History of British Guiana 1922

Whilst systematically scanning early 1900’s theses, mostly on specific medical matters such as Insanity and Beri Beri, I came across a fascinating account of Guyana rural life in what was then known British Guiana, written in 1922 by a Mr. John F.C. Haslam (link to follow). Mr Haslam, who by his own admission, after being appointed to the Government Public Health Department of British Guiana, just 3 months later found himself as the Head of Department for the entire country.

Mr Haslam’s detailed account lays out this country’s unique geography and attempts to examine the population that inhabit this place and the various issues of housing, employment, sanitation and health that preoccupy him as Head of Public Health in 1922. Written very much from the British colonial viewpoint with a specific agenda of public health and accompanied with intriguing photographs, this theses provides an invaluable narrative and illuminates a particular time period in Guiana’s colonial past.

Mr Haslam notes from the beginning that it soon became apparent to him ‘that both the physical conditions of the country, the political constitution and social organisation of the people were peculiar if not unique’.

His first chapter entitled ‘The Country’ sets out specific facts regarding the landscape and makeup of the land. John Haslam is aware of the British’s population general ignorance of Guiana, being a far flung county, lying on the top right corner of the continent of South America, with a tropical climate lying 10 degrees of the equator, and  often confused with Demerara which forms a third of the actual size of Guiana. The 2 rivers Demerara and Essequibo, which allowed for trading posts, fertile land, helped in the creation of the sugar plantations and provide testament to the Guiana’s history of  colonisation initially by the Dutch and later the British, who gained control in 1831, right up until 1966. Guyana is still unique as it is the only country where English is the official language though the most commonly spoken language is Guyanese Creole.

Haslam, details the low lying nature of Guiana coastal areas and describes a very complex system of canals, trenches with some scattered attempts of control through damming and sluices such as the Koker, left over from the Dutch colonial times. Haslam’s vibrant description of the rainy season gives an impression of the difficulties face

‘the coast lands form a vast swamp in which cows may be seen up to their necks in water, grazing on water lilies, where lambs and pigs swim almost from birth and there are many homes accessible only by boat. At such times domestic animals, alligators and a boa constructor have been seen together on the public high road – the only dry place.’

 

 

Most of the townships and villages lie along the cultivated belt running just inland along the Atlantic coast and so these populations are faced with the challenges of the rainy season and constant flooding.  In his descriptions of the inland jungle which to Haslam appears impenetrable you get a sense of the fear of the unknown, akin to Day of the Triffids…

’In truth there is something sinister about the rank and fleshy vegetation which in a few months will cover a neglected house or obliterate a clearing’

Written from his perspective as public health governor of Guiana under direct British colonial rule, the chapter titled simply ‘The People’ provides a gripping account of the different ethnic groups as itemised by the Census and included is a table of population figures starting with ‘The Europeans, other than Portuguese’, then ‘Portuguese, East Indian, Chinese, Blacks, Mixed, Aboriginal Indians’ and lastly ‘Not Stated’.

Haslam gives an intriguing commentary on these various ethnic groups making up this diverse population, starting with ‘the true natives’ of the country, the aboriginal Indians he possibly views most favourably who are ‘on the whole shy and retiring’ and ‘they would be pleasant to work among and teachable’.  He states ‘ The Blacks of the Colony are of course quite as much foreigners as the whites’  while recognising the legacy of slavery and his interpretation of its effects.

‘After the abolition of slavery the negroes’ dislike of steady employment was very apparent. It is a racial characteristic that a man prefers working for himself for a pittance to earning good wages from an employer’

Diamond mining proved an attraction for many of these men in that it had the allure of possible wealth and independence from a traditional employer.  Haslam finds ‘ there is a happy-go-lucky carelessness and a laughing indifference about the black people which make work among them pleasant if sometimes tantalising. However his frustration from a public health view point leaks through his discourse ‘the most discouraging factor to a sanitarian working among the negroes is that while they readily assume a veneer of civilisation – smart clothes, church going and politics – they have little instinct of tidiness or cleanliness, and a filthy mass of garbage under the kitchen window gives no qualms whatever to the housewife’. This chapter is filled with such observations  sometimes  prejudiced and  often voiced in a tone that sounds decidedly out of place today, such as ‘love of children and family life and respect for age and education are factors which will maintain the East Indian people as a most important section of this colony’ however ‘the Portuguese are of more doubtful value to the country’.

Haslam obtains his figures from the  last available Census in 1921 yet wrestles with the indeterminacy of the Census figures with its many interesting anomalies, for instance with the number of husbands and wives in 1911 ‘the former outnumbering the latter by 2,847’. The recording of age alone was a perpetual problem for the Census Commissioner  with many relying on collective memories of  definitive events such as ‘the cholera year’ or ‘the fire in Charlestown’ to provide a rough gauge of time.

He alludes to the missing figures of the ghostly aboriginal population who for colonial administrative purposes seem to constantly elude proper documentation. His lack of encounter with many aboriginal people is interesting as he states ’only a few have been drawn into the modern life of the colony, most ‘clinging to their tribal customs and primitive mode of life and withdrawing into their unexplored forests before the advance of civilisation’.

You get a real sense from reading this of the ‘‘huge sparsely occupied hinterland’ that forms most of Guiana, occupied by these unknown tribes and how it informs a large part of Haslam’s collective unconscious in his quest of ‘pioneer sanitary work’.  Other details which grabbed my attention was his discussion of the ‘supernatural beliefs’ that still existed with the attentions of the ‘obeah man’ , a popular derivative of voodoo, that used a white “fowl cock” and even on occasion child sacrifice to fight off evil spirits and sickness.

Haslam goes on to study the occupations, housing, sanitiation,  and health of various population types, providing compelling photoographs to illustrate his points

 

 

Although his observations belong to a very different era with a different world view they merit attention through his detailed recording of sanitation, housing, education and health and general living conditions, amongst all the different groups that found themselves living in this unique part of the world under colonialisation and still living the legacy of slavery. It is Haslam’s rich commentary often falling into casual asides and sarcasm while still maintaining a profound engagement that makes it so inviting to partake of this thesis and become immersed for a short time in this little known country from one man’s unique position.

One thought on “History of British Guiana 1922

  1. Very interesting work on the history of British Guiana by one particular man’s position.
    Thankyou J Macrury for opening this piece of unique historical text for us.

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