Other articles from the Chronicle Christmas Annual 1966

Down in Georgetown (about non-standard English)

Theatre in 1966

Guyanese in West Indies Test Cricket

Queen Elizabeth's Visit to Guyana in 1966

P.P. Dial's Look at Guyana in 1866

From the Chronicle Christmas Annual 1966 - A Special for the year of  Guyana's independence.


By Vere T. Daly

Now that the question of Federation is once again agitating the minds of West Indians and Guyanese, and Guyana is taking the lead, it should be a useful exercise to examine the historical ties which bind us; for unless there is a common bond of cultural and economic ideals to unite us, the venture will again fail.

The first and strongest of the many common bonds which should unite us is the fact that both the West Indies and Guyana were singled out for European exploitation after their discovery. The accidents of history dictated that some were to be exploited by Spain, some by England, some by France, some by Holland, and some by a combination of two, three, or sometimes four European nations; but they were all ruthlessly colonized and made to serve the economic ends of metropolitan Europe.

The discovery of gold in Mexico and Peru had given the initial encouragement to Europeans to exploit the New World; followed the cultivation of tobacco crops; then when the cultivation of this crop became uneconomic on account of the competition from Virginia, the cultivation of sugar cane began.

It is perhaps not as well known as it should be that the "sugar revolution" which swept the West Indies from about the middle of the seventeenth century also made a tremendous impact on the history of Guyana. Tobacco-growing did not prosper in Guyana; it was for the annato plant, which produced a valuable red dye, that the Dutch came to Guyana and set up a trading post on a small island (Kykoveral) at the watermeet of the Essequibo, Cuyuni and Mazaruni. For many years this post was neglected. The West India Company which was formed in 1621, and which controlled the post, was far more interested in Brazil (part of which it had captured from the Portuguese) and in capturing Spanish treasure ships.

We have been taught quite a lot about the exploits of Drake and Hawkins, yet their achievements were as nothing compared with Piet Heyn, a Dutch captain sailing for the West India Company, who captured a whole Spanish treasure fleet. For many years after this achievement Essequibo was almost completely abandoned, and it was only the interest of the Zeeland Chamber of the Company which saved it from extinction.

But Essequibo came to life with the turn over from tobacco to sugar-cane cultivation. This movement began from about 1640 when the Dutch were being expelled from Brazil. Many Dutch planters, instead of returning to Europe, made for the Pomeroon Coast, where they began to re-establish themselves. Others made for the West Indies, where political considerations prevented them from establishing plantations, but where they gave an impetus to the cultivation of sugar cane by supplying rollers, coppers, and other equipment on credit against the first crop, and giving fully of their knowledge and experience in both the cultivation of the crop and the manufacture of sugar.

Of the British West Indian islands at this time Barbados profited most from this change to sugar-cultivation and manufacture. It will be recalled that in the struggle between King and Parliament, Barbados held out for the monarchy, declaring herself independent in order to fight the forces of Cromwell, which had come to take her over. It is generally believed that Barbados opted to fight on the side of the King through sheer patriotism; but an even stronger reason for wishing to be free from the controls of the Commonwealth forces was to be able to continue taking aid from the Dutch, which the island parliament knew could not continue so long as Cromwell, who was antagonistic towards the Dutch, was in power.

In the French island of Martinique, Dutch immigrants from Brazil tried to start sugar plantations, and failed. Perhaps political considerations were at the bottom of this failure, for they were more successful in Guadeloupe where they pursued the same pl,an they had pursued in the British islands.

The earliest settlements made on the Pomeroon struggled on without official recognition until the three towns of Middleburg, Vlissengen and Vere made a contract with the Zeeland Chamber to establish a settlement on the Essequibo Coast. A very ambitious plan was made, and one Cornelis Goliat was sent to lay out a colony. According to the plan the colony was to be called Nova Zeelandia and its capital New Middleburg; while Huis ter Hooge - an additional fortress - was to be built some miles up river.

These plans were never fully realized; but Nova Zeelandia was built, and the colony devoted all its energies to sugar-culivation. Shortly before it was destroyed by the English in 1665, Byam, the English Governor of Surinam (Surinam was founded by the English) could say of this settlement: "there, greatest of all they (the Dutch) ever had in America, was Bowroom (Pomeroon) and Moroco (Moruca) alias Zeeland, a most flourishing colony . . . ."

A Spanish manuscript, without date, but obviously referable to this period, also testifies to the existence and flourishing condition of this colony: "On the River Paumaron (Pomeroon) is the settlement of New Zeelandia, which is of considerable size, and rich in produce, and the best trading establishment which they (the Dutch) have on the whole coast; consequently they guard it very carefully, for it is very near the River Orinoco, where your Majesty’s garrison of Guyana is placed."

By 1660 the British, the French and the Dutch had colonized most of the smaller and middle-sized islands in the West Indies, and they were also sharing in the occupation of the Guyana Coast. All these islands, as well as the colonies on the mainland of South America, were producing sugar, which was sent to the metropolitan markets.

The West Indian planters, who were all Europeans, reaped huge profits - profits which they were determined to maintain. Thus it came about that from about 1660 onwards, they controlled the politics and economics of the West Indies. After the end of the Second Dutch War (1665-1667), for example, the planters of Barbados saw to it that Surinam was given to the Dutch in exchange for New York, so that there would be no competition from that up-and-coming sugar colony. Similarly, after the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Guadeloupe, which had been captured by the English from the French, was handed back to the French, again as a result of the Barbados planters who wished no new sugar colonies to come into the British Empire for fear that the additional amount of sugar coming into the British market would cause a decline in the price of sugar.

But perhaps the strongest ties that bind the West Indies and Guyana together are those of common blood and common suffering.

Had tobacco remained the staple crop of the West Indies and Guyana there might have been no need to import African slaves to this part of the world, for a few white indentured servants seemed to have been quite sufficient to meet the labour requirements for that crop. But sugar required a whole army of workers to clear the fields, plant the cane-tops, reap the canes, and manufacture the sugar.

The need for additional labour was far more than Europe could have supplied, and additional labourers had to be obtained from somewhere, even if it was from the moon. But Africa was nearer than the moon, and as the Portuguese had already showed the way by using African labour in Portugal itself, it was easy for other Europeans to follow their example.

With the emancipation a new set of slaves, called indentured labourers, were imported into the country. They were the East Indians, and they inherited the awful conditions under which the slaves lived. They were brought mainly to Trinidad and Guyana, the two colonies which, in the days before the extensive use of manures, possessed the richest soils.

Both African slaves and indentured East Indian labourers have suffered physically, spiritually and economically at the hands of Europeans. Time and again West Indians and Guyanese have been told to forget this suffering. This is bad advice from many points of view.

In the first place, if we are ever to understand why our countries are so poor, why we are so much dependent on "foreign aid", why there is so much colour complex in our society, whey we are so much divided - if we are ever to understand these things, we would have to go back into the past and study our history, which, of course, would include the history of our sufferings.

Then there is this question of economic exploitation. These colonies existed for the benefit of the metropolitan country and not for the benefit of our forefathers who laboured in the fields to enrich the white planters. If we should ever forget this, then we are in danger of being off-guard against the possibility of further exploitation - something which is highly probable.

It is against this historical background that we must view the proposed Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) which will doubtless come into being next year (1967). Common exploitation and common suffering should be sufficient to encourage all the other islands to join.

In my book, "a Short History of the Guyanese People," I wrote as follows, and the advice I gave exclusively to Guyanese could well be taken to heart by West Indians:

In times past we have had many economic squeezes. When Britain lowered her duties to admit slave-grown sugar during the 1840’s we had a difficult time. We also had a difficult time when she allowed beet sugar to enter her market in competition with cane sugar; and we still would have been having a difficult time had it not been for the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement which came into existence in 1951 and which fixes the price of sugar each year, guaranteeing a certain quota to every Commonwealth country. But it is only a matter of time before Britain joins the European Common Market, and when this happens there is no doubt that she will have to re-consider the whole question of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. To the Caribbean Free Trade Association which has been formed by Guyana, Antigua, and Barbados, we must look for our salvation. anyone with a modicum of commonsense must realise that, in order to survive, Guyana must find guaranteed markets for her products."


Guyana page on Silvertorch

Caribbean Country Pages