Glimpses of Guyanese History

The British Guiana Centenary Year Book, 1831-1931, edited by E Sievewright Stoby, was published in 1931 to celebrate the centenary of the unification of the colony of British Guiana in 1831.  The Year Book contained a series of essays under the title “Our Place in Guiana,” written by four prominent citizens – African, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese. Guyana Review reprints the essay on “The Africans” exactly as it appeared in the Year Book seventy-eight years ago. It was written by the Honourable Edmund Fredericks, a prominent African Member of the Executive and Legislative Councils.

Negro Progress
By Hon  E F Fredericks, LLB, Member of the Executive and Legislative Councils.

In presenting to my readers this article which I have been asked to contribute to the Centenary Year Book, I shall endeavour to do so under three heads:

1. Economic
2. Educational
3. Religious.

Economic progress
Beginning then with the economic progress of the Negro since 1831, I wish to draw attention to the fact that when in the late summer of 1831 the then independent colonies of Essequibo and Demerara and Berbice were united into one colony with the nomenclature of British Guiana, the resident Negroes who were brought from their fatherland Africa, together with their descendants, were still the property of their Dutch and English masters and, according to the Blue Book of 1831, they numbered 48,172, a number considered to be the number registered for the payment of capitation tax. As the Dutch historian Netscher records, that on August 1st, 1838, the number of slaves emancipated was 82,824, nearly double that supposed to have been registered seven years before.

Honourable Edmund Fredericks
Honourable Edmund Fredericks

But whether the number recorded at the time of the Union of the Colonies in 1831, which was given by Government to be 89,486 or at the abolition of slavery in 1838 be taken, the fact remains that the freed slaves purchased within seven years after their freedom plantations’ to the value of $237,667 as the following figures will show:

Number of Villages Bought and Amount paid
Whole Plantation Purchases.                                            

Name                                                           Price  

Pln. Liverpool, Corentyne                  $. 2,000
Gibraltar                                                          4,333
Ithaca, West Bank                                    10,000
No. 21, Hopetown, West Coast              5,000
Trafalgar                                                         1,334
Lichfield                                                        3,000

Pln. Northbrook (Victoria) E.C.        10,000                                               
Friendship                                                 80,000
New Orange Nassau (Buxton)            50,000
Beterverwagting                                      22,000
Plaisance                                                     39,000
Fellowship, W.C.                                        6,000
Den Amstel                                                   5,000
There were no whole plantation purchases in Essequibo. In addition to the above-named purchases, there was, later on, a second less ambitious but usually more practical form of land purchase by the freedmen, the purchase by individuals of front lots on estates but there are no records of the areas bought and the prices paid. It is, however, important and interesting to record that by the middle of the last century, it was estimated that the Negro Peasantry owned upwards of 25,000 acres of land for which they had paid more than $300,000.

The facts and figures given above cannot but go to show the great strides made from one phase of the economic viewpoint by the Negroes during their comparatively short life in this colony as freedmen. To have been able to purchase outright within a quarter of a century such valuable plantations and convert them into the settled and thriving villages we now see around us speaks volumes for the capacity of the African to acquire lands, improve them and transform them into still more valuable and enviable possessions.

Not only is their foresight to acquire landed property to be commended and emulated; not only is their spirit of co-operation together with implicit confidence in those to whom they entrusted leadership to be admired; not only is the zeal with which they set themselves the Herculean task of building upon these lands cottages and two and three-storeyed houses – first of the Dutch type and subsequently of the manner of the English – to be considered praiseworthy, but they must be given exceedingly great credit for the rapid absorption of the ideas and ideals of Western Europe, which absorption has laid the solid foundation for the constantly increasing and very flourishing trade England and America have been able to establish in the Colony of yesterday and maintain in that of to-day.

No one acquainted with the history of the colony can truthfully speak with levity of the economic progress of the Negro, or lightly dismiss the subject as one of no concern; nor can anyone have the temerity to lay it down as a truth that the Negro’s economic progress has not yet been commensurate with his opportunities, all things being considered. Of course if his economic progress is to be measured solely from his success in commercial life, then it can be admitted that his strides have left hardly any impression for admiration and imitation and, after some examination, I am inclined to the idea that his non-progress is due to his failure to assimilate and practise those special qualities’ developed in some of the European and American races which make them known and referred to as “a nation of shop-keepers.”

The economic foundation which the forefathers of the Negro laid what time they embarked in buying and selling, in shop-keeping and store-keeping for, in the early years following upon his emancipation, the Negro carried on groceries, dry-goods businesses and even rumshops, has not been seriously built upon; and it would be interesting, entertaining and perhaps instructive as well as consoling were a thorough investigation to be made into the whys and wherefores of this seeming disinclination to enter, or his inability to succeed when an entry is made, into commercial life. 

There may be many other reasons, and perhaps very valid ones too than the one I am now going to advance, and it is this. The Negro, unlike the other races with which he has had to compete locally, never had the advantage of bringing with him from his African home the business trait. 

He never had like his European, Madeiran, Indian and Chinese brethren the opportunity of offering for sale any articles of his native home, and the possibilities open to the trader of trading locally among his own in special lines of articles indicative of the industrial and commercial life or the dexterity or ingenuity of his native Africa.

Far removed from his home; deprived of all opportunities of ever returning thither; torn away as it were from the practice of his native tongue; reared among a strange people whose language, customs, likes and dislikes he had to make his own; he had perforce ‘to sacrifice’ nearly all of his tribal and national characteristics, hence, his not conspicuous economic progress, though he has served and continues to serve as the foundation upon which is built the successful economic structure of all the races with whom he has been a contemporary.

The intention is not to be apologetic, but there does seem to be something very reasonable in the idea that has struck me that the commercial prosperity of any one race in a soil to which he is not indigenous depends largely upon some kind of intercourse of the members of that race with their native home, opportunity for easy travel of some members of that race to and from their native home, as well as opportunity to trade in the raw materials and manufactured goods of that home.

Apart altogether from the business side of economics, and brushing aside also the political viewpoint of it, there is the industrial aspect. Noteworthy progress has been made by the Negro industrially for, in the days when sugar was really king, it was he and he alone of all the races who did the skilled part of the manufacture and, in cooking sugar or pan-boiling, he is still head and shoulders above those engaged in it. In the trades with which the manufacture of sugar is so closely allied − those of the boiler-maker, the engineer, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the boat-builder, the cooper, the copper-smith, the mason −  he has made wonderful progress and that he easily holds the palm in them all can be seen in the many structures he has on his own initiative as well as at the dictates of his employers successfully set up.

Similar progress he has made in the arts and crafts and he outshines his contemporaries in tailoring, boot- and shoe-making and printing.
His industry has led to the opening up of the gold and diamond fields and all that economic progress has been made from 1831 to the present time.

Educational progress
Educationally, the progress of the Negro has been somewhat phenomenal. Unable to read or write a word of the English language in 1831 at the time of the Union, the manumitted slaves in 1834 – the year of the actual abolition of slavery – began to acquire scraps of knowledge of the elements of the language he had been driven by circumstances to adopt and, through the laudable action of many a missioner of the Christian Churches, many were taught to read and write and made to understand the great force and power of education.

The apt and very easy-to-be-memorised aphorism, “Learning is better than silver and gold” taken from one of the wise sayings of Solomon, “Learning is better than riches,” as we have gleaned from what has been oft repeated in our ears when it is the wont of those of our forefathers to tell the story of their slavery days, and of their years immediately following upon their freedom, seemed to have been well drilled into them that not a few of them took a pride in providing for the education of their offspring, even to the point of sacrificing their all, and undergoing the direst privations.

The result of their sacrifice, privation, advice, and inspiration can be seen today in the fact that hardly more than 10 per cent of the Negro and their descendants can be classified as illiterate. If the freedom with which they dispose of their earnings in the building up of the economic fabric of the country   − for it is their ability to spend all too freely that is responsible for the presence of the many large and thriving business concerns in the Colony, for the presence of .a powerful Chamber of Commerce, for a large percentage of the importations from nearby America and far distant Western Europe  −  if that freedom cannot be accounted to them as righteousness, but the sure cause of their failure to make rapid progress economically it cannot be denied that their craving for education along with the facility with which they assimilate it, has been their salvation.

The eminence attained by the Negro in the local educational horizon can be seen at a glance. Untutored, unlettered and unschooled in the middle of the nineteenth century, he entered the race for learning and though very much handicapped by not being privileged at so early a stage of his tutelage to be trained, jockeyed, or even groomed by those who could have understood and sympathised with him most  − members of his own race  − he, nevertheless, gave up himself to his masters or tutors to be moulded even after their own fashion and today he runs in the very forefront, having outstripped all his competitors in the comparatively short time of four score years and ten, less than a century.

To visualise his educational progress, go back with him to 1838; see him in his youth absolutely ignorant, not even as much yet heard of the word education; follow him in his adolescence, a decade or two after and note that he still wallows in his ignorance, then behold him in his manhood battling with his primer of the “God has fed me day by day” type, then with his Universal Spelling Book learning to read, write and cipher. Follow him in his old age and you will find him giving inspiration and advice, to his offspring to take learning and learn to read and be able to “sign your name.” Leave him in his decline and senility and trace the rise of his offspring the majority of whom at the closing years of the nineteenth century can already not only read and write, but have started to compete with the sons and daughters of their many-centuries-old lettered rulers and now you can speak of his achievements since the twentieth century began. Can anyone now deny him the niche he has carved for himself in the educational temple? Surely none can and no one will.

He ranks as a first-class in all the learned professions. At the present time he lumes the various departments of the municipal and village councils, the Postal Department, the Teaching and Nursing professions, the Legal profession and holds an honoured place in the Medical and Ministerial ranks. In the race for the primary scholarship of the colony, he has borne away the palm again and again. His voracious appetite for book learning cannot but give the impression that he has been perfectly saturated with the dictum that learning is better than riches, a slogan which seems to, have found a lodgment in every corner of his mental horizon. Unequivocally, the Negro has progressed educationally and that quite phenomenally.

Religious progress
It is a common-place that no race in the Colony has taken to religion as the Negro has and, judged from his manifestations  − be they hypocritical, sentimental or real  −  he is the most religious element in the community, so far as the external practice of Christian worship is concerned. The Negroes of the Colony are a highly christianised people, taking their religion seriously, too seriously many members of the other races often aver and showing the majority of cases that they believe the literal interpretation of the biblical injunction, “Lay not up treasures upon earth where either moth or rust doth corrupt.”

Educationally, it has already pointed out that the strides of the Negro, have been rapid during his ninety-two years’ contact with the civilisation of Western Europe but much more have been his strides in religion. He forms the bulk of the congregation in nearly every Christian Church of the various denominations in the colony today and, though his exceptional love for wayside preaching is not commendable because of the almost intolerable stuff it is wont to dish out to his hearers and because also of the false conceptions and notions with which he becomes imbued by that “exceptional love” yet the energy he displays in his endeavour “to lead others to Christ,” as he so loves to put it, shows the hold he has taken of religion or, maybe, the hold religion has taken of him.

He hesitates at no time to manifest his belief in the external worship of God and though much of it may be said to be mingled with a peculiar sentimentality, nevertheless, charity counsels that it be accounted to him more a virtue than a vice. His religious beliefs and habits seem to serve him as a great solace and to be the source whence springs his fortitude to put up with untoward circumstances, poverty and distress to a greater degree than any other race among whom he lives. Truly his religion is his “Sweet Anchor.”

In religion, in education, in economics, the Negro has made, as I have endeavoured to show, enormous and tremendous progress since the decree went forth that in all British Dominions “Man shall no longer hold property in man.”

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