History of the early development of the Mazaruni Penal Settlement

By Estherine Adams

This article will deal with the early developments of Penal Settlement Mazaruni in British Guiana.

In 1841, the Combined Court of British Guiana created a Commission headed by Patrick Horan to enquire into the most suitable site for a Penal Settlement. The site chosen was at the junction of the Mazaruni and Essequibo Rivers.  This settlement was for the confinement of male and female offenders convicted in British Guiana, sentenced to hard labour exceeding two months. In that same year a sum of money was placed on the year’s Estimate of Expenditure which was supposed to be adequate to meet the expenses incurred in the progress of the Settlements’ development. However, the progress of the settlement outstripped all expectations, thus the estimated expenses were wholly insufficient. Therefore, another sum of money had to be voted to ensure the completion of the Penal Settlement.  Works began on the Mazaruni Penal Settlement August 1st 1842, headed by Patrick Horan and 35 ex- apprentices who were masons, carpenters and laborers.  This 10 acre Settlement was completed in nine months, during which time the quarries were opened and worked.

The first to be completed was the Prison range. This was made out of Greenheart frame 200 feet long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet high. It was firmly imbedded in a granite wall 2 ½ feet thick and 4 feet deep, two feet of this debt being in the ground by way of foundation, its sides were composed of 1 1/2 inches pine plank, spring and rabbit, and lined with white pine boards; and its floors were 1 ½ inches pitch pine plank grooved and tongued and laid with white lead.  Through the centre of the range, from end to end ran a partition which divided it into two long compartments, each was uniformly ten feet wide. Each of these were again divided by numerous other partitions running across from one side of the range to the other, and occurred at regular intervals of five feet from each other, hence the separate wards for the prisoners, in dimensions 10 feet by 15 feet in length.  The space at each end of the range was set apart not for the reception of prisoners but for the guards. The wards were ventilated when air entered the under part of the projection of the roof between the projection beam on which the rafters rested, and the plates on which the ceiling beams rested. The apertures were 5 ½ inches wide by 54 inches in length in front of each ward and same at the back.  Communication was preserved between the interior of each ward. The ceiling of the range formed a floor under the slated roof, along this upper storey swept a perpetual current of fresh air between windows at the gravel ends of the range. Two holes were cut in the ceiling looking down into every ward as additional ventilators, moreover, these holes allowed the guard stationed in the upper story, to watch the conduct of prisoners in their wards unperceived. The prison wards were white-washed inside and painted outside, there were locks and bolts that completed it. On completion, the settlement accommodated seventy-one prisoners, but by 1853 there were 201 inmates. The 34 wards for the prison officers were equally placed at the back and front of the convicts’ wards.

There was also Superintendants quarters made out of pitch pine frame 40 by 28 feet and three stories high, erected on cut granite pillars, 2 feet square and four feet high with an observatory of 6 feet square and seven feet high, and a flag staff of 25 feet high to signalize the Indians in the neighbourhood, if necessary, on the escape of a convict that they may protect their provision grounds, canoes and families and to go in search of deserters. The building was boarded with 1 inch boards grooved and tongued, panel doors and sash windows. In this building two rooms were set apart in the south end for the Surgeon, another was set apart for the office, a third for the accommodation of visiting officers and the remainder for the Superintendent and family, and Assistant.

There was a  range measuring 65 feet long, 15 feet wide and 9 feet high, approximately 20 feet of the West end of this range was built entirely of granite as the kitchen for  the Superintendents’ quarters. The rest was made out of white pine frame, which was boarded in with spring and rabbit to correspond with the prison, and divided into four apartments as private store, servants’ room and stores for the settlement. A forge for the quarry, measured 25 feet long, 15 feet wide and 9 feet high, built entirely of granite were in full operation. There was a white pine range built which had three quarters as kitchen for the guards, hospital and the prisoners.

The Hospital was framed out of green heart 40 feet long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet high, erected on granite wall, 2 feet high and 2 feet thick. It had two wards. The sides were boarded in and corresponded with the rest of the buildings. This building was later raised another story and consequently accommodated a chapel. There were also three white pine buildings which were 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 7 feet high. They acted as the guards’, prisoners’ and officers’ privies. By 1853 this Penal settlement had a school for the convicts, and comfortable quarters for the school master and two principal officers. There were 159 convicts who attended the school, they were taught to read sufficiently so they could peruse their Bibles and Church books. There were successful evening classes given to the well-behaved prisoners for the purpose of catechetical and evangelical teachings.

By 1853, this settlement was self sufficient, and as such defrayed all expenses from the Colony through the use of the convicts in the development of the quarrying industry, agricultural department, and the logging industry. Granite was successfully used in the formation of the settlement, thus it was believed that the use of this material had no boundaries because it was serviceable, that is for streets, roads, building materials for public and private erections, the Essequibo granite  stopped the importation of granite from overseas by 1853. The granite was used by the residents of the country to make walls, fences, durable and elegant buildings. Moreover, this material was attained cheaply. Also by 1853, the income realized from the sale of produce from the Settlement was $8000.  Further, this settlement had alleviated the overcrowding of the jails in Georgetown, and at the same time the resources at the Penal Settlement enabled the prisoners to gain valuable skills, which were useful to them in their return to society.

The convicts were classed according to crimes, character, and ages, and were rigorously worked in four gangs according to their classification. The convicts were placed in the quarrying of rocks because it was the only thing that gave the quickest and most lucrative returns. The planting of provision grounds were considered but not encouraged because of the time preparation and the fact that if there were deserters they would have returned after being driven by hunger. If the convicts were involved in improper conduct then they were fined, such fines were used to form a fund used to reward the Indians or persons who rendered assistance to the Settlement in the capture of convicts.

No person could have landed on the Settlement without permission from the Superintendent, and whilst there could not have any contact with the prisoners at all. If caught they were detained until the laws took its due course. The duties of the Guards were divided in the following ways: one guarded each gang of convicts, one guard was placed in each guard hut, on the side lines to cut off and capture any convict attempting to escape by river and any unauthorized approach by water. One guard was placed over the prison; there was constant rotation at this post. However, there was great difficulty in securing the services of proper men as guards for the Penal Settlement, due to the smallness in pay, the absence of any inducement in the way of promotion. Even though a pay raise was requested by the Superintendent in 1850, this never materialized.

There were twelve guards and they were paid $25 monthly, the Superintendents’ salary was $3360. The feeding, clothing, and medicines for the 201 convicts, the iron, steel, gunpowder, coals, transports, and all matters of expense amounted to $12, 000 yearly. These expenses was not the burden of the country, but were covered by the profits made on the settlement. There was also a Chief Constable who was placed over all the other guards, and he ensured that all rules and regulations were followed by the prisoners and guards alike. To round off the running of the Settlement there were also a Foreman quarrier who instructed the convicts in their work and assisted the Guards as well as a Blacksmith, Assistant Superintendent, Surgeon, and Clergyman who made periodical visits.

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