Author Kirk Smock tells the tragic story behind Jonestown and its victims.

Written by Kirk Smock


Today, the area has largely been reclaimed by the jungle and there is little sign left of any sort of the settlement. 

Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, the so-called Jonestown Massacre, during which 913 men, women and children lost their lives in a mass murder-suicide on 18 November 1978, remains one of the most memorable events in Guyana’s history.

Jonestown was a communal settlement in the jungles of northwestern Guyana, roughly seven miles from Port Kaituma. The community was inhabited by members of the People’s Temple, a cult that was founded by American Jim Jones in the mid-1950s.

In 1974, Jones leased nearly 4,000 acres of land from the Guyanese government and a team of followers began constructing Jonestown. In 1977, People’s Temple members began moving to Jonestown to work on an agricultural co-operative called the ‘People’s Temple Agricultural Project’. The group raised animals and grew fruits and vegetables for consumption and sale in nearby markets.

Members of the People’s Temple were lured to Guyana by promises of life in a utopian community. It wasn’t long, however, before they realised life was far from the paradise they were promised. Reports from survivors say that members were forced to work long days in the fields and were often given little more than rice and beans to eat, while Jones dined on meats, salads, fruits and soft drinks kept cold in his private refrigerator.

Jones preached what he called Translation – an act where he and his followers must commit suicide to move on to a different planet that offered bliss. He tested loyalty by rehearsing mass suicides in an event termed ‘White Night’ during which he would hand out liquid said to contain poison to all followers, including the children. Only after everybody drank would they be told it was just a test and there was no poison present.

As tales of human rights violations in Jonestown reached the States, concerned family members made their stories public. In November 1977, the San Francisco Examiner ran a story that made many allegations against the People’s Temple; one of the people it disturbed was Congressman Leo Ryan. Wanting to personally investigate the situation, Ryan planned to visit Jonestown in November 1978. Interest in joining him was high, and the final group that went to Guyana on 14 November consisted of 18 people representing the government, the media and a group called Concerned Relatives. Ryan met with Temple members at their Georgetown headquarters and he was told they would not be allowed to visit Jonestown. On 17 November, Ryan decided to fly to Port Kaituma regardless of what he was being told. Members of the group were eventually allowed in to Jonestown later that day and were greeted by a rehearsed reception and concert. That night a member of the Ryan party was slipped a note by two members of People’s Temple who wanted help in leaving.

The next day the media and government officials were given a tour of Jonestown. When the group met Jim Jones, he was confronted with the note. During the ensuing discussion more Temple members stepped forward and asked to leave with Ryan. Jones eventually consented and wished them luck. Shortly before Ryan’s party and 15 Temple members left Jonestown to return to the Port Kaituma airstrip, one more follower – Larry Layton – asked to leave with them. Suspicions were raised by other members but Ryan consented. The group needed two planes, and just before the first, a small Cessna, was set to take off with six passengers, Layton took a gun from his waistband and began shooting at those on the plane with him. At this same time, Ryan and others were boarding the second plane when Temple members driving a tractor appeared near the runway.

They opened fire on the group, killing Ryan, three members of the media and one People’s Temple defector; six more were seriously wounded. The Cessna was able to take off during the attack, but the larger second plane was disabled. Those who carried out the shooting returned to Jonestown.

After the shooters returned to Jonestown, a meeting was held and it was decided to hold another ‘White Night’, only this time the nurse was told to mix cyanide and sedatives into the grape Flavor Aid (not the Kool Aid of lore). All members, including the children, lined up for their poison and then went to lie down. Those who refused to drink the juice were believed to have been injected with the poison using needles. Jones either shot himself, or had someone do it for him. A small handful of members were able to escape the murder-suicide by hiding in buildings or in the surrounding jungle.

In the end, 913 members, including more than 270 children, died at Jonestown on the night of 18 November 1978. There are many rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy (most involving the CIA), but nothing has ever been proven. Jonestown was largely left deserted after the tragedy, and many of the buildings were destroyed by fire in the mid-1980s.

Today, the area has largely been reclaimed by the jungle and there is little sign left of any sort of the settlement. If you would like to visit the jungle that was once home to Jonestown, which is located outside of the small logging and mining village of Port Kaituma, you can arrange boats at Kumaka and overland travel in Port Kaituma. Some travel agents in Georgetown also offer the trip (either overland or via aircraft); Captain Gouveia at Roraima Airways was there on the fateful day and makes a passionate guide.

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