Preserving our literary heritage
1873 – 1942
by Petamber Persaud
JOSEPH Ruhomon was a pioneer and pacesetter on many fronts, gaining honours like ‘the first modern Indian intellectual in British Guiana’, ‘a litterateur of outstanding ability’ and ‘thinker’.
In 1894, he delivered a groundbreaking lecture in Georgetown. In that lecture, entitled, ‘India; the Progress of her People at Home and Abroad and How those in British Guiana may Improve themselves’, Ruhomon popularised the phrase, ‘Guyanians’, although he was already wearing the labels of ‘East Indian Christian’, ‘Indianness’ and ‘East Indian Creole’. Such a situation was as much an identity crisis as it was due to the prevailing influences under which he was nurtured. As late as 1922, he was still pointing the way forward to those who came when he delivered the lecture titled, ‘The Transitory and the Permanent’, at the East Indian Young Men’s Society in Georgetown.
His father, Ruhoman, along with his brothers, Lokhooa and Pahalad, all under thirteen and unaccompanied by their parents, came to British Guiana in 1859 on the ship ‘Victor Emmanuel’ and were bounded to Plantation Albion. Later, Ruhoman and Lokhooa embraced Christianity becoming John Ruhoman and Moses Luckhoo respectively, while Pahalad remained a Hindu.
Moses Luckhoo went on to produce a clan of outstanding legal practitioners.
Joseph Ruhomon’s father, John Ruhoman, was a qualified sick nurse and dispenser operating among the Albion, Port Mourant and Smythfield sugar plantations. The father who was conversant in English, Hindi, Tamil and Arabic also owned and operated a drug store in New Amsterdam. He was a qualified sick nurse and dentist. Joseph’s mother was Betsy Ruhomon nee Rozario.
Journalist, poet, editor, pamphleteer, dentist, druggist/chemist, Joseph Ruhomon was born on August 2, 1873 in Albion on the Corentyne Coast of Berbice, British Guiana.
Ruhomon was educated at the All Saints’ Anglican School in New Amsterdam, and privately. He was literate in Hindi, feeding on the vast, glorious literature of India especially in respect to culture and philosophy. He also kept abreast of current developments in India including the exploits of Swami Vivekananda, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913).
He entered the world of work as an apprentice bookkeeper (1885 – 1886) at plantations Smythfield, Adelphi and Rose Hall. In 1887, he served as an apprentice in the Immigration Office at New Amsterdam. Between 1888 and 1893, he served as a Clerk at the Alms House and Issuer at the Public Hospital, New Amsterdam. In 1908, he was on the editorial staff of the Daily Argosy. Between 1916 and 1925, he was head of Davson’s Printery, Stationery & Bookstore in New Amsterdam. Ruhomon was the editor of THE PEOPLE, a Berbice newspaper founded by Rev. H. J. Shirley who was a radical English Congregational Minister.
That 1894 lecture was the earliest manifestation of self-awareness for the Indians who came and whose number was swelling each year. With that identity tag, Ruhomon ushered in a chapter of our history that would have far-reaching impact on the society, a society controlled by the Christian Church and British Colonialism.
Only twenty-one then, Joseph Ruhomon was concerned about the intellectual progress and development of East Indians in the colony. And their ‘slow progress’ he lamented, ‘they do not know what it is to cultivate the barren wilderness of their minds and the great good that would accrue... they do not know what it is to acquire knowledge...which would give them power…’. He made a call for the formation of a society with its own library and its own newspaper to deal with those issues, saying: ‘Books are one of the greatest blessings in life, and the educated mind which dives into literature, enjoys a pleasure which a rude uncultured mind knows nothing... for the newspaper press today is one of the greatest forces in this world…’.
That 1894 lecture was published later that year, making it the first major publication by an Indian in the colony. And it was made possible through the help of the Rev. H. V. P. Bronkhurst, the Wesleyan Minister to the Indians from 1860 to 1895 who wrote a ‘foreword to it, underlining the author’s call for an Indian social organisation’.
And so the British Guiana East Indian Association was formed, founded by Joseph Ruhomon in 1916. The association’s journal, INDIAN OPINION, was launched in June of that same year.
Thereafter, Ruhomon witnessed the formation and development of several other groups including The East Indian Young Men’s Society (EIYMS), 1919, which his brother, Peter, spearheaded, the Balak Sahaita Mandalee (child welfare society), 1936, the East Indian Cricket Club, 1914, the Corentyne Literary & Debating Society, 1937, and the British Guiana Dramatic Society.
Ruhomon’s poems came to public attention in AN ANTHOLOGY OF LOCAL INDIAN VERSE edited by C.E.J. Ramcharitar-Lalla and printed by The Argosy Company in 1934. That was the first anthology of poems to be published by Indians in the colony and was largely due to the influence of Peter Ruhomon who was at the time writing a weekly page, ‘Indian Intelligence’, in The Daily Chronicle.
His other writing included pamphlets titled, ‘Good and Evil’, ‘Signs and Portents’, and ‘Records of the Past’. He also wrote a metrical composition, ‘The Triple Crown’.
Joseph was the elder brother to Peter Ruhomon who, in 1947, published CENTENARY HISTORY OF THE EAST INDIANS IN BRITISH GUIANA, 1838 – 1938. Many of his acquaintances made significant contribution to our literature including Cecil Clementi, James Rodway, A. R. F. Webber, Ayube Edun and Rev. H. V. P. Bronkhurst.
When Joseph Ruhomon, the chemist, the thinker, the editor, died in 1942, he had already brewed a portion for the independence of all ‘Guyanians’.
* Ian McDonald et al editors. THEY CAME IN SHIPS