The proposed Georgetown – Manaos railway

Part one

By Shammane Joseph

Lately, there has been a lot of discussions about development of a permanent link between Guyana and Brazil, given the economic benefits to be derived. There are several papers written about this link. This article is the first of a two-part series which will deal with the first persons to have had put forwards the idea to develop a railway in the interior.

The development of a railway in the interior of British Guiana has also had the attention of the sitting governors of this colony. In 1909 the Combined Court rejected a proposal of Sir Frederic Hodgson for a vote of $20,000 for a government railway survey. The members were not convinced that a definite railway policy had been formed, held that the sum demanded was inadequate for any serious undertaking and under any circumstances, were of the opinion that the money would be thrown away. At the same time there were rumours that a line into the interior was in the course of being constructed, this was later cleared up but much harm had been done.

In 1910, the proposal was repeated and with great reluctance the sum asked for was voted.

In 1912, an unexpended sum of $15,000 was re-voted. In the interval a railway surveyor who worked with Indian Rails was secured, but his findings were not made public as many believed that the railway in the interior was a waste of time and money.

The development of a railway from Georgetown – Manaos was further encouraged by Secretary for the Colonies, Viscount Harcourt. He realised the importance of a proposed trunk railway. Further discussions and final decisions were to be taken with the arrival of the new governor. However, World War One broke out and after the war there was a lack of money and credit, also the new Governor, Sir Walter Egerton, was unable to leave the colony. Moreover, the development of the railway in the interior would have been a joint colonization process between the British and Brazilian governments. This idea of combined colonization and railway development was considered sound, but initially Sir Walter was opposed to such a combination. In 1913, under the policy of the late Governor Egerton a preliminary reconnaissance and economic survey of the route (Wismar to the Brazilian boundary) by Mr Bland of the Nigerian Government Railways, and negotiations with Brazil for a local commercial treaty were seen as the first essential steps.

Governor Edgerton’s idea was that a railway should be constructed to Manaos in order to meet the southern railway systems of Brazil and eventually the Argentine. The Takutu, which is on the Brazilian boundary runs into Rio Branco, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, adjoining the river near Manaos. The British Guiana section, if taken from Georgetown to the junction of the Ireng with the Takutu, could be some 340 miles. The construction would not have presented any engineering difficulties, and the cost of a metre-gauge line was estimated to be about £3,500 a mile. Colonial Director of Public Works M. Buck recommended a variation of the route at Georgetown end but had confirmed the initial cost per mileage.

Egerton believed that the advantages of the two routes were invaluable, because traffic would increase with the development of Wismar’s bauxite industry.

The railway would be an asset to this industry and a direct link with Georgetown apart from the lengthy river route. Further, a cattle trail scheme which was inaugurated by Mr Melville would have had a great boost, and the taxes which would have been derived would have been sufficient to cover work expenditure. Moreover, the mining industry and the timber trade were developing as well as agriculture. He believed that with the railway reaching the Takutu, the Brazilians would not able to resist extending it to Manaos or at least to a point in the Rio Branco, in order to secure the immense advantage of a direct route to the North Atlantic at Georgetown. He believed that with all these advantages there would have been no anxiety regarding the financial prospects of the line.

Then Attorney General, JJ Nunan, was one of the great supporters of this project and he garnered support from others. They believed that the rail would have been a solution to the problem of the colony’s development.

Even though many agreed that the railway line would be of tremendous value, it was beset by financial problems. There were differences of opinion.

The planters on the coast feared the loss of their labour, and urged that the scheme be accompanied a supplementary one for the introduction of thousands of settlers. Others were against the construction by the government, they wanted the private companies to do it, but it was an impossible feat for private enterprises because they would not have been able to pay for the working expenses for at least ten years. There were ‘concession hunters’ during this public debate, who were misleading colonists with their offers to construct the line on easy terms with the remotest chance of finding capitalist to finance their proposals. The colony could not have afforded to build this railway but the British would have been able to.

Others believed that the railway was merely a dream even though British Guiana offered the easiest routes and railways were developing throughout South America.

Egerton wanted the Empire Resources Development Committee to focus their attention on this project. He believed that the benefits to the Mother Country would have been indirect: Great Britain would not be anywhere without her overseas possessions and since British Guiana was a tropical colony millions would have been poured into the Exchequer as income tax. The Exchequer was swollen already by excess profits duty, on receipts by British citizens from their overseas properties, and when they were deceased, by death duties. He believed that it was too much that in return the Mother Country advanced, as in the case of the Uganda railway the means of giving the people, both of the colony and the United Kingdom, a chance of proving their ability to take advantage of these opportunities.

On April 20, 1914 a committee was appointed to discuss privately, Sir Walter Egerton’s despatch to the Secretary of State for the Colonies with respect to a railway into the hinterland of British Guiana. The committee comprised twenty gentlemen including the Chairman J B Laing.

After considerable discussion, it was proposed that a sub-committee be formed to go into the whole question and formulate resolutions for discussion at the committee’s next meeting. Nine gentlemen were chosen from the original committee to form the sub-committee. The sub-committee met twice and drafted ten resolutions which were submitted at the meeting of the committee held on Monday May 4, 1914. There were also many discussions done publicly and amendments made to the original resolutions. In the end the amended resolutions were unanimously adopted.

The committee strongly supported the proposal to construct a Hinterland Railway if combined with a colonization and development scheme and recommended:

That work on the railway shall be opened to all labourers free in the colony.

That immigrants under contract are imported yearly for the first five years to replace the labourers withdrawn from the coastal and river districts for work on the Railway and for taking up land under the colonization scheme.

That the railway shall be of meter gauge so as to allow of trans-continental railway communication without change of engine of carriage.

That the question of whether the railway should be built by the government or by contractors be left to His Majesty’s Government for final decision.

That the Secretary of State be asked to sanction a loan aggregating £2,000,000 – at lowest possible rate of interest of which £1,400,000 be allocated for railway construction, deficit on working all expenses for eight years, colonization and development of the hinterland, and £600,000 for development of the coast and river districts and meeting expenses in connection with the withdrawal of labour.

That the starting point of the railway shall be Georgetown and not Wismar or some other place up the Demerara River.

That the question of the Constitution be not dealt with by this committee, there being at present no information before us as to whether or not the Secretary of State will raise this point as one of the conditions for allowing the loan asked for.

That the portion of the loan allocated for the coastlands and river districts development shall be repaid as follows:

First three years nothing, after three years the interest on full amount plus the deferred interest for three years plus sinking fund, for forty- seven years on total of loan and accumulation of interest.
The loan to extend over a period of fifty years

The committee was unanimously in favour of the Hinterland Railway being eventually linked up with the railway in Brazil, and reiterated that if there was to be a railway at all, the industries of the coast and river districts must be safe guarded as respects labour.

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