Early history of Penal Settlement Mazaruni 1842-1853

Part Two

By Estherine Adams

This article is the second and final part of a two-part series on the history of the penal settlement Mazaruni.  The first part dealt with its physical development, whilst this article will deal with the fallout over the arrival of convicts from other West Indian colonies on transportation.

On the 22nd September, 1852 a despatch was sent from Downing Street to Governor Barkley of British Guiana on the subject of the reception at the Penal settlement of British Guiana of convicts from the other British West Indian Colonies. This despatch was then sent to the other respective Governors of those colonies on the issue.

This matter of transportation was first discussed upon the completion of the Mazaruni settlement but the members of the British Guiana parliament had differences in opinion, their main concern was exaggerated about the extent of this plan that was to be carried out. This saw to a needless apprehension that British Guiana would have become a convict colony. It was  therefore hoped 10 years later that jester motions would not prevail because of certain circumstances which had developed and the British Government hoped for a  re-consideration of the question of whether it would have been practicable to make the Penal Settlement in British Guiana available to the authorities of other West Indian colonies so that they would be able to give effect  to sentences of transportation. It was believed that the want of some means of giving effect to such sentences had been very frequently, complained of, and there were no doubts that transportation to an unknown place of punishment would have inspired more terror than confinement of hard labour in a neighbouring jail; thus would have rendered the penal laws more efficacious, and as a result not only prevent crime but would have also seen to the saving of expenses due to the fact that fewer prisoners would have had to be provided for and the various expenses which were attending the various administrations of justice would have been reduced.

Secondly, it was reasoned that a penal settlement on a large settlement, would have seen to a system of convict discipline which would have been greatly superior to any which were hoped to be established in prisons on a small scale and the convict when released from imprisonment, if not all together reformed would have been a less dangerous member of the society.

Appropriately,   this reason it was believed would have been a great advantage for the West Indian islands if they made use of the Penal Settlement in British Guiana, due to it being of great economical value to them and British Guiana. In that this system promised only the best for Guiana, because provisions would have been made in terms of cost to British Guiana for the reception of these convicts at a fixed sum per head, per annum. Calculated together with the labour of the convict, which would have been of greater value in British Guiana than in the other islands, this would have repaid the cost of enlarging the buildings and establishment and the maintenance of the convicts.

The only objection which was seen to this system was the turn on of liberation within British Guiana of convicts belonging to other colonies, whose time would have been expired; and the cost of conveyance, which was presumed would have been small, in the case of long sentences and engagement to take back the convict to the colony from which he had been sent would not outweigh the advantages of sending him; or if it were thought desirable,  the ticket of leave system be adopted in British Guiana or the Colony in which the convict was to be sent back.  The Ticket of Leave (TOL) was a document given to convicts when granting them freedom to work and live within a given district of the colony before their sentence expired or they were pardoned. TOL convicts could have hired themselves out or be self-employed. They could also acquire property. Church attendance was compulsory, as was appearing before a Magistrate when required. Permission was needed before moving to another district and passes were issued to those convicts whose work required regular travel between districts. Convicts applied through the Superintendant of the Penal settlement to the Magistrates for a TOL and needed to have served a stipulated portion of their sentence, for example:
– 7 year terms needed 4 years service
– 14 years needed 6 years service

The TOL documents recorded the convict’s number, name, ship, year of arrival, the master of the ship, native place, trade or calling, offence, place and date of trial, sentence, year of birth, physical description, the district the prisoner was allocated to, the Magistrate who granted the sentence, the date of issue, and further remarks about Conditional Pardons and district changes.

The Legislatures of the colonies were advised to cooperate with British Guiana and communicate with Governor Barkley on the issue.

After this proposal was made, the Windward and Leeward Islands proposed to send convicts, but the numbers that they proposed to send annually were too small. The Governor of British Guiana was in agreement with this proposal and he stated that “owing to the isolation of the Penal settlement from fellow colonists, and I feel confident that under the skilful and experienced officers who superintends that establishment and with trifling additions to staff he has to assist him a most important increase in its industrial operations might with a larger number of convicts be effected, and too at a less outlay than as hitherto been entailed on the Colony by the present system”. At that time, there were many objects for the promotion of which the whole British West Indies Colonies could have advantageously combined, many institutions, which none of them  were able to afford but which would have been to their advantage if these were centralized, for example, a University or a Lunatic Asylum with an improved system of treatment. With this idea in mind, British Guiana was seen as taking the lead in drawing the bonds of amity with the adjacent dependencies of the British Empire.

As a result, a motion was moved by the Government Secretary and seconded by the Vice-President of the Financial Representa-tives, William Buie regarding the proposition  of the reception of convicts from the West Indian Islands, who requested that the Court of Policy  took the question into consideration, with the view of maturing a plan for carrying it out. An amendment was moved by Thomas Porter which stated that the proposition for receiving convicts from the West Indian islands would have been highly inexpedient and seriously detrimental to the best interest of the Colony. There were seven “Yeas” and five “Nays” from the members of the Court of Policy.  John Croal declined to vote and the amendment was carried.

As a result the first group of 212 convicts on transportation arrived on the 31st December, 1853 at the Penal settlement. Their general health had been good and they had not contracted any local diseases. They were eventually trained to be efficient and industrious so as to work on the sea defences in Demerara, this saw to the diminishing of  production to an extent greater in proportion than to the number of convicts, yet the labour which had been performed by the convicts showed continued improvements. It must be noted that West Indians were incarcerated on the penal settlement since its inception in 1842, especially Barbadians.

They came to British Guiana to seek jobs  and during that time committed criminal acts which saw to them being incarcerated. For example, 1842-1853, 275 prisoners from Barbados were imprisoned, and 172 from the other islands.

The convicts that arrived in British Guiana and  finished their sentences were never repeated offenders, like the locals. On January 1st 1853, 35 West Indian convicts were on tickets – of – leave to their native lands.

The islanders were always praised for their good behaviour and if they were ever punished it was for trifling matters. Corporal punishments were always meted out to the local prisoners but rarely on the islanders.

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