Towns and capitals

A document circulating on the internet which has been seized on by many persons locally, makes the assertion that April 29, 2012 marks the two hundredth anniversary of Georgetown. Well, not quite. The city’s two hundredth anniversary was in 1981, and what this year represents is two centuries since Georgetown acquired its name. Cities sometimes do change their names, but their founding date is always taken as the base from which to calculate their ages. St Petersburg is a classic case in point: founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it became Petrograd in 1914, Leningrad in 1924 and changed back to St Petersburg in 1991. No matter what it is called at any given point, however, its age will always be reckoned from 1703.

And so it is with Georgetown. Historians and the municipal authorities some decades ago took the founding date as being when the British came in 1781, although the invaders were not here long enough on that occasion to accomplish anything very much in the way of developing a town. They did, however, choose the site and build a wooden fort whose precise location is unknown, although the 19th century historian James Rodway thought it might have been in Company Path. They also built a government office on the site where the Dutch had constructed a Brandwagt, or signal station in 1748, probably somewhere in the region of what is now St Andrew’s Kirk.

The British were succeeded by the French in 1782, who achieved rather more in terms of town infrastructure and buildings, but they in turn were dislodged by the Dutch in 1784.  For their part, the Dutch had not really ever intended establishing a town where Georgetown is now; they had been contemplating locations on the East Bank in the neighbourhood of what is now Coverden. However, faced with a fait accompli, they took over what they had inherited from the French, and proceeded from there. They called their new town, Stabroek, after Nicolaas Geelvink, President of the Dutch West India Company and Lord of Castricum, Backum and Stabroek. (The French had called it La Nouvelle Ville, while sometimes also referring to it casually as Longchamps (long fields.))

As Stabroek expanded at a modest rate, some of the enterprising planters in the neighbourhood began to sell off the frontlands of their plantations for the purposes of urban development. The record of their business acumen (or that of their agents) is still to be found in some instances in the ward names of the city, such as Bourda (after Joseph Bourda), Albouystown (after J H Albouys) and Cummingsburg (after Thomas Cuming, who has managed to bequeath his name to Cummings Lodge and the Cummings Canal as well.)  In 1812, Stabroek along with all of these areas and others like Kingston, where the British military establishment and its attached village were to be found, were given the name Georgetown.  As said above, the date being circulated for this is April 29, although Rodway gives May 5. It is possible, of course, that the first represented the date of the order and the second the date when it was to come into effect, but final clarification would require recourse to the original documents.

And now a word about capitals.  Georgetown was not only the first true capital here (albeit not of the whole country), but it was also the first true town. It was the historian Alvin Thompson who pointed out many years ago that for most of their history under the Dutch, the colonies which went to make up modern-day Guyana never had towns; they were quite literally plantation colonies only. What the Dutch did was build forts, around which (or near to which) a number of houses sprang up. Along with the houses, Fort Zeelandia in Essequibo and Fort Nassau in Berbice each had an inn, a church, a smithy or smithies and a building housing the Court of Policy and Justice in their vicinity, but neither could have been described as an urban centre in any real sense of that term. They are best referred to, perhaps, as headquarters.

No one knows when the first Dutch headquarters were set up here. The presumption is that Essequibo was the first colony, although no one is sure about its date of establishment; the favoured dates are either around 1616, or perhaps 1626 – or some other year a little before that. We do know that the first brick fort was Kykoveral (the Dutch never hyphenated the name; that is an aberration introduced by the British), but we have no idea when it was built. We do know that it became too small for the operations of the government, which decamped to Cartabo in 1718, leaving the military in the fort.  The government was to move to Fort Island in 1739, while between 1742 and 1744, Fort Zeelandia was constructed there, the ruins of which are still evident today.

Essequibo was owned by the Dutch West India Company until for a very brief period it was taken over by the state in the 1790s, but wherever the Dutch administrative headquarters in Essequibo were situated at any given point in time, they had jurisdiction over Essequibo and Demerara only. Demerara is the youngest of the Guyana colonies, since its first plantations came after 1745, although in economic terms it was far and away the most successful, and quickly became the most populous too. Since it had eclipsed its parent colony, it eventually managed to secure independent administration, and from the 1760s its headquarters were to be found on Borsselen Island, in the Demerara River. At the time the British appeared for the first time in 1781, the buildings there had fallen into a state of total disrepair, which is why the Dutch in somewhat lackadaisical fashion had been casting around for an alternative location.

It must be remembered that Berbice was an entirely separate colony from Essequibo and Demerara for all of the Dutch period and part of the British. It was owned first by the Van Pere family, then briefly by the French, then by the Berbice Association, and lastly by the Berbice Society (in addition to the conquests by the British and French from 1781 onwards).  The headquarters here were, as mentioned above, Fort Nassau, together with the attached village of Nieuw Amsterdam. No one knows when the first fort was built on the Berbice River either, although we do know the date of the establishment of the colony itself – 1627. As far as capitals are concerned, however, Berbice had its own; that was the present town of New Amsterdam, whose date of foundation is taken as 1791 when the Court of Policy promulgated regulations for the issuing of house lots there.

When the British assumed control of the Guyana colonies for the last time in 1803 (they were also here between 1796 and 1802), they governed two colonies: the United Colony of Essequibo and Demerary/a, and Berbice. Even in 1812, the newly named Georgetown was only the capital of the first, not the second. The two colonies were combined to form British Guiana in 1831, and from that point on Georgetown became the capital of the whole country.

Whatever the incidental inaccuracies in the internet document being disseminated, it does, nevertheless, serve a very important purpose. It draws attention to the city by providing an occasion for celebration – in this case, a name change – that could galvanise the authorities as well as citizens into doing something to rescue Georgetown. In a letter to this newspaper last Tuesday, Major General (rtd) Joseph Singh, suggested that the occasion be marked by action to arrest the city’s decline. Apart from his proposals to clean up the capital and maintain it in a sanitary state, he also suggested (among other things) that the 200th Naming Anniversary Project should be the restoration of City Hall.

“A public commitment should be made by civil society groups towards the setting up of a project implementation Steering Committee (as, for example, was done for the restoration of the St George’s Cathedral and the Theatre Guild Playhouse) for the Restoration of City Hall as a project of national importance,” he wrote. “City Hall is a National Monument and should be the symbol and flagship of the capital,” he continued; “Sadly, it is currently a national embarrassment of monumental proportions.”  To date, there has not been any response from City Hall, the National Trust, the relevant ministries, civil society organizations, the business community or private citizens to this proposal. Surely they are not all prepared to stand by and watch City Hall disintegrate in front of their eyes? This is at least one city in the world that has an administrative building of stunning architectural value and aesthetic quality; we would be condemned in the eyes of future generations were we to let it go to ruin.



Join the Conversation

After you comment, click Post. If you're not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

The Comments section is intended to provide a forum for reasoned and reasonable debate on the newspaper's content and is an extension of the newspaper and what it has become well known for over its history: accuracy, balance and fairness. We reserve the right to edit/delete comments which contain attacks on other users, slander, coarse language and profanity, and gratuitous and incendiary references to race and ethnicity. We moderate ALL comments, so your comment will not be published until it has been reviewed by a moderator.