Constitutional Developments in British Guiana and Jamaica between 1890 and 1945

(Part 1)

By Estherine Adams

As British West Indian colonies, British Guiana, one of the youngest and Jamaica, one of the oldest, have shared some similarities in the way in which their constitutions were developed, however, there are some striking differences.  This article is the first in a series of articles that aims to compare the constitutional developments in British Guiana with those in Jamaica between 1890 and 1945. For this purpose, the period under comparison will be divided into three phases: 1890-1900, 1901-1930 and 1931-1945.  Hence this article will briefly summarize the developments of the two territories up to 1890.

The history of the British West Indies began in the early seventeenth century, and the outstanding feature of the politics of the region during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the dominance of the sugar industry and its capacity to secure adequate consideration of its interests.  Constitutional development in Jamaica and British Guiana, though similar, diverged in some important respects.  Circumstances and chance played a very important part in determining the type of institutions which any particular colony received.  This does not, however, mean the complete absence of any principle on which institutions came into being.

British Guiana’s peculiar and unique political institutions were closely bound up with its history of Dutch occupation, and reflected attempts to modify the purely administrative system of the Dutch West India Company to concede some form of representation to the free settlers.  The old constitution of British Guiana had been introduced in 1796 when the colony of Demerara-Essequibo was a Dutch possession.  This constitution was specifically guaranteed by the Articles of Capitulation which were signed on 19th September 1803, when the Colony was forced to surrender to the British. The main governmental institutions which were then in existence were as follows:
The Court of Policy, which had the power and authority to ‘make, ordain and establish laws for the order, peace and good government’ of the colony;
The College of Electors or Kiezers, which the principal objective was to nominate members to fill vacancies in the Court of Policy;

The College of Financial Representatives, which had the primary function of raising taxes in conjunction with the Court of Policy to meet the annual estimates; and
The Combined Court, which exercised control over the finances of the colony.

The planter oligarchy completely dominated the government, which placed them in a position to influence the entire governmental system for their benefit.  In 1831 the colony of Demerara-Essequibo was united with another former Dutch colony – Berbice – to form the colony of British Guiana, and the constitution of Demerara-Essequibo was adopted as the constitution of the new colony.

During slavery the qualification for the franchise was “ownership of twenty-five slaves or upwards.”  Thus, as a result of the abolition of slavery in 1834, certain changes were introduced in the franchise.  Quite obviously, there could no longer have been any franchise based on ownership of slaves.  Consequently, according to Clementi, “the franchise was extended by Ordinance No. 57 of 1835 to every inhabitant of full age…who paid direct taxes of at least seventy guilders (£5) in the year of…any new election…”

As a result of further changes introduced in 1836, the franchise was extended to inhabitants assessed to pay direct taxes on an income of not less than 2,001 guilders (£143), as well as those who paid taxes amounting to 70 guilders (£5).  Based on this qualification, all non-whites were excluded from the franchise, and subsequently from participation in the government.

Limited constitutional gains were achieved in 1849, 1852 and again in 1855, during periods of particular intense agitation, but apart from these, the fundamental constitution of British Guiana remained unchanged until 1891.

Jamaica has had a long and colourful constitutional history, which can be divided into several periods.  Although strictly speaking, not a settled colony, but one conquered from Spain, Jamaica, nevertheless, because of the number of Englishmen then resident, received representative institutions. The first period was the conquest to emancipation, when internal self government (Old Representative System) was established.  The first Assembly was elected in 1664 and the colonists “argued that they were Englishmen with the rights of Englishmen and that they had been granted local legislatures with the power to make laws, to levy money…. From the first the Assembly was considered, and considered itself as the equivalent in Jamaica of the House of Commons in England.”

Before the middle of the eighteenth century the colonists had succeeded in making the Executive Council dependent on their elected representatives for the money necessary to run the government, and it was that success which enabled them to control so much of their own affairs.

The elected representatives of the colonists concentrated on protecting their commercial interests, on keeping the Crown from “interfering”, and in regulating a slave society.  There can be no doubt therefore that the Old Representative System meant that those with effective social and economic power held also constitutional authority over the island’s affairs within very wide limits.

The second period was from Emancipation to the Morant Bay Rebellion.  According to Dr. F. R. Augier, “Emancipation by imperial fiat was like a wave rolling over ramparts of sand.  When in the middle of the nineteenth century the policy of unregulated commerce, ‘free trade’, was adopted by the British Government, all the old tasks became meaningless.  But the political institutions and practices which had served fairly well in the first period survived.”  In the middle of the nineteenth century an Executive Committee of legislators was created, who with the Governor, determined policy and regulated expenditure.  The Executive Committee was “only a stop or two away from ministerial and cabinet system.”

The first notable change in the constitution, which existed for 202 years, occurred in1866 when Jamaica moved from the Old Representative System of Government to Crown Colony Government. This was as a direct result of the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865), which rose out of the growing dissatisfaction of the masses of Black Jamaicans over the poor conditions under which they existed.

Under the Crown Colony System, the lawmaking apparatus in Jamaica was completely overhauled, with the entire legislature being nominated by the Crown.  A Legislative Council consisting of the Governor, nominees of the Governor and ex-officio members replaced the old Assembly which had been for a long time the political instrument of the planter class and its allies.  The governor emerged as the chief repository of power in the system, as he possessed both the nominating and veto powers.  Whereas in the past a measure became law only after it had the approval of an elected Assembly and an appointed Council, as well as the governor, in the new order of things it needed the approval of the Legislative Council and the governor.

There was no open challenge to Crown Colony Government until 1874 when some prominent coloured people formed the Jamaican Association, with the aim of agitating for constitutional reform through means such as debates.  The dispute over the Florence (a schooner laden with arms, had been seized on its way from Venezuela and damages of over £8,000 were awarded against the Governor) served to increase an already growing local demand for a less autocratic system of government.

In 1884, the Colonial Office approved of a new constitution for Jamaica which restored elected representation given up by the Assembly in 1866.  Under the 1884 constitution, the Governor was given the power to over-rule the Legislative Council in matters of “paramount public importance.”

From this date down to 1895 various experiments were tried. From nine the number of elected members was raised to fourteen; at first the governor sat as president of the council; then he was replaced by a nominated president; finally his seat was restored.

Similarly, experiments were tried in the matter of basic qualification for the franchise.  At first a voter had to own property on which rates and taxes to the amount of £30 were paid, or owned and occupied a dwelling with an annual rate of £1.  In 1886 the Franchise Amendment Law reduced the tax qualification to £10.   Even with these amendments the masses in Jamaica, as in British Guiana, were exempted from participation in the government.

As was shown in the foregoing, in 1890 constitutional developments in British Guiana and Jamaica were on two different levels. These developments, though similar in a number of respects differed in a number of ways, of which the timing of the developments is conspicuous.  The next article in this series will compare and contrast constitutional developments in British Guiana and Jamaica between 1890 and 1900.


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