When Guyana gained its independence in 1966, the Chronicle published a special edition of its Christmas Annual. In that edition, P.P. Dial, former Government Archivist and a man with a love for the history of Guyana, contributed an article highlighting interesting events of  100 years earlier, 1866.

 SilverTorch is pleased to be able to reproduce it.

 Guyana in 1866

(By P.P. Dial)

As we pause in our progress along the endless road of  Time at the year 1966 and scan backwards over a century through the mists of the Past and rest our vision on the year 1866, we espy many strange and interesting things. For though, in the History of Guyana, 1966 may be regarded as more important than the year 1866, yet 1866 possesses greater charm and commands a more vibrant human interest.

The year 1866 opened with the comic-tragic row which was raging between Governor Hincks and Chief Justice Beaumont. As a result of this quarrel the country was split into two sharply divided camps – those who supported Governor Hincks and those who supported Chief Justice Beaumont. Much enmity was generated and many friendships were broken. Governor Hincks, who has left his name in Hincks Street, was a headstrong man, while Beaumont was equally uncompromising. Beaumont reflected some of the nobler traditions of English Justice and was prepared to suffer for what he knew to be right even if it meant clashing with the Executive arm of the Government.

 Governor Hincks, enraged at Beaumont’s standing up to him and abetted and advised by his Attorney General, Smith, suspended Beaumont from his high office of  Chief  Justice. The Attorney General was then promoted to act in his place. On the issue being taken to England, the British Government upheld Beaumont and he was triumphantly reinstated. This clash between Executive and Judiciary was long remembered.


 The dispatch from England concerning Beaumount had to be read in the Court of Policy and the Attorney General, on hearing himself censured, actually wept.  His tears won him little sympathy.  One influential pro-Beaumont and anti-Hincks spokesman actually published a fresh assault on him in which he asked: “Did he reflect when he helped to throw out the legal occupant and hoped to sit there permanently, that ‘tears’ would have been the legitimate fruit of servile truckling to the Governor …………If Mr. Smith aided to fling Chief Justice Beaumont down, now the card is turned against him and deserved censure falls upon him, why should he take refuge in unmanly tears?……….”

 But if the year began rather sadly for Attorney-General Smith, it was not so for the rest of the population.  The New Year was welcomed in an unusually boisterous and noisy manner.  In the Charlestown district of Georgetown, for example, hundreds of people started beating on their pots and pans and illegally letting off guns or squibs.  The Law was, however, not asleep and P.C.  Appin was particularly conscientious that night .  Several citizens had to pay fines of $5 for so over-exuberantly heralding the New Year.

 If many believed that the best way of welcoming the New Year was by making noise, others thought the better way was by filling their stomachs.  And one of these was a Hong Kong beggar woman who, between 11 and 11:30 o’clock on New Year’s night was found to be in possession of a large fowl in Water Street.  P.C. Quanko Thomas accosted her and, as neither could understand the other’s language, Quanko carried the woman to the Brickdam Station where she was lodged in the lock-up for the night.

 The chicken was left in the custody of Quanko.  On the morrow, the Magistrate discharged the prisoner for Constable Quanko could only produce, as his evidence, two chicken legs tied with string, the eatable parts of the chicken having disappeared during the night!….


 The New Year revelries had scarcely subsided when Mr. Sydney Pontifiex, the well-known and respected chemist, was brought before the courts on a charge of nuisance. Mr. Pontifex had set up a factory in Newburg near the Georgetown Jail for the purpose of deodorizing the night soil of  the city and converting it into manure.

 The Governor and the Sugar Industry welcomed the venture as large sums of money were regularly spent in the purchase of guano and other imported fertilizers. Mr. Pontifex’s neighbours, however, more from prejudice against the idea of using night soil for any purpose than from real discomfort, complained to the City Council of dreadful smells emanating from the chimney of Mr. Pontifex’s factory. He was brought before the court and the magistrate ordered him to remove the factory to at least a mile away from the city.

 Mr. Pontifex’s hopes of building the nucleus of a fertilizer industry suffered a serious setback. Yet his enthusiam was not smothered and in a few weeks he produced an excellent animal manure which, though worth $40 per ton, he was able to sell for $25 per ton.


 Fertilizer-making was not the only interest among colonists with a scientific cast of mind; archaeoogy and ethnography were also.  When, therefore, a large prehistoric shell-mound consisting of human and animal remains was discovered  on the banks of the Moruca, great excitement was generated among educated circles in Georgetown.

 Numerous theories were propounded and, since many of the uncovered skulls appeared to be short, a large body of opinion suggested that the remains may have been those of an ancient race of monkeys who lived on the Moruca and were in the habit of burying the dead.  Interest was so intense that the Governor, together with a party consisting of the Lord Bishop, the attorney General, the Comptroller of Customs, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Engineer, and other important personages set out for Moruca to inspect the site for themselves.

 The Governor and party were royally welcomed by nearly 2,000 Amerindians and, after inspecting the skulls, bones and other remains in the mound, the party went on to Santa Rosa Mission.  On returning to Moruca the same afternoon, the Governor held a durbar where gifts were distributed and performances of dancing and games by the Amerindians were witnessed.  Among the Amerindian games arranged was an archery competition in which more than 100 archers contested.  Equally impressive was the Warrow game, Isahi, which was played with two bamboo shields and which required remarkable suppleness and dexterity.


The earh of the North West District not only yielded pre-historic remainss; it had also began to yield gold.  A gold company was formed to exploit the hidden wealth and no sooner was this done than the Venezuelans began to claim Guyanese territory.  A writer of the time, commenting on this Venezuelan claim, wrote:

 “It is with the Republic of Venezuela alone that we are likely to have any serious difference, as without the slightest pretensions and the most unblushing effrontery, she has not only advanced her boundaries so as to embrace the Gold Company’s grant of occupancy, but also Her Majesty’s Penal Settlement and vast tracts of land on the Cuyuni, which were colonized by our predecessors a couple of centuries or more ago; and these claims have been recently revived and urged in such a manner as would, if admitted for a moment, at once reduce the area of the colony to that of one of the smaller West Indian islands and leave her no longer a “Magnificent Province” but a mere strip of mud despoiled of her rivers, forests and her mountains.”

How topical of 1966!


The various religious groups of the country, whether they were Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, or Muslim, were as active as ever.  Bishop Etheridge of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, called a meeting on Sunday, March 11, to make plans for a new cathedral.

 Both Protestants and Catholics were invited and the first resolution taken was:   “It having become necessary from the state of decay of the Catholic Church on Brickdam to provide more suitable accommodation for the Catholics of Georgetown – Resolved, that, instead of attempting the unsatisfactory work of repairing the old church, a new one shall be constructed”.  Other resolutions were passed, among which was one inviting Protestants to subscribe.

 In his address Bishop Etheridge claimed that a large church would increase commerce and be an advantage to the city and colony.  “Look for instance, he said, “at the Great Church of St. Peter’s in Rome, which attracts such a number of visitors there and consequently increases trade and commerce.  Therefore,” he concluded, “it would be seen that a large church would attract and increase the commerce of a country”.

 Bishop Etheridge also made an especial appeal for financial support to the Portuguese community as they were well-off and formed the majority of the Roman Catholic in the country.  Indeed, the entire proceedings of this meeting was translated into the Portuguese language.

 Catholics and non-Catholics alike subscribe towards the building fund and the Bishop was able to successfully petition the legislature to make a grant of public funds to the scheme.  The public grant was, however, not as much as that which went towards the building of St. Philip’s Church where half the cost came from the public treasury . . . The new Cathedral building was successfully completed during the year.


A few weeks after the Roman Catholic Cathedral fund had been going, Mr. M’Dermott, a friend of Governor Hincks and editor of the colony’s largest newspaper, was sent to jail for six months for contempt of court.  Chief Justice Beaumont was largely responsible for this very just sentence.

 The imprisoning of Mr. M’Dermottt, a European who moved in the highest circles of the land, was something of a shock.  A move was made to impeach the fearless Chief Justice, and the Governor gave his blessing.  To show his dislike of Beaumont and the resentment of large sections of the European community, the Governor personally ordered that M’Dermott be given two rooms in the jail and that the bars before his windows be removed and replaced with venetian blinds!  His two rooms wee converted into a comfortably furnished suite and he was allowed special food.  Visits to him were scarcely ever to be restricted.


M’Dermott, despite the efforts of his friends, served his full sentence.  While he was in prison, several murderers were executed and the execution customs at the Georgetown Jail were as peculiar as the prison conditions under which Mr. M’Dermott served his sentence.

 The condemned murderers were usually lined up with their back sto the wall and the other prisoners were brought out under police escort to witness the execution.  Large numbers of people were also allowed into the prison compound, including friends and relations of the condemned men.

 After the parsons had performed their religious duties, the condemned men’s heads would be covered and all were hung together in the open.  Sometimes, the condemned were allowed to address the large gatherings which usually congregated to see them executed.  On one such occasion in May, 1866, Tang-a-Kum and Low-a-Chung spoke very eloquently to the crowds about their misdeeds and cautioned their listeners not to follow their example.  After their fine speeches both men stoically paid the supreme penalty……..

 The time when these two murderers met their end was during the “Easter Season”.  Easter, even a century ago, meant kite-flying.  Large numbers of children and even grown-ups could be seen running down the streets flying kites.

 Kite-flying was regarded as a general nuisance in 1866 because the dangerous practice of affixing broken bit of glass on kite-tails was very common.  Kites also tended to frighten and infuriate the cows and horses which were so much a part of the city life of 1866.  Further, many men who could have been doing a good day’s work in the fields were often seen flying kites at all odd hours of the day……..

 Prosecutions were sometimes made for this offence, but one of the strangest was that which concerned a well-built man of over six feet in height and 30 years of age.  While this huge man was running down the streets trying to rise his kite, the tail became entangled to the neck of a small baby who was being taken out by her nurse.  The poor baby was nearly strangled.  The man was charged and a record of the case delightfully reports:

 “The overgrown juvenile, who thus indulged in this boyish practice, was brought before His worship this morning with hi kite, and fined $5, with the option of sojourning in jail for a fortnight with hard labour, in lieu of payment”.

 All cases, from murder to more minor offences, were tried in the Public buildings, for the courts were housed there.  In this year, exactly as was done in 1966, the Public Buildings were repainted.  But the compound in 1866 was nothing as it is today.  A dwarf chain railing surrounded the building, the grounds were overgrown with rank grass, and the depressions made by carriage wheels and horses hoofs were always muddy during the rainy season.  The Sevastapool Cannons stood up in ugly sombreness, and a visitor justifiably described the grounds as “an eye sore to every stranger!”

Public opinion at last forced the Authorities to act, and in the 1866 Budget the sum of $10,000 was voted to pay for proper railings.  With the erection of the railings, the compound gradually began to be transformed……….


In the last  week of May and for most of June, a very unusual disaster struck Demerara:  there was an ice famine!

 Ice, in those days, was imported from the united States, and the ice ship had failed to arrive on schedule.  Mr. F. Rodrigues, by far the biggest ice importer at that time, found himself in serious difficulty in carrying out his contractual obligations for supplying ice.  He had to pay a fair amount of damages, but he probably made good his losses by the profits from the other goods the ice ships brought.  These ships, in addition to ice, brought temperate fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and grapes, and various meats and delicacies including oysters, lobsters, turkeys, geese, grouse partridges, quils, capons and smoked salmon.

 Mr. Rodrigues also imported mutton, beef, herrings and cod fish as well as various wines such as port, sherry, brandy, claret and liebfraumilch among others.  Importers who were bigger than Mr. Rodrigues tended to have an even greater variety in their stock…..  The middle-class housewife of 1866 certainly had a far wider choice in food and wines than shoppers of today!

 The fare of the lower orders was far simpler and more humdrum, and this was probably partly responsible for the numberous cases of chicken and plantain stealing which were continuously brought to the attention of the police.  The local journals bristled with news of chicken and plantain thefts and reports such as the following were usual:

 “On Wednesday night the fowl-house attached to the residence of the Roman catholic Bishop in Brickdam was broken into and six of his fowls stolen.  This is the third time within the last three months His Lordship’s fowl-house has been plundered.”

 Several other citizens were deprived of their fowls with even greater frequency than His Lordship.

 If the year 1866 was outstanding for its plantain and chicken thefts, it was equally remarkable for the examples of obeah which occurred.  In one of these obeah cases, Gally White who had to pay a fine of $6 for assaulting Mary Jane Leacock Babb, threatened to kill her by obeah.  The same night Mary Jane fell seriously ill and drank “lamp oil and egg mixed up” together with “a little gin and garlic.”  These curious medicaments failed to cure her, and poor Mary Jane died exclaiming that she had been obeahed!


Obeah ceremonies took various forms, and one of the most common was the Water Mamma dance.  The biggest Water Mamma ceremony of 1866 took place in November near Ma Retraite on the Berbice river.  This ceremony was dubbed as barbarous and unchristian.  It was described as “resembling the Bacchanalian orgies of antiquity . . . .  and was accompanied by the most horrid shouts and screams with obscene dances and noise-producing instruments."

 Partakers of such ceremonies usually violently resisted the police whenever they tried to suppress them.   Most arrests were normally affected next day after the rites had been completed . . . . .  The police were unable to arrest anyone at this Ma Retraite function . . . . . .

 Georgetown suffered from a serious water shortage and, during the dry season, the vats and communal tanks as well as the various city trenches would become dry.  The city’s water supply often depended upon enterprising people fetching water in large puncheons from the creeks and selling it to citizens.

 A scarcity of water not only led to much hardship and greater possibility of disease; it created a very dangerous situation whenever there was a fire.  Indeed, the fire insurance companies had raised their premiums after the 1864 fires because they considered their risks greater because of the defective water supply.  When, therefore, on Thursday, May 24, 1866, the town Council opened its new Water Works, everyone rejoiced.  It was confidently forecast that the standards of cleanliness and  among the poorer citizens would improve and that fire insurance premiums would be reduced in a few months.  Both forecasts proved correct and May 24, 1866 has gone down as one of the glorious days in the history of the Georgetown Town Council . . . . .

 The Mohurram or “Tadja” Festival of 1866 was one of the biggest ever.  Larger numbers of Creoles took part and churchmen and Christian priests feared that their focks were being gradually converted to the Hindu and Muslim faiths.  Suggestions were freely made that “Creoles who took part should be jailed and whipped”, and greater efforts were made by the churches, and even Government, to prevent “Creoles” from joining in Hindu and Muslim festivals.  One churchman who reflected the opinion of most Christian priests, with sincere conviction, in March, 1866, wrote:

 “We have seen the Creoles taking part in these festivals and at all events it should not be.  We cannot afford to allow those of the inhabitants (Creoles) of the Colony who are removed ever so little from heathenism and savagery to relapse.”

 These well-meaning people thus unconsciously retarded Guyanese  acculturation. . . . .

 One of the most noteworthy events of 1866 was the trial for piracy of six Dutch Creoles who had stolen the barque Eleanor Dessé from Surinam and compelled three of her crew to co-operate with them under threat of violence.  The six pirates were led by one Yankee Dyson.  On being brought before the Supreme Court they all pleaded guilty but explained that their intention was not to seize the barque but merely to escape the terrible conditions which prevailed in Surinam.

 The Court found them guilty and, though the penalty for guilt of piracy was usually death, the Judges were sympathetic towards them.  They were merely sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour.  The boat was then returned to the owner, Mr. Dessé, a British subject who resided in Nickerie. . . . 


In this pirate affair, the Policy showed much efficiency.  As a whole, the Police Force in 1866 was a fairly efficient and loyal one, but a high proportion of the Force consisted of characters resembling the legendary George Petaytay.  Petaytay, as everyone knows, had a one-figure intelligence quotient.  Unfortunately for the Force, it was judged on the basis of its ignoramuses.

 On October 28, one of these Petaytay-type policemen was detailed to guard the Bonded Warehouse.  About 8 o’clock, he heard a noise as of persons moving about and some blowing and chattering within the building.  The policeman ran down to the Brickdam Station and reported to the Inspector General that a band of French convicts were in the Warehouse because he heard them speaking in French.  The Inspector-General got in touch with the Controller of Customs and, together with a detachment of policemen, hurried to the Warehouse.

 The Warehouse was surrounded and all were on the alert.

 They called out but no one answered.

 Then they forced their way into the building.  Great was the astonishment when they saw who the burglars were:  the burglars proved to be about 25 turtles which had been  brought to the colony the day before!

 It was only then that the policeman was convinced that the turtles were not speaking French!

 The two-day race meeting which was held in December at the D’Urban Race Course provided a very fitting finale to this interesting year.  The best horses in the land were entered and owners, trainers, jockeys, and all others interested in racing lent their full support.  The races, which were to be run according to the “D’Urban and New Market Rules”, bore such charming names as the Georgetown plate, the Ladies’ Purse, Planters’ Stakes, and Scurry Race.

 Vast crowds attended and people were seen wending their way to the ground from the dawn of day.  Every imaginable type of transport was used and carriages, cart, hansoms, phaetons and other nameless vehicles in various states of disrepair converged on D’Urban.  Horses, mules, donkeys, and “every animal of the equine race capable of bearing the weight of a man or boy was also brought into requisition.”  This sea of humanity, who spoke different languages and belonged to various stations in life, seemed to lose consciousness of difference and became completely absorbed in the hypnotic holiday atmosphere which pervaded D’Urban in those glorious days.

 On the race ground were tents and booths which sold refreshments of every description, but these catered only for those who could afford high prices.  Catering to the tastes and pockets of humbler folk were the numerous vendors of ginger beer, nuts, fruits, bread, and cakes.  Jokes, ribald language, and occasional fisticuffs interspered the intent and exuberant betting in which everyone indulged.  The noise and crowds at this meeting were so great that the Militia Band which played at one part of the ground could only be heard by those immediately around it.


 An Englishman who lived in Guyana at this time summed this historic D’Urban Meeting in these words:

 “The scene was picturesque and cheerful and in no part of the world could one have found an equal number of people under such exciting circumstances, so very orderly and well-behaved.  The Meeting went off remarkably well. . . .”

 A writer in 1866 expressed his confidence in the future of his country.  “An impression has been growing and is now pretty extensively entertained”, he wrote, ‘that at no very distant day Guyana will rival in prosperity the richest countries in the world.  And when one considers the great things which have been accomplished out of a mere portion of her resources, and the incomparably greater resources which are still under developed, the impression will be admitted to have considerable foundation.”

 May this dream of a century ago materialise in the New Year!


Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park

Silvertorch Guyana Page

Caribbean Country Pages