Preserving our literary heritage by Petamber Persaud
1889 – 1967
WHEN Vincent Roth arrived in British Guiana in the year 1907, at age eighteen, he was already imbrued with a spirit of adventure. A spirit kindled by early childhood trauma and by his love for reading.
Roth was a mere ten-month-old babe when he was delivered to a convent on the death of his mother. Thereafter, he was brought up by relatives in Switzerland, France and Scotland. And when he was twelve, Roth was reunited in Australia with his father and stepmother.
He started his schooling at kindergarten level in Geneva, attended Dingwall Academy in Scotland, Brisbane and Maryborough Grammar Schools in Queensland and matriculated at the University of Tasmania with Honours in English Language, English Literature and Geography.
There were numerous instances in his writing about his respect for books and his love for reading. In France, he was attracted to his grandfather’s library and was angry when some relatives stole a quantity of books. In Scotland, he used to read in bed by lamplight covered by sheets to avoid detection by his aunt. Roth referred to a story whereby he was forbidden to read his favourite periodical, ‘The Boys’ Friend’, which got him into trouble but he never gave it up. In Australia, his stepmother used to read to him every night at bedtime from one of the Classics. So much Vincent Roth loved reading that he neglected his algebra lessons thereby forcing his father to straddle him with a private tutor. That incident is not to be misconstrued - the father was the son’s main source of books.
Even on his way to British Guiana in 1907, Roth lost himself in Everard Im Thurn’s book,
AMONG THE INDIANS OF BRITISH GUIANA.
As he settled into the local landscape, he organised and ran a lending library, the ‘Roth’s Private Circulating Library’, for the inhabitants of Christianburg and Wismar who were ‘fond of reading but had difficulty in obtaining a sufficiency of reading material’.
Land surveyor, geologist, district administrator, reporter, editor, publisher, Vincent Roth was born on September 29, 1889 in Australia. His father, Dr. Walter Roth was an anthropologist who worked in British Guiana as Stipendiary Magistrate, Deputy Protector of Indians in the Pomeroon, and Commissioner of the Rupununi. The elder Roth translated Netsche’s HISTORY OF THE COLONIES from Dutch and wrote
AN INQUIRY INTO ANIMISM & FOLKLORE OF THE GUIANA INDIANS.
In British Guiana, Vincent Roth first worked as a newspaperman for the Daily Argosy in the days when the newspaper was printed on rose pink paper. He then joined the Lands and Mines Department, functioning as a surveyor and Warden/Magistrate for about twenty five years. Retiring from the colonial service in 1936, he returned to the newspaper, this time as librarian and second editor with the Daily Chronicle. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was coerced back into the colonial service because of his knowledge of the interior of Guyana to act as District Commissioner and Magistrate in the North West District.
In 1943, he was appointed to the Legislative Council along with H. N. Critchlow and Ayube M. Edun. Roth was elected for a second term in 1947, the time Dr. Cheddi Jagan entered the Legislative Council.
Many of his acquaintances made significant contribution to the literature of Guyana including Ayube Edun, Cheddi Jagan, A. R. F. Webber, Michael Swan, Michael McTurk, David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, and W. I. Gomes.
By the time Vincent Roth left for Barbados in 1964 to rest and to write his memoirs, he had already made significant contributions to Guyana. He was responsible for rebuilding the national natural museum which was destroyed by fire in 1945 and back in 1918 he built a ‘suspension foot-bridge, carrying Five Stars trail over Whana River. He founded the zoo in the Botanic Gardens which became a success due in no small way to the contribution of George and Stanley Lee.
He was curator of the British Guiana Museum, honorary member of the Royal Agriculture and Commercial Society and editor of the society’s journal, TIMEHRI.
An avid reader, he was also a prolific writer who started to keep a diary from his early years. He contributed stories and articles to the CHRONICLE CHRISTMAS ANNUAL and articles to the Argosy’s CHRISTMAS TIDE. He wrote a column, ‘Olla Podrida’, for the SPORT & GENERAL MAGAZINE.
Some of his own books include a WHO’S WHO OF BRITISH GUIANA, THE LEGEND
OF KAIETEUR, ROTH’S PEPPERPOT published by the Daily Chronicle 1958 and
TALES OF THE TRAIL 1960.
He was responsible for reprinting several rare books now known as the Guiana Edition including OLD TIME STORY by Putagee Punguss and ESSAYS AND FABLES IN THE VERNACULAR by ‘Quow’. His memoirs left unfinished due to his death in 1967, were completed by his son-in-law, Michael Bennett, and published by Peepal Tree Press 2003 in two volumes: VINCENT ROTH: A life in Guyana : Volume 1: A Young Man’s Journey 1889-1922; Volume 2: The Later Years: 1922-1936.
In 1951, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his services to Guyana.