Biographer Stella Bagot, Bookers British Guiana, Dartmouth Village/Essequibo Coast/Guyana, Life of Dr. Ptolemy Alexander Reid, Prime Minister of Guyana 1980-1984, Tuskegee School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama/USA
Front Cover of A Troublesome Man by Stella Bagot
In her authorized biography, A Troublesome Man: About the life of Dr. Ptolemy Reid, Prime Minister of Guyana, 1980-1984, Stella Bagot records Dr. Reid’s account of his journey from childhood to his entrance into political life. It’s an engaging and inspiring story of a poor village boy who, with determination and persistence, overcame the obstacles along each step of his journey.
Ptolemy was born on May 8, 1918, the youngest of five siblings, in Dartmouth Village on the Essequibo Coast of then British Guiana. He lost his father to pneumonia when he was ten years old. To contribute to the family’s income, he worked on their farm plot, in the sugarcane fields, and with local fishermen. His school attendance suffered.
On completing primary school at sixteen, Ptolemy pursued employment as a pupil teacher. Five years later, he took two years off to earn his teacher’s certificate at the Government Training Center in Georgetown, the capital. Over the following eight years, he gained the reputation as a strict and proficient teacher at the Dartmouth Anglican village school.
Dartmouth Village – Essequibo Coast – Guyana
Photo Credit: Guyana Chronicle
At thirty-one years old, Ptolemy’s life took a new direction. Prompted by the colonial government’s call for more local professionals in diverse fields, he decided to become a veterinarian. Bagot doesn’t record what influenced his career choice. His admiration for Booker T. Washington led him to the Tuskegee School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, USA.
Lacking secondary school education, Ptolemy had to complete a two-year pre-veterinary course. His planned four-year overseas stay turned into six years. To cover his expenses, he worked part-time on the campus grounds. During summer vacations, he worked off campus: tobacco farm in Connecticut; construction site in Nevada; and steel mills in Indiana.
After graduating with an honors degree as a veterinary surgeon in 1955, Reid discovered that finding a position in British Guiana was no guarantee. He returned home to get married, then took his bride to the prairies of Saskatoon in Canada where he worked for two years as a meat inspector and in private fieldwork.
Reid faced another unforeseen hurdle: He needed British qualifications to obtain a permanent position in British Guiana. While his wife and Canadian-born son returned home, he traveled to London to complete an intensive one-year course to qualify for membership in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS).
When it seemed that no opening existed in British Guiana, Reid secured a position with Bookers Sugar Estates. On his return home in 1958, he made history as the first black person holding an upper-level position at Bookers Guiana. Assigned to the Kabawa Ranch in Blairmont with some 67,000 head of cattle, he traveled often around the country, visiting the company’s sugar estates.
Blairmont Sugar Factory – Berbice – Guyana
Photo Credit: UK International Steam
Ptolemy Reid soon caught the attention of Forbes Burnham (1923-1985), a British-trained attorney and leader of the main opposition party, the People’s National Congress (PNC). Reid accepted Burnham’s invitation to run as a PNC candidate for the Essequibo riverine region in the 1960 elections. He didn’t win the seat but gained visibility within the party. His trips across the country as a Bookers veterinarian provided opportunities to campaign for the party.
Bagot’s biography sheds no light on how the bond developed between Reid and Burnham. When the PNC, in coalition with the party led by businessman Peter D’Aguiar, won the 1964 elections, Reid left his position with Bookers to serve as the Minister of Home Affairs under the leadership of Premier Forbes Burnham. Then, on May 26, 1966, the country gained its independence from Britain.
Over the next twenty years, Ptolemy Reid held other ministerial positions: Trade, Finance, Agriculture, Agriculture and National Development, and National Development. In October 1980, when Burnham became Guyana’s first Executive President, he appointed Reid to replace him as Prime Minister (1980-1984).
In his address to high school graduates in July 1982, Prime Minister Reid told them: “Persist for success. The prizes of life are at the end of each journey. Do not expect reward for idleness.” His own journey was a testament to such success.
Reid’s political strength lay in “his unquestionable adherence to the [PNC] party line and unquestioning loyalty to the party leader, Forbes Burnham,” Bagot quotes from Reid’s Obituary. Given Reid’s complicity with Burnham’s dictatorship regime (1964-1985), I doubt that all Guyanese would share Bagot’s desire to remember him as a hero.