Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923-1985)
Prime Minister of Guyana, 1964-1980
President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, 1980-1985
Photo Credit: Guyana Graphic
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham: an impressive name. In retaining his mother’s maiden name, Sampson, not a common practice in Guyana, he reveals a deep regard for her. With a father who was a schoolmaster and both parents devout Methodists, the young Forbes had a strict and upright upbringing.
The brilliant, young Forbes won the 1942 British Guiana Scholarship, the highest scholastic award at that time. Later, he excelled at the University of London, achieving a Bachelor of Laws (Honors) Degree.
When I first met Forbes Burnham, then a practicing lawyer and leader of a newly-formed political party, I was about four to five years old. I was at our next-door neighbor’s flat the day he came to pick up his order of black pudding. The charming, well-spoken, and elegantly dressed man left me in awe.
At an early age, I became a patriot. In primary school, I sang our patriotic songs with fervor. My favorite song was “My Native Land.” By adolescence, I was ready to embrace the aspirations of our charismatic leader, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. With the eloquence of a great orator, he rallied us, Guyana’s future leaders, to the challenges and sacrifices of molding our destiny as a young nation. As I matured into adulthood, I watched our leader morph into an autocrat.
In a 1970 telegram 557 from the US Embassy in Guyana to the US State Department, the American diplomat assessed Burnham the Man as “a complex and difficult personality…intensely proud…intensely ambitious and restless, and…frustrated.” He described Burnham the Politician as “an experienced consummate politician, expert in the ways of manipulating his people, individuals and collectively, and quick to identify and respond to significant currents and pressures.”
The spell that Forbes Burnham had cast on me as a four-year-old was broken the day he passed by our residence on horseback. He was not alone. I assumed the other horseback rider was his bodyguard. With the composure of a British aristocrat, he looked down at me with disdain. I held his gaze. In that moment, I had a glimpse of the man behind the mask of rhetoric. He did not care about us.
The man who had promised to make the small man a real man tightened the noose around our necks.
My grand disillusion came with the assassination of Walter Rodney. Did our Comrade Leader Forbes Burnham sanction the killing? Survivors close to Burnham refuse to talk. Their continued silence doesn’t matter. For many, Burnham’s perceived guilt in Rodney’s assassination has overshadowed his accomplishments as Guyana’s President and has diminished his role as a great Statesman.
By the time I became a mother, my beloved Guyana had become a violent, dangerous place to raise my two sons.
With our adulation, acquiescence, and collaboration, we-the-people empower outstanding and ambitious individuals to manipulate, control, and crush us. Given the current political climate in Guyana, it’s apparent that we have not learned from the lessons of our recent past.