By Dr. Mellissa Ifill
This is the first in a two-part series that examines the quest for increased participation and influence in the political process by the two major ethnic groups in British Guiana. This first article will examine the efforts particularly of African Guianese while a subsequent article will examine the efforts of Indian Guianese to seek effective representation of their interests and increase their participation in their own governance.
In Guyana, the opportunity to participate without restraint in the domestic polity did not materialise until the 1953 elections and it is therefore arguable whether the term democratisation is appropriate to use when examining Guiana’s history prior to this period as the franchise was extremely restricted and politics was the virtual preserve of European elites well into the 20th century. Nonetheless, the quest for democratisation goes back to the mid 19th century and that is the focus of this article.
Democratisation in Guiana, a colony of exploitation, expanded because the majority increasingly rejected the colonial state’s embrace of a perspective that contended some peoples were unsuitable for democracy because they were ‘uncivilised’. Such a perspective bolstered and reinforced over three centuries of European rule and disenfranchised the majority until the mid 20th century in British Guiana. Prior to 1796, when Britain acquired Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, the Dutch constitution held no provision to include or even accept Africans or Indigenous peoples as citizens and this policy continued under the British, even after the emancipation of slaves. Although many Africans had obtained their own freehold properties through the village system, the qualifications needed to vote and to become a member of the legislative bodies were purposely set outside the reach of most propertied Africans.
In 1849 the franchise was extended to men who owned a minimum of three acres (valued at $96 per annum) or who rented six acres (valued at $192 per annum) of cultivated land in the country. Those in the urban areas were required to own property worth $500, or rent property to the amount of $120 per annum. Men who paid taxes on earnings of $600 per annum also qualified for the franchise. As Governor Henry Barkly noted however, the aim of the new franchise arrangement even after this extension of the franchise was to ensure Africans did not constitute a majority of the electorate.
Further, acquiring membership of political institutions was made even more restrictive for Africans. Under the Dutch constitution, the electorate voted for members of the College of Kiezers. The latter was an electoral college whose members were responsible for selecting suitable nominees whenever vacancies arose in the Court of Policy. Members of the legislature then decided who would fill the vacancies. This arrangement was originally aimed at ensuring planter control of the colonial legislature and was used after emancipation to keep Africans out of the legislature. This situation continued until the constitution changed in the early 1890s as only one non-white male gained access into the legislature prior to the constitutional change. This individual was Richard Hayes, an affluent coloured trader and Mayor of Georgetown in the early 1840s. Hayes gained eligibility as a ‘planter’ by purchasing a derelict plantation and persuading the more liberal whites to back his nomination in 1850. In 1855, Hayes was however rejected for re-entry and the loophole that facilitated such a nomination was closed in 1864 when the law was changed to a male holding title to 80 acres of land, of which half was required to be under cultivation.
The College of Financial Representatives was the third political body that comprised the constitutional arrangement in 19th century British Guiana. The members of the College of Financial Representatives were elected by eligible voters, and their mandate was to convene with the members of the ‘Combined Court’ to settle the colonial budget. Membership of the College of Financial Representatives required the same high property qualifications as those needed for the legislature and even the other eligibility criteria of rental property worth $1,440 per annum, or earnings of $1,440 per annum could only be met by a very small minority of Africans and mixed groups after emancipation.
It was this favourable political arrangement that allowed the European planters to dominate the main constitutional bodies in the colony and restrict access and participation to one ethno-class group that gave the planters great advantage in the struggle for supremacy between competing ethnic groups and classes with opposing agendas. The state through successive colonial governors and administrators had played a critical role in ensuring power remained securely in the hands of Europeans and that the division of labour remained ethnicised with the Europeans at the top of the hierarchical labour market. By the late 19th century, educated members and labour leaders of the African and Indian constituencies, particularly the former, had come to the realisation that it would be virtually impossible to effect transformational change in the society, unless they met the franchise qualifications and accessed the colonial state in order to shape socio-economic policies that did not deliberately marginalise their ethnic and occupational group. Ultimately therefore, the quest for self-determination and self actualisation in British Guiana fused with the quest for the franchise.
Brian Moore argues that it was the exclusion of Africans at the political centre that made the issue of governance at the village level even more critical as a battle ground in the immediate post emancipation period. The extent to which the African ex-slaves could control the political bodies in their newly acquired villages was vital for establishing some form of political self-rule for Africans within the colonial state, and could positively strengthen their ethnic identity. On the other hand, the European planter class was intent on regaining its unchallenged supremacy in the colony and along with the colonial authorities acted to destabilise African political autonomy at the local level.
Thwarted in their efforts at establishing an independent life, Africans increasingly acquired and used education as the facilitator for socio-political advancement. Through the acquisition of education, numerous Africans penetrated other non-agricultural employment sectors. Accessing education also stirred the new middle class to push for political rights and representation which they successfully acquired through the 1891 constitutional changes. Education was originally intended by the British parliament, colonial authorities and the planter class as a mechanism of social and behavioural control to be used instead of force after emancipation. In 1835, the British government gave a partial grant to the colony of $9,600 which was supplemented by the planters to be used for education of Africans. Thereafter, public revenues were allocated to the established churches and a dual education system developed and public revenue-supported church schools became the typical model especially at the primary level. Public support of education resulted in a rapid increase in the number of schools and by 1841 the colony had 101 denominational schools.
These schools required teachers and a pupil-teacher arrangement started in 1857 under which Africans were employed as on the job trainee teachers. Under this system, the teaching profession became dominated by Africans. Further, teaching served as a foundation from which Africans moved onto more economically rewarding and socially prestigious middle-level civil service jobs. Africans then further expanded their educational base as both teachers and civil servants seized opportunities to further their studies abroad through government scholarships. Africans also increasingly sacrificed to pay the fees for secondary and tertiary education for their children in the high-status schools located in Georgetown and at foreign universities. As Percy Hintzen noted, it was not long before Africans comprised the majority of the Guianese salaried middle class and dominated the civil and teaching services, and constituted a sizeable percentage of the medical and legal professions.
It was these African middle class leaders who then campaigned for greater political rights and representation and successfully pressured the colonial government to institute small constitutional changes in 1891. By 1915, when enfranchisement was roughly equivalent to an income of $25 per month (lower-middle class status), Africans comprised 42.3 percent of the total adult male population but they were 62.7 percent of the electorate. In other words by 1915, Africans constituted a majority of the electorate and for the first time, non-Europeans had a genuine opportunity to sway political decision-making in British Guiana. The 1927 elections then produced for the first time a legislature in which there was a non-white majority.
Alarmed, Britain determined that political decision making must be returned to the European economic elite in the colony and a Crown Colony government system was introduced in 1928. Governmental tasks were thereafter undertaken by largely nominated Legislative and Executive Councils that advanced European commercial and developmental agendas. Moreover, under the crown colony system, effective authority was held firmly in the hands of the Governor who had veto powers in both Councils. For a moment, democratisation was stalled, arguably had retrogressed, but as seen two decades later, democratisation could not be stopped.