The first major change in the British Guiana constitution occurred in the year 1891. This year is regarded as the turning point in the political life of British Guiana, because of the belief that it was the year in which the planters were deprived of their power and influence and were superseded by middle class politicians. The reform of 1891 was the direct result of the established practice of the sugar planters of coercing the administration to their interests, by utilizing the powers which they possessed under the constitution. In 1887, following on their objection to an unfavourable report written by the Medical Inspector on the poor condition of labourers on the sugar estates, the planters decided to force matters to a head with the government, by refusing to discuss any business whatsoever, unless Governor Irving publicly withdrew the report. This was significant since the Governor had no power to dissolve the Court of Policy or in any other way to compel an appeal to the electorate. The resulting crisis provided the occasion for reform, and for a reiteration of British colonial policy regarding constitutional development in the colony.
Even though this was the immediate cause for the reforms, the black and brown middle class, which emerged after the abolition of slavery, recognized that they did not have any power although their numbers and wealth grew. As early as 1887 with the formation of the Political Reform Club and the Constitutional Reform Association in 1889, they had begun to clamour for reform, attacking the monopoly of power that the planters possessed. In December 1887 Governor Irving forwarded to the British Government a memorial, sponsored by the Reform Club, calling for, “a Representative Government similar to that recently granted … to … other West Indian colonies”. It was essentially out of the crisis that ensued as a result of the Medical Inspector’s report and the agitation by the emerging middle class that the constitution of British Guiana was reformed in 1891.
In the main, some of the material changes were the enlargement of the Court of Policy by an addition of three official members, the abolition of the College of Keizers, direct election of the unofficial section of the Court of Policy, the widening of the franchise by reducing the income qualification to $480, an additional property qualification (immovable property valued at $7,500) for electives of the Court of Policy, the right of the Governor to dissolve the Court of Policy at any time, and a specified quorum. The Court of Policy was deprived of its executive and administrative functions which were vested in a newly created Executive Council advisory to the Governor.
According to Lutchman, “the 1891 changes resulted in a situation in which the sugar planters lost the stranglehold which they possessed during the nineteenth century over the machinery of Government and that this was largely due to changes in the electoral system.” Harper-Smith shares a similar view when he said that the reforms “resulted in a virtual elimination of the planter from the political field.” There was some manifestation of that decline in the 1892 elections. Of the 14 elected members of the Court of Policy, a classification shows seven planters, five merchants and two barristers. This is of considerable importance as it indicates that interest groups, other than the plantocracy, were gradually entering the political arena at the highest level – a far cry from that of the earlier decades.
Also of importance during this period was the introduction of the 1896 secret ballot which allowed people to vote for persons of their choice without fear of victimization.
The situation in Jamaica in 1891was much different from British Guiana, in that constitutional developments were far more advanced. The 1891 reforms introduced a form of Representative Government in British Guiana; whereas a measure of representation was introduced in Jamaica since 1884. Under this constitution, the elected members were given financial powers over both taxing and spending, by a provision that if six or more of the nine members opposed a financial measure, the official votes should not count. This could be compared to the situation in British Guiana. After the constitutional changes of 1891, the elected members possessed a clear majority of six in the Combined Court. These elected members possessed almost exclusive control over financial matters. However, under the Jamaican 1884 Constitution, the governor was given the power to over-rule the Legislative Council in matters he considered to be of “paramount public importance.” This was one of the marked differences in the two systems since in British Guiana the governor did not possess reserve powers.
In 1895 there were further constitutional developments in Jamaica. These came partly as a result of the growing aspirations of the coloured politicians. 1891 marked the start of a radical agitation led by George Levy, through the columns of The Colonial Standard, and by coloured solicitors, who advocated an increase in the number of elected members and who attacked the appointment of non-Jamaicans to official posts. The agitation was carried on by public meetings, in the press, and through petitions from some of the parochial boards for separate representation of each parish.
With the 1895 constitutional reforms, the number of elected members was increased to fourteen, one for each parish (except Port Royal) and that of the ex-officio and nominated element to fifteen, and the special powers of the elected members were rephrased to meet the new situation. The number now required to veto a government financial measure was raised from six to nine. The “paramount power” of the governor was retained but it could not be used in practice unless the full compliment of non-elected members was appointed. The franchise was reduced from the level at which it had been fixed in 1884.
As was shown, by 1900, both Jamaica and British Guiana had constitutions that were based on the elective principle, however, Jamaica, which had acquired this in 1884 with modifications in 1895 was far ahead of British Guiana which only acquired this constitutional development in 1891. The next article in this series will compare and contrast constitutional developments in British Guiana and Jamaica between 1901 and 1930.