–1985

Prime minister, president, nationalist

As the leader of Guyana for two decades, Forbes Burnham shaped the political destiny of this modern Caribbean nation following its independence from Britain. Serving first as prime minister and then president, Burnham kept Guyana allied with Fidel Castro's Cuba and the Soviet Union, which made his country the only socialist nation besides Cuba in the Caribbean for many years. He died in office in 1985.

Burnham was born on February 20, 1923, in Kitty, a suburb of Georgetown, the capital city of what was then called British Guiana. Located on the northeastern coast of South America, Guyana was once the home of Arawak, Carib, and Warao Indians, whose numbers declined with the arrival of Dutch colonists and, later, British settlers. Slaves from Africa were brought in to serve as a labor force on sugar and cotton plantations, but organized rebellions plagued the colony. After British authorities outlawed slavery in 1834, many Afro-Guyanese fled inland, uninterested in working for the British. The labor shortage was solved by the importation of thousands of indentured laborers from India, a practice that continued until World War I, and these Indo-Guyanese would emerge later in the twentieth century as political rivals to Burnham and other Afro-Guyanese leaders.

Educated in London

Burnham excelled in school. After finishing at the elite all-male Queen's College High School, he won the 1942 Guiana Scholarship—awarded to the colony's top student—for study in England. He spent several years at the University of London and finished with a law degree in 1947. Returning to Guyana, he founded the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950 with Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese dentist who had also attended Queens College. Both had strong leftist leanings, and their party was affiliated with the British Guiana Labour Union. In 1953 British authorities finally allowed elections with universal suffrage in the colony, and Burnham and Jagan's PPP won eighteen of the twenty-four seats in the legislative assembly. Burnham became the minister of education and Jagan was selected to be the minister of agriculture, but the first Guyanese government lasted just four months. The British Crown's representative, the governor of Guyana, suspended the constitution when authorities became worried the government was leaning too far to the left.

In 1955 Burnham had a falling-out with Jagan, and when elections were held again in 1957, the splinter PPP group that Burnham had founded fared poorly; of all the candidates, he was the only one to keep his seat in the colonial legislative assembly. Jagan, meanwhile, became chief minister of British Guyana with the PPP victory in the 1957 election. In 1958 Burnham founded a new party, the People's National Congress (PNC), but it failed to achieve a majority in the 1961 legislative election. That same year, the British granted limited independence, but their economic interests in Guyana remained strong. Over the next few years covert actions were taken by both the British and U.S. intelligence services to eliminate the possibility that Jagan and the PPP would come to power when Guyana was fully independent and refashion the country into a strict Marxist state firmly within the Soviet sphere. Operatives also fomented discord between the Afro-Guyanese—who at the time were 220,000 in number, or about a third of the country's total population—and the Indo-Guyanese, estimated at slightly more than half the total, at 335,000.

Finally, at a 1963 constitutional conference in London, proportional representation voting was forced on the Guyanese in the belief that it would aid the more moderate Burnham and his PNC in beating Jagan and the PPP in future elections. The constitution also allowed Guyanese living overseas to cast votes, which also benefited the PNC. In the balloting of December of 1964, Jagan's party received 45 percent of the vote and Burnham's PNC received just 40 percent, but the new constitution required a 50 percent majority of votes for a party to be allowed to form a government. Moving quickly, Burnham and the PNC allied with a small conservative party called the United Force that had received 12 percent of the vote and formed a coalition government.

Suppressed Political Dissent

Burnham was sworn in as premier of British Guyana on December 14, 1964, and as prime minister on May 26, 1966, when independence from Britain was finally achieved and the nation of 660,000 became the twenty-fifth sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere. In November Burnham pushed through a new set of national security laws, called the Preventive Detention Act. “To insure that Guyana has a peaceful time in which to sort out our plans for development, we must put our enemies on notice that subversion and terrorism will not be tolerated for a moment,” a New York Times report quoted him as saying in defense of the act, which permitted near unlimited search-and-seizure powers and detention without trial for up to ninety days.

Fraud was suspected in Guyana's 1968 election, with the overseas ballots the primary source of concern. After courting U.S. aid and diplomatic ties for several years, Burnham surprised many when in February of 1970 he announced a new alliance with Communist Cuba. From this point onward, Guyana was known as the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. He also decreed a doctrine of self-reliance and drastically reduced imports, including many food staples. Foreign-controlled industries, such as Guyana's rich bauxite mines, which were owned by the Canadian aluminum firm Alcan and its U.S.-based counterpart Alcoa, were forced to accept deals that gave the Guyanese government a 51 percent share in the mines.

Burnham's policies were designed to help Guyana, but instead his authoritarian rule spurred a wave of emigration, especially after his 1974 decree that essentially established one-party rule in the country. In seeking further sources of much-needed revenue, Burnham struck unusual deals, such as one with a controversial religious leader in San Francisco named Jim Jones, who had a large African-American following. In 1974 Jones paid Burnham's government $2 million to lease four thousand acres near Port Kaituma, where, four years later, the mass suicides of the Peoples Temple occurred after a U.S. congressional delegation arrived to investigate human-rights abuses and Leo Ryan, a California congressman, was gunned down.

In June of 1980 Walter Rodney, a Marxist historian and one of the most vociferous opponents to Burnham's authoritarian rule, was killed in a mysterious explosion. Rodney, who headed the Working People's Alliance, died after a bomb went off in his car near Georgetown's main jail. He was apparently carrying a parcel given to him by a soldier, who told him it was a walkie-talkie. “We had nothing to do with Rodney's death,” Burnham asserted in an interview with New York Times journalist Richard J. Meislin two years later. “Rodney … was up to mischief—to blow up the jail. He picked the wrong frequency for the device and blew himself up.”

At a Glance …

Born Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham on February 20, 1923, in Kitty, British Guiana (now Guyana); died of heart failure on August 6, 1985, in Georgetown, Guyana; son of James Ethelbert and Rachel Abigail (Sampson) Burnham; married Sheila Bernice Lataste, 1951 (divorced, 1966); married Viola Victorine Harper, 1967; children: (with Lataste) Roxane, Annabelle, and Francesca; (with Harper) daughters Melanie Abiola and Ulele Imoinda, son Kamana. Education: University of London, BA, 1944, LLB., 1947.

Career: Cofounder of the People's Progressive Party, 1950; British Guiana Labour Union, president, 1952; named minister of education, 1953; People's National Congress, founder, 1958; became premier of British Guiana, 1964, prime minister in 1966, and president in 1980.

Awards: Decorated Order of Excellence (Guyana); Order of the National Flag First Class (Democratic People's Republic of Korea).

Became President

In 1980 a new constitutional amendment that made the country a semipresidential democratic republic allowed Burnham to assume some of the pomp and trappings of the office. Again, allegations surfaced of widespread vote fraud in that year's election following a report by a team of international observers. Official results gave Burnham 76 percent of the vote, with longtime nemesis Jagan receiving just 20 percent. Election observers contended that Indo-Guyanese voters were prevented from voting at polling stations in several places.

In October of 1983 U.S. military forces invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada to oust Marxist dictator Maurice Bishop, who had been in power since 1979 and had strengthened Grenada's relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Guyana also had close ties to Bishop's regime and denounced the maneuver. In another interview with the New York Times, Burnham scoffed at the stated justification for the invasion—that Grenada's ties to Cuba, and through it the Soviet Union, posed a threat to democracy in the Caribbean. “The threat,” Burnham told Meislin, “was that if the Grenadians succeeded in transforming their economy, other countries in that position might say that this ideology or that economic tactic on the part of Grenada must be good. There's nothing in international law that says that's a good reason for invading.”

Few visitors to Guyana would have believed that Burnham's own prescription for economic success was working. Emigration continued to increase, with the remaining Indo-Guyanese overseeing a pitifully diminished private sector. In its state-controlled economy the government was the country's largest employer, and Afro-Guyanese held the majority of jobs. The media was also controlled by the government, and television broadcasting still had not come to the nation by 1983 except in the form of unreliable pirate stations. Political dissent was nonexistent when the government controlled all media, and it was further suppressed by economic means, Jagan and other foes of Burnham claimed, because most employed Guyanese remained politically inactive for fear of losing their jobs. Again, Burnham stated that he ruled legitimately, with the support of the majority. “An oppressive Government cannot last this long,” he declared to New York Times's Meislin. “We don't have the financial accouterments for a police state.”

Fears of Cultlike Group

Guyana actually had little financial wherewithal at all after the costs of maintaining the army and other instruments of control were funded. The country was saddled with a massive foreign debt, and the continuing import restrictions made some types of items, such as toilet paper, extremely hard to obtain. Furthermore, Burnham's odd alliances with fringe groups had not abated after the Jonestown disaster. “On the streets, people speak fearfully of the House of Israel,” wrote Meislin, who described the group as “a religious sect of several thousand Guyanese headed by a man who calls himself Rabbi Washington but is really a fugitive from the United States named David Hill.” The New York Times report continued, “There is a widespread belief among Guyanese that the group operates as a paramilitary squad for the Government.” Hill was wanted on corporate fraud charges and had gained some eight thousand Afro-Guyanese followers with a doctrine asserting that blacks were the original tribes of Israel and that Christianity was a tool of oppression.

Burnham's twenty-one-year rule ended on August 6, 1985, when he died of heart failure during throat surgery. The operation, which was conducted by Cuban doctors, took place at a hospital in Georgetown. Burnham's survivors were three daughters from his 1951 marriage to Sheila Bernice Lataste and another two daughters and a son from his 1967 union with Viola Victorine Harper, who served as his vice president. His replication of certain Soviet-style customs continued even after his death, when according to his instructions he was enclosed in a tomb made of purple glass—his favorite color—modeled after the one in Moscow that had held Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin since his 1924 death. A glass coffin installed in a botanical garden exposed to the strength of the sun in near-equatorial Guyana quickly proved to be an unwise idea: Even though a refrigeration unit was used, Guyana's electrical capacity was so spotty that the cooling unit often shut down. A mausoleum at the site was later constructed, after Burnham's body was sent to Moscow for re-embalming.

Burnham was succeeded by Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte, and the impoverished nation—which had the lowest standard of living in the Caribbean and a per-capita income less than that of Haiti—moved toward genuine democracy. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter headed a team of international observers that supervised the 1992 election, the first election that was deemed fair and free since the British colonial era, and Jagan was elected president.

Selected writings

A Destiny to Mould: Selected Speeches by the Prime Minister of Guyana, Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970.

Sources

Periodicals

National Review, March 28, 1986, p. 46.

New York Times, November 28, 1966, p. 18; December 1, 1970, p. 14; October 21, 1979, p. 7; July 14, 1980, p. A8; December 18, 1980, p. A17; October 12, 1982; November 13, 1983.

Times (London, England), May 26, 1966; August 8, 1985; August 9, 1985; October 30, 1985.

—Carol Brennan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burnham, Forbes 1923–1985." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burnham, Forbes 1923–1985." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/burnham-forbes-1923-1985

"Burnham, Forbes 1923–1985." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/burnham-forbes-1923-1985

Forbes Burnham

Forbes Burnham

Forbes Burnham (1923-1985) led the coalition government which won independence for British Guiana in 1966 and was Guyana's first prime minister. He established himself as president of Guyana in 1970.

Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was born at Kitty in then British Guiana on February 20, 1923. His father, James Ethelbert Burnham, was the local elementary school headmaster. His mother was Rachel Abigail (Sampson) Burnham. Burnham attended the local elementary school in Kitty, then went on to Queen's College in Georgetown where he excelled both academically and in debating. He won a British Guiana scholarship which permitted him to attend the University of London in 1942. Awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1944, Burnham proceeded to study law, completing all the requirements brilliantly. He was called to the bar in 1948. Always a politically active student, Burnham served as president of the West Indian Students Union of London University for the academic year, 1947-1948. He was a delegate to the meeting of the International Union of Students in Paris in 1947 and in Prague in 1948.

Burnham returned to his native land in 1949 with a reputation as a gifted speaker with a passion for politics and as a moderate socialist. He immediately became active in local politics and remained until his death Guyana's most active and influential politician. He was co-founder, along with Cheddi Jagan, Jainarine Singh, J. B. Latchmansingh, Martin Carter, and Sydney King (later Eusi Kwayana), of the People's Progressive Party, which won a resounding victory in the first elections held in Guiana under universal adult suffrage in 1953. By then Burnham was chairman of the party, an elected member of the Georgetown city council, and the unofficial leader of the urban section of the party.

In a country where the racial divisions between Guyanese of African and East Indian descent tended to coincide with the geographical divisions of urban-coastal (Georgetown) and rural-interior, respectively, Burnham's political base gave him great strength within the party. Indeed this emerged early when, at the age of 30, he challenged Jagan for the position of leader of the House of Representatives. Burnham eventually accepted the position of minister of education, but after only a few months the British government suspended the constitution and imposed an interim government until 1957.

In 1955 Burnham and others defected from the People's Progressive Party, but their wing, though strong, lost to the Jagan faction in the new elections of 1957. That year Burnham, a sitting member of Parliament, founded the People's National Congress, designed to be a multi-racial moderately socialist party to the right of Cheddi Jagan. Meanwhile, Burnham's political star began to rise. He was elected mayor of Georgetown in 1959 and again in 1964 and served as president of the Guyana Bar Association in 1959. Moreover, he was the leader of the opposition from 1957 to 1964 and president of the Guyana Labor Union.

Burnham's party won the general elections of 1964 on a modified system of proportional representation. Instead of the usual winner-take-all of the conventional "Westminster Model" election, each party was given a number of seats in Parliament in direct relationship to their proportion of the popular vote. With the 12 percent won by the United Party, Burnham was able to form a coalition government. This government led Guyana into independence in 1966, and Forbes Burnham became the first prime minister.

The coalition did not last long, and after 1967 Burnham manipulated the electoral system to maintain his party in power. The main instrument was an overseas voting system based on registration lists of nationals. In the 1968 elections the People's National Congress gained 93.7 percent of the total of 36,745 foreign votes, allowing it to claim an absolute majority of 55.8 percent of the ballots and to dispense with the coalition. However, research done by the reliable Opinion Research Center of London could verify only 15 percent of the entries on the overseas registration lists.

Buoyed by the result of the 1968 general elections, Burnham established the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana in 1970 with himself as president. He still maintained his Commonwealth contacts, but Guyanese politics in the 1970s and early 1980s was the will of a singular individual. Indeed, in 1973 Burnham announced that his party had won two-thirds of the votes in the general election and with its corresponding proportion of the unicameral legislature had the requisite legal means to alter the constitution. To further reinforce his position, Burnham engineered a referendum in 1978 which made referenda unnecessary to amend the constitution once the proposed amendment got a two-third vote in the National Assembly. A new constitution made Burnham executive president with a wide range of powers to dissolve Parliament, to veto legislation, and to appoint or dismiss the prime minister, any minister of the cabinet, the vice-president, the leader of the opposition, and/or any member of the bureaucracy.

As Burnham consolidated his political power and created a new variant of ethnic politics in Guyana, the national economy went from bad to worse. Although Guyana is potentially rich, possessing extensive fertile coastal lands and a vast interior with deposits of gold, emeralds, bauxite, lumber, and other natural resources, the country had been bankrupt for nearly a decade. The massive schemes of nationalization of industry in the 1970s increased neither employment nor production nor income for the state. Opponents of the government—which by 1980 had virtually become synonymous with Burnham—were crudely beaten by thugs, hounded out of the country, or, as in the case of Walter Rodney, the leader of the Working People's Alliance, boldly assassinated.

Despite a confused rhetoric suggesting Marxist orientation and amicable relationships with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and the government of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Burnham succeeded in retaining open, if exasperating, relations with the United States, the British Commonwealth, and the Caribbean community. Foreign support of the Burnham regime merely facilitated the consolidation of power by the People's National Congress and further demoralized the opposition.

President Burnham succumbed to heart failure while undergoing a throat operation on August 6, 1985. His successor was Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid.

Further Reading

Burnham is listed in the International Who's Who and Personalities Caribbean, 1982-1983. His political opinion-cum-auto-biography is A Destiny to Mould (1970). Critical accounts of his policies and his government may be found in Clive Thomas, Plantations, peasants, and state: a study of the mode of sugar production in Guyana (1984); and J. E. Greene, Race vs. Politics in Guyana—Racial Cleavages and Political Mobilization in the 1968 General Election (1974). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Forbes Burnham." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Forbes Burnham." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forbes-burnham

"Forbes Burnham." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/forbes-burnham

Burnham, Forbes

Forbes Burnham, 1923–85, prime minister (1964–80) and president (1980–85) of Guyana, formerly British Guiana. His full name was Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. Of African descent, he received a law degree (1947) from the Univ. of London. Returning home, he founded (1950), with Cheddi Jagan, a political party devoted to gaining independence from Great Britain. He broke with Jagan in 1955 to form a more moderate party. In the 1964 elections his party trailed Jagan's, but Burnham, overcoming Jagan's plurality by uniting with a small third party, was named prime minister. He led his country to independence (1966), and, despite vigorous opposition from Jagan, was reaffirmed as prime minister in elections in 1968 and 1973. With enormous aid from the United States, which had worked secretly to destabilize the Jagan government, he furthered public works and decreased the country's high unemployment rate. He promoted the nationalization of natural resources and attempted to ease racial tensions between blacks and majority Asian Indians by opening government positions to the Indians.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burnham, Forbes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burnham, Forbes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burnham-forbes

"Burnham, Forbes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burnham-forbes