By Shammane Joseph

This is the beginning of a series of articles that will briefly describe the development and eventual closure of the British Guiana railway system. However, the focus will be on the Georgetown-Mahaica link. In this article I examine the reasons for the construction of the railway line in British Guiana. In subsequent articles I will examine the completion of the railway, problems it experienced and the reasons for its eventual closure.

The first public announcement of the idea of rail transport in British Guiana was posited by the Royal Gazette newspaper on 14th February 1837. It stated that it “was happy to find that the anticipation of a railroad on the East Coast is on the eve of accomplishment.”  Proceeding, the article pointed out “the pressing need of the planter to substitute mechanical for manual labour. This may be taken that the planters were haunted by the spectre of full emancipation.

The article deliberated that upwards of 1,000 effective labourers were distributed throughout the year on work that would become archaic by the establishment of the railway. It placed the value of each man at £30 per annum, and considered that the East Coast proprietors would benefit to the extent of £30,000 per annum, while also having the advantage of shipping their produce and receiving their supplies. Reference was also made to the significance of the planters being able to convey troops and provisions with a dispatch not otherwise to be obtained, and to the residents of Georgetown being in the position to receive regular supplies of meat and milk from the cattle-farms on the East Coast.

The first public step was taken on 10th March 1837, when a general meeting of the proprietors and representatives of the estates on the East Coast of Demerara was held.  At this meeting, four pledges were collectively adopted and moved by Dr. Michael McTurk and seconded by James Stuart. The stakeholders agreed that the “speedy and extensive introduction of iron railways into British Guiana was of great importance, to the interests of the Colony.” They also agreed that “the East Coast of Demerara lying between the port of Georgetown and the stream or creek of Mahaica East Coast was immediately favour-able to the success of an iron Railway.” Further, the stakeholders wanted the railway to be constructed by a Joint Stock Company. This Company comprised of the members of the first meeting, who were responsible for raising capital by means of shares of a moderate amount and by allowing other colonists and other individuals elsewhere to be part of the Company.

At that meeting, an election was taken for the appointment of a Committee for the Association and Dr. Michael McTurk, Peter Rose, Creswell Spencer, James Stuart, George Rainy, John Croal, John Jones, B. J. Hopkinson, George Bonyun, James and George Matthews were declared elected officials for the Committee. This Committee quickly carried out its assigned work as on 30th May, 1837, “the prospectus of a Joint Stock Company to be denominated the Demerary East Coast railway between the port of Georgetown and the stream of Mahaica” was published in the Royal Gazette newspaper.

The resources of the company were placed at £120,000 divided into 2,400 shares at £50 each. The prospectus depicted the immense boom that was evidently taking place in railway construction at that period. They gave a list of English railways which were paying large dividends, while the stocks of the various companies stood at several hundred percent. It suggested that the railway would run through extremely easy country, and that there were no opposing acclivities that had to be pierced by tunnels or excavated by cuttings. Moreover great depressions of the surface were to be obliterated by embankments or bridged over by masonry. It continued that nature herself had done for Demerary what art had imperfectly performed for other places.

It alluded to heavy burdens posed by:

* The great expense of transporting produce to the only port of the colony (Georgetown) for shipment abroad;

* The structure of the punts, schooners and loggers engaged in the local transport;

* The slowness of the crew at high tide and their inability to navigate the shores and rivers;

* The enormous cost of these vessels and their wear and tear under tropical climatic conditions;

* The heavy insurance premiums needed and;

* The loss of apprentice crew labour.

Further, mention was made of the rapidly approaching unconditional emancipation of the slaves and it urged that, “only by the substitution of machinery, to the greatest possible extent can the planter and particularly the sugar grower of Demerary, hope to compensate the probable deficiency of human labour and to combat the foreign producer in the markets of Great Britain.” The prospectus also noted that production in 1836 for estates lying along the proposed line (Georgetown-Mahaica) was 13,000 tons of sugar; 11,400 puncheons molasses and rum; 1,000 bales of cotton; 900 bags of coffee; 80,000 bunches of plantains, and about 100 head of cattle and that their transportation cost to Georgetown would have been less by railway.

Regarding the construction cost of the proposed line, the prospectus was vague. It stated that the cost of works would not have exceeded or even reached one-half of the sums that would be have been required for an equal length of British railway. Although no definite estimate was mentioned, capital cost was placed at £120,000 for a 20-mile railway suggesting that the promoters anticipated that line construction would not have exceeded £4,500 to £5,000 per mile. The prospectus concluded by stating that as soon as £60,000, being one-half of the capital stock of the company, were applied for and assigned, a general meeting of the shareholders would be convened to determine the further management of the Company.

The prospectus appeared regularly in the press but no immediate further action was discerned. The “Royal Gazette” of 6th February 1838 published the approved estimates of the expenditure for Demerara County that showed an amount of £14,000 was deposited for the Georgetown-Mahaica Railway. Further, the Colonial Estimates printed in March, 1839, recorded the sum of £l4, 000 for the Georgetown-Mahaica Railway as not expended. Having lapsed, and as it was not re-voted when the approved estimates of expenditures for Demerary County for the following year appeared, it must be assumed that between 1837 and 1840 the idea had been abandoned.

On 10th February 1845, the matter resurfaced when a “Meeting of the General Committee of the Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana” along with those persons interested in the formation of the Iron Railway between Georgetown and Mahaica was held. Additionally, a considerable number of proprietors and representatives of estates on the East Coast had expressed a wish to revive the railway project between the river Demerara and Mahaica Creek At this meeting, the Hon. H. E. F. Young (Government Secretary) presided while most of those whose names appeared as original committee members were present.

The gathering unanimously agreed to co-operate with any Committee appointed to carry into effect the proposal for establishing a railway between the river Demerary and Mahaica Creek. H.E.F Young having addressed the Meeting pointed out the advantages of having a railway passing through the fertile and populous district between Georgetown and the river Mahaica.  “It was then moved by Mr. Thomas Porter, Jnr., seconded by Mr. T. Forrester and unanimously resolved, that the present was a most favourable time for establishing a railway between Georgetown and Mahaica.”

The members agreed to the appointment of a sub-Committee to examine all documents relating to the railway and a new prospectus of the proposed railway was to be laid before the said Committee at an adjourned meeting held two days later. At the adjourned meeting, a draft prospectus of the proposed railway was presented. It was decided that the prospectus be published and that a public meeting be held on “the 22nd February for the furtherance of the objects it set forth in the prospectus.”

The “Royal Gazette” published the prospectus of the Joint Stock Company on 15th February 1845, which was denominated the “Demerara East Coast Railway Company.” The prospectus stated that the capital for the railway was placed at £100,000 in 10,000 shares of £10 each, where as the 1837 prospectus had provided for a capital of £120,000 divided into 24,000 shares at £50 each. This reduction in the price of shares illustrated the difficulties with raising the required capital, especially locally, which led to the abandonment of the project in the previous decade.

The new prospectus did not differ to any material extent to that of 1837. The general optimistic tone was retained, and the “level country” and other physical advantages for the construction of a railway, stressed. The redundancy unemployed capital, which existed in the money market was also posited as favourable to the project, while attention was again drawn to the difficulty and expense of getting produce to Georgetown. It stated that the traffic from the conveyance of the produce, and supplies to estates was conducted at a great expense by means of schooners and other vessels. The number of these so employed were ascertained as: 20 Schooners valued at $5,000 each and totalled $100,000; 9 Sea punts valued at $800.00 and totalled $7,200 and; 80 Shipping punts valued at $120.00 and totalled $9,600. Together, the total transportation amounted to $16,000. Meanwhile the annual navigation and maintenance expense were estimated as follows: Schooners $55,000; Sea Punts $10 260 and Shipping $12 480.

The prospectus stated that the traffic by these vessels was conducted at much risk and expense, and that the proposed railway would negate the need for such a large capital investment, saving at least one-half of the annual expense. Further, a large portion of the labour that was removed from estate cultivation and employed to transport produce by shipping vessels would be made available for field labour. In attempting to estimate the volume of annual traffic the prospectus placed the tonnage of goods traffic at 23.303 tons between Georgetown and Mahaica exclusive of any inter-station traffic. However, the annual average for the years after was actually only one-quarter of that amount. Finally, with regard to passenger traffic, the prospectus stated that the number of passengers, travelling on the road between Georgetown and Mahaica was estimated “to be at present 700 daily or upwards 200,000 annually. The habits of the population are so migratory that, with the facilities for travelling, which will be afforded by a railroad, a considerable increase in the number of travellers may be confidently expected.”

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