The ability to participate without restraint in the domestic polity by way of the vote did not occur in Guyana until the 1953 elections. It would therefore be inappropriate to employ the concept democracy when addressing the era prior to this time because of the deeply restricted franchise which largely made politics the preserve of Europeans. Nonetheless, the quest for democratisation, that is, the propagation of the idea of representation has deeper roots in the 19th century and these roots will be examined in this article.
Democratisation expanded on the desire to resist the colonial state’s acceptance of a perspective that argued that some peoples were not suitable for democracy because they lacked the requisite level of civilisation. It was such a perspective that had justified conquest and over three centuries of Dutch and British rule. Prior to 1796, the applicable Dutch constitution had no provision to include or even tolerate the political voices of Africans or Indigenous peoples who represented the two largest groups in the society, and this policy was maintained after Britain acquired control of the colonies and even after slavery had been abolished. Therefore despite the acquisition of freehold properties by many Africans in the immediate post emancipation period, income qualifications required for the franchise and to become a member of any of the political bodies were deliberately fixed outside the reach of most Africans. In other words, complete citizenship was not a right of all ethnic groups and both genders in Guiana, only Europeans and males.
In 1849 qualifications for the franchise were extended to men who owned at least three acres (valued at $96 per annum), or who rented six acres (valued at $192 per annum) of cultivated land in the country or, if resident in the urban areas, to those men who owned property worth $500, or rented property at a cost of $120 per annum. Additionally, those men who paid taxes on earnings of $600 per annum were allowed to vote. However, as Governor Henry Barkly frankly explained, despite the expansion of the franchise, the design of the newly extended franchise arrangement remained wedded to the aim of ensuring non-Europeans and in particular Africans did not secure a majority position in terms of the electorate.
Obtaining membership of the political institutions within the state was made even more difficult for the African majority. Under the Dutch constitution, the electorate voted for members of the College of Kiezers, which was an electoral college whose members were responsible for identifying appropriate nominees whenever there were vacancies in the colonial legislature, the Court of Policy. The decision regarding who would fill the vacancies was then made by the members of the legislature. This arrangement was at first intended to ensure planter dominance in the colonial legislature and then was used after emancipation to ensure Africans were excluded from the legislature. These circumstances obtained until the 1890s when the Constitution was changed. Only one non-white individual, Richard Hayes, gained access to the legislature prior to the constitutional change. A prosperous coloured merchant and Mayor of Georgetown in the early 1840s, Hayes became eligible as a ‘planter’ by buying a derelict plantation and persuading the more liberal whites to support his nomination in 1850. Hayes was however rejected for re-entry in 1855 and the loophole that made possible the nomination of such an allegedly unattractive and incapable nominee was closed in 1864 with a change in the law governing eligibility for membership of the Court of Policy. Thereafter, an individual had to be the title-holder of 80 acres of land, half of which had to be under cultivation.
The 19th century constitutional arrangements were completed with a third political body, the College of Financial Representatives. Members of this institution were directly elected by eligible voters and their mandate was to convene with the members of ‘Combined Court’ to decide the colonial budget. Similar property qualifications as those needed for the legislature were also required for membership of the College of Financial Representatives and even the alternative eligibility qualifications of rental property worth $1,440 per annum, or earnings of $1,440 per annum were way outside the reach of all but a small group after emancipation. In other words, prior to the reform of the constitution in the 1890s, the non European populations of the colony were disenfranchised at the level of the political centre and had virtually no influence on the governance sphere.
Africans gained and used education for socio-political advancement and, acquiring education also resulted in this new middle class ultimately engaging in a campaign to secure political rights and representation. Education was originally intended as a mechanism of social control after emancipation and public revenues were given to the established churches resulting in the establishment of a dual education system where public revenue-supported church schools became the model particularly at the primary stage. Public support expanded the provision of education and by 1841 the colony had 101 denominational schools. African socio-economic mobility was boosted even further by the need for teaching instructors. A pupil-teacher arrangement commenced in 1857 and many Africans were employed as on the job trainee teachers. It was under this system that the teaching profession became overwhelmingly staffed by Africans. Moreover, teaching acted as a base from which Africans relocated to more financially rewarding and socially prestigious middle-level civil service jobs. Some Africans acquired government scholarships for further education overseas and others paid for further education for their children in the high-status Georgetown secondary schools and at overseas universities. Consequently, Africans quickly comprised the majority of the Guianese salaried middle class dominating the civil service, teaching service, and were well represented in the medical and legal professions. African middle class leaders then started to campaign for greater political rights and representation and pressured the colonial government to institute some minor constitutional changes in 1891. Therefore when enfranchisement meant an income of $25 per month in 1915 (translating into at minimum lower-middle class status), Africans constituted 42.3 percent of the total adult male population but constituted 62.7 percent of the electorate.
The strategy used by the colonial elite towards East Indians in the colony was aimed at confining them to one labour sector, namely, plantation agriculture. The colonial authorities thus controlled political awareness and limited Indian participation in the political life of the colony. Even though the language of British Guiana politics was English, Indians were encouraged to maintain their culture including continued usage of their native language and this placed great limitations on their participation in and access to the political governance sphere. In addition, British immigration-generals were given the task of securing the interests of Indians in the local legislature and the primary interest of these individuals was investigating grievances and resolving disputes rather than advocating for and encouraging Indian participation in politics.
Thus by 1915 East Indians represented 51.8 percent of the total male population but only comprised 6.4 percent of the electorate. In effect, political marginalisation and exclusion from the governance sphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were even greater for the Indian community which formed the majority of the population than any other ethnic community. By 1917 Indians represented 57.8 percent of the male population of voting age, however, less than 1 percent registered to vote and while this figure had improved by 1925, representation and participation among the Indian community were still inadequate since although India
ns represented over 40 percent of the colony’s total population, they nevertheless comprised 13 percent of the registered voters.
Africans therefore had longer struggled for political influence in British Guiana and even though over time their percentage of the total adult male population in the colony was decreasing, they nevertheless sought and gained access until they represented a notable part of the Combined Court and the Court of Policy. Meanwhile, no Indian male had been elected to these bodies prior to 1912, and the increasing numbers of middle class Indians recognised that that inadequate or no representation translated into a denial of their full constitutional and political rights. Significantly, a non-European majority numerically constituted a majority in the electorate in 1915 and this development had immense implications for political decision-making as evidenced through the results of the 1927 elections when for the first time in British Guiana’s political history non-European political representatives comprised a majority in the legislature and, the response of the British government who dispatched a special commission which recommended a new constitution that was patterned along the lines of a Crown Colony system of government. As expressed by the Commission:
“It is a general phenomenon in tropical countries that the extension of the electorate and the greater frequency of contests make it extremely and increasingly difficult for anyone who is not able and prepared to embark more or less whole time on the career of a politician to enter the legislature by avenue of the constituencies. The result is the loss to public life of no inconsiderable proportion of those who are best qualified for it, or, in other words, of the small but extremely important European class which still controls the principal agricultural and commercial activities of the colony”
This statement reveals the identified ethnic role of Europeans within the society. Europeans were identified as capable rulers and administrators while the other ethnies were deemed incapable. More so, as noted in the Report, this alleged capacity to rule was connected to the capitalist activities of the European group. Undoubtedly the purpose was to return political decision making to the European economic elite in the colony and this was achieved after the Crown Colony government system was introduced in 1928. Under this Crown Colony system, operative political power was transferred from elected to nominated and governmental representatives and effective authority was secure in the hands of the Governor who had veto powers in both Councils.