Dr M Shahabuddeen, in his comprehensively researched book From Plantocracy to Nationalism, traces the development of sugar in this country from the 1630s to the time of nationalization. The book records the ongoing growth of production, while the number of plantations reduced, along with that of factories. By the time of nationalization in 1976 there were only ten operating sugar estates. Today eight factories operate at Skeldon, Albion/Port Mourant, Rose Hall, Blairmont, Enmore, LBI/ Ogle, Wales and Uitvlugt.
Of the ten operating sugar estates, eight were owned by Bookers Sugar Estates Ltd (BSE). The firm Bookers, established in 1833 had become a dominant force in the sugar industry since 1904. It became known as Bookers Sugar Estates Ltd. in 1951. It was headquartered at 22 Church Street, in the business premises now known as Guyana Stores. Its offices and laboratory were located in the third and fourth floors of that building, with the two lower floors occupied by Bookers Stores Ltd. While there, 22 Church Street must surely have become the most internationally known address in the country, since BSE had to relate to Bookers International Headquarters in London, UK, and several of its subsidiaries around the world, as well as with other sugar producing countries.
The ‘social headquarters’ was Hermandston House, situate at Lamaha and Peter Rose Streets, equally well known, not only to ‘sugar’ people, but to heads of state and diplomats, for whom it provided regal accommodation.
One reflects on the fact that generations before and since the establishment of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) in 1976, know little, if anything, about the industry except for popular reproductions of mostly cane-harvesting scenes (and less of factories). There are just too few mementos of the sugar industry that are publicly visible.
For instance, there is no plaque, stone, engravement, or any indicator whatever to attest to the physical presence of Bookers Sugar Estates Ltd at 22 Church Street, George-town; and while there remain remnants of structures of the old Diamond Estate, East Bank Demerara, now occupied by Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL), its former sister estate, Leonora, now projects an image of desolation and irrelevance.
In a related vein one suspects that even the currently active (estate) community centres display little, if any, record of bequeathal of the watershed social development which they once symbolised.
One is reminded of an attempt during Guysuco’s first administration to organise a sugar industry museum at Ogle – which unfortunately was not realised.
This effort coincided with the mounting of an emblematic factory component noticeably displayed at the industry’s Apprentice Training Centre at Port Mourant, Corentyne.
It is hoped that opportunity will now be taken to make a deliberate effort to preserve the old Skeldon Factory – incidentally in keeping with an idea expressed by the current Minister of Agriculture, during an interaction concerning the development of a strategy to intensify agro-tourism development in Guyana.
It is important that we understand, as nations great and small do, the need to preserve our heritage. We derive from our past and we must feel obligated to pass on our present to the future, so that generations to come can appreciate and empathise with our current rationalisations, justifications, and even traumatisations.
It is in this historical context therefore, that concerns have been expressed by ‘old sugar people’ about the future of what may be currently the only visible heritage site in the sugar industry – Herdmanston House. Its walls reverberate with many and varied discussions of its fortunes by a wide variety of notable managers and workers. It would be a truly imaginative act if Herdmanston House could be transformed into an archival centre for the most important economic, social, community, training and education development partnership ever forged in this country’s history. Hopefully, the substantial body of previous relevant studies, in addition to the work of Dr Shahabuddeen and more recently of Clem Seecharran’s Sweetening Bitter Sugar, would have underlined the ongoing need for recording the history of sugar.
After all, the decision-making centre of the industry has long been the capital city of Georgetown.
E. B. John