Preserving our literary heritage
Joel Paul Benjamin
by Petamber Persaud
Such a title had to be earned and earned it he did.
Joel Benjamin was somewhat a pioneer in that field, reviving the research at that particular time and building on the efforts of Roth and others. The route of a pioneer is never easy, but more disheartening is the fact that the ground-breaking efforts of such a person is hardly seen and rarely acknowledged. But the man was unmindful of kudos, he was happy in his work and his work made him happy and that was all that mattered. In fact, he revelled in the fascination of Guyanese history, giving radio talks and writing newspaper articles, sharing his discoveries – treasures better utilised than stored. And Guyana is in a better position now to appreciate such scholarship especially his expertise on Guyana’s boundary issues with Venezuela and Suriname. What else can a country ask of a son who sought to preserve her interest internally and externally!
His love for history started in the early 1960s where he taught the subject at Central High School before leaving for Edinburgh University to read for an M. A. in Mental Philosophy. In the early 1970s, he taught history for two years at Queen’s College. For a number of years during the mid-70s, he represented Guyana on the history panel of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). As Social Studies Coordinator attached to the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education, he was responsible for drawing up Social Studies curricula.
Bibliographer, bibliophile, artist, thinker, writer, Joel Paul Benjamin was born on June 1943 in Alberttown, Georgetown, Guyana, to Claude and Stella Benjamin. Joel was the fifth of ten siblings – nine boys and one girl. Despite the large size of the family, he was able to attend Queen’s College moving from Comenius Moravian, Queenstown.
The 1950s was a transitional period for Joel moving from primary to secondary school and for the family moving from Alberttown to Campbellville. It was also a time of political awaking in Guyana and the Caribbean.
Whatever Benjamin did was influenced by the need to serve his country. After gaining his M.A. in Mental Philosophy, he opted to do an M.Litt degree in Political Philosophy, writing his thesis on Edmund Burke. He chose to specialise in Political Philosophy instead of his first love, Logic, mindful that there would be no opening for him to use it in Guyana.
Ready to serve his country, he returned to Guyana in 1969, but was unable to find suitable employment. After teaching art during the day at Queen’s College and evenings at Teachers’ Training College, and serving as history master at Queen’s College, he went to London University to do a Ph. D. in Political Philosophy.
Here, it was by a strange twist of logic that he found his calling. Benjamin found himself unable to subscribe to the philosophical orthodoxy of the day. This forced him to leave the course, opening the way for him to lay the groundwork for what was to become his life’s work – “he walked the streets of London, visiting all the antiquarian and second-hand bookshops, building up an extensive knowledge of the bibliography of Guyana”.
This ‘knowledge of Guyanese bibliography came to the attention of the then University of Guyana librarian, Wilfred Plumb, who hired him in 1975 to take over the Caribbean Research Library (CRL)’. Benjamin toiled many years to build up that collection, benefiting scores of local and foreign researchers including this author.
Conscious of the amount of work still to be done, Benjamin collaborated with others towards that end. He was one of the founding members of the Guyana Heritage Society. In 1975, Benjamin was instrumental in the establishment of the National Commission for Research Materials (NCRM) which eventually published,, in collaboration with the British Library Goodall’s ‘Sketches of Amerindians Tribes 1841 – 1843’ and re-printed Hilhouse’s ‘Indian Notices’ of 1839, both books were introduced and annotated by Professor Menezes. In 1975, Benjamin mounted an exhibition of historical pictures in the museum and in 1987 he assisted the Amerindian Research Unit in mounting an exhibition of historical photographs of Amerindians.
Ian McDonald said of Benjamin that he loved books, “even the sound of the name of books”.
By the by, the name Joel Benjamin graced the front covers of numerous publications which he compiled including the lesser known tradition of Guyanese fiction, the lesser known literature on Guyana, the early theatre in this country, the use of visual materials in the study and teaching of Guyanese history. He also wrote on the etymology and use of the word ‘buck’ in Guyana, the naming of the Essequibo River, the Water Mama belief in Guyana and the Arawak language of the Guianas.
It could be said that when Joel Benjamin died in 1989, he died on the job, leaving many unfinished projects like his major work, a retrospective bibliography of Guyana pre-1910.
* Chronicle 1989, Stabroek News 1989