By Wazir Mohammed

Wazir Mohamed spent the formative years of his life as a community and political worker, and is engaged in academic research to find answers to Guyana’s seemingly intractable ethnic dilemma.

This is the first of a three part summary of a presentation made in November 2008 at the International Rice Conference organized by the Guyana Rice Development Board and the Ministry of Agriculture at the National Convention Centre, to mark the centenary of rice exportation from Guyana. Next week we will examine the relationship between the crisis of sugar at the end of the 19th century and the rise of the small farming rice industry.

In order to understand the reasons why Africans are not as involved as they should be in the contemporary rice industry of Guyana, it is necessary that we take a second look at the ways in which the globalization of the world sugar trade in the 19th century influenced the growth of the mono-crop sugar economy of Guyana and played a crucial role in the marginalization of the African population from land and from participation in the rice industry. Because of Guyana’s propensity for sugar and its role in the sugar revolution of the 19th century, the slave population was not only prevented from planting rice officially, but was prohibited by force of arms from doing so unofficially. Unlike other areas of the West Indies, in Guyana the planter class did not permit or sanction the development of diversified agriculture in the colony. They curtailed the growth of provision grounds in the colony and by the 1820s had smashed efforts by slaves to establish runaway African communities in the interior. Many of these communities had organized their living around the production of rice in the far reaches of the Abary, Mahaica and Mahaicony rivers. This is captured in the report by British Militia captain, Charles Edmonstone who in one of his escapades to capture runaway slaves stumbled on a maroon community in the Abary-Mahaicony area with well cultivated rice fields and fourteen houses filled with rice, which in his estimation could have fed 700 men for an entire year. This shows that while Africans had the knowledge, they did not have the freedom to plant rice either during slavery, or after.

Guyana inherited a slave workforce at the end of the slave trade of approximately 100,000, which was far below the estimated 3 million required to keep all the coastal plantations functioning. This was exacerbated after 1838, when the African workforce began to take trade union action to achieve better wages and working conditions. Faced with these demands for freedom, the colonial state and planter class imposed more stringent measures to deny Africans the right to organize as workers, and the possibility of planting rice and expanding their land holdings. Every effort by Africans to grow rice between 1838 and 1860 was unsuccessful, firstly because of the clash in reaping times with sugar and the intransigence of the planter class to allow production to continue; and secondly because of the problems of drainage and irrigation and the inhospitable atmosphere which existed between sugar and rice husbandry. A third major problem is the layout of village lands, which has been a millstone around the necks of African villagers. After 1850, all village lands had to be laid out in small, miniscule parcels. This was one of the primary factors for the drainage and irrigation nightmare of the villages. There is a direct relationship between sugar’s need for cheap labor, and the laws which were enacted to stop the advance of the African population in their quest to enlarge the freedoms gained in the early 1840s.

Faced with the rise of the second slavery in Cuba, Brazil, and the USA and stiff competition from slave produced sugar on the world market, land control and other mechanisms were instituted to keep African labor attached, available and cheap in the post-emancipation period. Land laws passed between 1838 and 1861 prevented Africans from expanding their dream of independence outside the villages, while the indentured contract tied East Indian immigrants in perpetual servitude to the estates of residency. East Indian labor did not replace African labor, but was used as a mechanism to discipline the African workforce. The indentured contract was used to transform the African workforce into “a reserve army of labor.” The land laws which encircled the African workforce and the implementation of the indentured contract to keep East Indian laborers in slave like living and working arrangements were two sides of the same coin. Both were designed to keep African and East Indian labor cheap and available; to corral and keep both groups of laborers within the bounds of the established plantation space, thus preventing them from planting new crops including rice in commercial quantities. This is why the rice industry did not develop until after the stringent land laws were relaxed and watered down in the 1890s.

Land control laws passed by the British colonial state in 1836 and expanded in 1839, 1851, and 1861 upped the asking price for Crown lands in parcels of 100 acres at one British pound and later to five and ten dollars per acre respectively.  Having exhausted all their savings in the villages, the African population could not afford to buy land in one hundred acre plots at such exorbitant prices, much less pay for the cost of draining and irrigating these lands. In the absence of government, drainage and irrigation which should have been centrally organized and managed was the sole responsibility of land owners. A lack of a central drainage and irrigation authority was an important bugbear in the development of agriculture outside of sugar. The Crown lands regulations which made it virtually impossible for Africans and East Indians to acquire lands outside the established regions under planter control remained official policy until 1898, when the attention of the colonial office shifted to the need for an alternative to sugar, and hence a landed peasantry became permissible outside of the established sugar industry. The prohibitive crown lands regulation in force since 1839 was relaxed in 1898 to allow for plots of 100 acres and homestead lots of 25 acres to be made available at the asking price of 15 and 10 cents per acre respectively. The changed attitude to land gave the impetus to the rise of the East Indian rice peasantry. The phenomenal growth of the rice industry after 1898 was related to the shift in land policy, which had nothing to do with the benevolence of the colonial ruling classes, but was related to the global crisis of the cane sugar industry and the survival of the planter class in the colony.

In the final analysis, Afro-Guyanese were denied the possibility of engagement as equal partners in the rice industry because of the stringent land and labour policies which the colonial ruling classes employed during the course of the 19th century. The end result of these regulations was lopsided development of the colony after 1900, and this accounts in part for some of the problems, economic, ethnic, political, and social, of modern Guyana.

(This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

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