Page images

river, so that to-day Essequebo can pride itself on the possession of European ruins that are three centuries old. In fact, the Dutch were once owners of all that now comprises European Guiana-British (Demerara), Dutch (Surinam), and French (Cayenne). During the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, a good many British planters drifted hither from the West Indies in order to grow sugar, and it was, presumably, through their influence, voiced in influential circles in London, that the three provinces of Essequebo, Demerara and Berbice were finally annexed to the British Crown in 1814, after certain vicissitudes of capture and re-capture on the part of English, Dutch and French forces during the Napoleonic wars.

In 1784 the Dutch founded a new settlement on the Demerara, to which they gave the name of Stabroek, and some of their substantial old-fashioned dwellings still exist in the Stabroek quarter of modern Georgetown, which was so re-christened out of compliment to George IV. Shortly after the founding of Stabroek, a political agitation arose among the Dutch planters that has left a decided mark on the subsequent fortunes of the colony. This was the successful endeavour of these planters to obtain fiscal representation in the executive council of their sparsely populated colony. This unwelcome demand, known as the Plan of Redress, was conceded by the Dutch Government in 1795, and under its terms a certain number of elected representatives were added to the Court of Policy, with its governor and officials. The Plan of Redress was the historic basis of the existing government of British Guiana to-day. For, when Essequebo, Demerara and Berbice were formally added to the British Crown, the transfer was accomplished only on the strict understanding that the extant legal and financial status of these former Dutch colonies was to be preserved intact under British rule.

So early as 1840 the question was mooted in London as to whether it was possible for the Crown-in-Council to raise a revenue in British Guiana, and to deal with the sums so obtained according to its wishes. But the reply of the Law Officers of the Crown on this point was a most decided negative :

We are of opinion that such a power cannot be legally and constitutionally exercised by Her Majesty. British Guiana does not appear to us to be in the situation of a conquered colony, in which the Crown has supreme legislative authority. By the capitulation of September 19, 1803, it was stipulated that the laws and usages of the

colony should remain in force and be respected; that the mode of taxation then in use should be adhered to; and that no new establishment should be introduced without the consent of the Court of Policy, as the legislature of the colony. This capitulation is binding in good faith upon the Crown, and even in strict law we conceive that the sanction of the Crown, since the cession of the colony, to the political institutions in existence, has given the same force to those institutions as if they had been established by an express grant from the Crown, like the legislatures in colonies settled by British subjects.

As a consequence of this decision the peculiar constitution of British Guiana has been maintained practically unaltered to the present day.

In 1807 slavery was abolished, and no more African slaves were imported. In 1834 all resident slaves in the colony were manumitted, and thus obtained the status of free British citizens. In 1891 the franchise for the election of representatives for the two Courts, which had hitherto remained in the hands of the well-to-do white planters, was extended to all and sundry in the colony having an estimated annual income of $300 (£62 10s.), so that the present electorate is composed principally of coloured citizens. In 1917 it contained about 11,000 registered voters out of a total population of 86,000 adult males.

From a purely "economic " standpoint it is easy to understand how the subsequent development of British Guiana has been grievously stunted by these drastic measures—however inevitable or excellent they may be deemed in themselves. Emancipation was, undoubtedly, a contributing cause to the commercial decline of the colony, but it was not the only one. Cane sugar, which is par excellence the staple product of British Guiana, came to be grown in other favoured regions and to provoke vigorous competition with the sugar of Demerara; whilst in later years the cultivation of beet-sugar crops in Europe further aggravated this competition. With the universal loss of slave labour, followed by the marked unwillingness of the black freedmen to continue as paid labourers in the plantations, steps had to be taken to obtain fresh supplies of workers from outside. In the middle of last century there was considerable immigration for this purpose from Madeira and the Azores, with the result that to-day the Portuguese form the largest section of the small white community, numbering nearly 3 per cent. in a total population of 300,000, whereas all other Europeans amount only to a

trifle over 1 per cent. of the whole. And here, it may be noted, that a certain half-white element still exists in the so-called Bovianders, who are descendants of the old Dutch settlers by native Indian squaws.

It was from our East Indian Empire that the labour supply, so urgently needed, was finally obtained. During the latter part of last century, up till 1917, a continuous stream of East Indian coolies-many of them bringing their families-poured into Demerara under the indentured labour system. As a result of this extensive immigration of Orientals, the brown element in Demerara actually now exceeds the black, numbering, in 1921, as many as 125,000, as against 117,000 negroes. This fact is clearly perceptible even to the casual visitor-(a rara avis in remote Guiana)—when in the coastal belt he observes whole villages inhabited by East Indians wearing their national dress. Another Oriental feature of these settlements-and a very picturesque one -can be noted in the long, narrow ditches, filled with that most elegant of all aquatic plants, the pink Asian lotus; and it is hard to realize that all this superb floral display is being raised solely for the kitchen and not for ornament.

In the year 1917, however, the Indian Government abruptly put an end to this system of immigration, although Demerara seemed to offer an exceptionally suitable outlet for East Indian colonisation on a large scale. The new conditions of service and settlement proposed by the Indian Government are far too onerous and costly to be accepted and acted on by the colony; but it does seem passing strange that a supply of workers and settlers cannot be obtained from the neighbouring West Indian islands, whose negroes migrate in thousands to Panama and elsewhere, to be employed as navvies or agriculturalists. Barbados, with a population of nearly 1000 to the square mile, and overcrowded Jamaica might easily, one would have thought, have filled the gap. Only this last winter the writer heard in Dominica of 500 male negroes being dispatched under official auspices from that impoverished British isle, to toil in the cane-fields of Cuba. Surely some at least of this abundant overflow of British black or mulatto citizens might be diverted to Demerara, which is crying aloud both for labour and for settlement? Moreover, the cost and trouble involved in getting coloured workers from the West

Indies must be trifling when compared with any scheme whatsoever for East Indian immigration. It would seem that an effort in this sensible direction is now being made by Mr. Stewart, the Acting Immigration Agent-General, in connection with Barbados, and one can only hope that it will meet with success.

Allusion has already been made to the mixed population of the colony, showing that four-fifths of its 300,000 inhabitants are brown or black, whilst of the remainder, the Portuguese number over 9000, and other Europeans, chiefly English, amount to only 3300 or thereabouts. But there is one element in this heterogeneous mass which has not hitherto been mentioned, and that is the native Indian, the old lord of the river and the forest. The exact number of these native Indians cannot be accurately stated, for the simple reason that the bulk of the colony has never been properly mapped, or even traversed. No true census, therefore, of its aboriginals is possible, but the official figures put the number of those dwelling within the civilized parts of British Guiana at 9000 to 10,000. These interesting and (for the most part) intelligent people are short, with dark brown skins and with wellformed, if rather fleshy, limbs. Their hair is long, lank and black, and their physiognomy recalls somewhat the Japanese type. In their natural and hereditary state of decent nudity the Indians of Demerara have a far from unpleasing aspect, but contact with modern civilisation has induced many of them to adopt European dress, and consequently they appear anything but prepossessing in the dingy slop garments and greasy cloth caps that are affected almost universally by the negroes of Guiana and the West Indies. To see these people in their primitive (which is their best) state, they must be studied in their palm-thatched boats on the various rivers, usually with the menfolk lying in their hammocks, for it must not be forgotten that the comfortable and hygienic hammock is itself a gift of native South American ingenuity to our own civilization.

There are four principal tribes of these natives with whom official contact has been formed in British Guiana:

(1) The Warraus, or Swamp Indians, near the coast. They are of a placid nature, but timid and dirty in their habits. They show great skill in the making and managing of dug-outs and corials.

(2) The Arawaks, who inhabit the gently sloping forest lands

and grassy savannahs that stretch across the colony to the south of its long narrow alluvial belt. These people are superior to the Warraus in intelligence, are cleanly in their habits, can speak English as a rule, and make good boatmen and wood-cutters.

(3) The Caribs, who are again sub-divided into the true Caribs, the Arecunas, the Akawois, and the Macusis, this lastnamed tribe having the best reputation of all and owning the best physique. It is the Macusis who brew the famous ourali poison for their arrows of the chase, and are experts in the use of the deadly blow-pipe, both of which have been described for us in the classic writings of such travellers as Schomburgck, Wallace, and im Thurn.

(4) The Wapiana tribe, inhabiting the upper reaches of the Rupununi river. These Indians are taciturn and suspicious by nature, but display considerable aptitude for trading with the white man.

It is no small comfort to learn that ten reservations, covering in all some 1000 square miles, have already been set aside for these aborigines in what may be called the occupied part of the colony. A special permit to employ native labour is always required from the Protector of Indians at Georgetown, and apparently everything possible is being done officially to ensure fair play for these children of nature in face of the slowly encroaching advance of the alien settler. Mr. Henry Kirke, writing with careful knowledge on this subject some thirty years ago, has declared that " In no place in the world have native Indians been better treated than in British Guiana by the Dutch and the English equally." Nor is there any reason to doubt his assertion. Certainly it seems unthinkable that the dismal and disgraceful story of the extermination of the black-fellows in Australia and Tasmania during the last century can ever be repeated in British Guiana in our own era.

Coming to the administrative system of the colony, it is freely admitted that the chief stumbling-block to its progress and prosperity is the question of finance, which is so closely entwined with the political constitution that the two subjects must be treated concurrently. The government of British Guiana consists of two bodies-the Court of Policy, which owns administrative but not financial powers, and the Combined Court, which holds the purse. The former contains the governor, his

« PreviousContinue »