Guyana (the former British Guiana) will celebrate 44 years of political independence on May 26.
British Guiana was also known as the land of many waters and the land of six people (Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, East Indians, Europeans and Portuguese) with the nine groups of Amerindians being the indigenous people of the land. Petroglyphs found near Kurupukari in the Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana prove that Guyana’s indigenous people (Arawaks, Arecunas, Akawaios, Caribs, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapisianas, Warraus and Wai-Wais) have lived on the South American continent since at least 5000 BCE.
According to the history books, Christopher Columbus and his crew, in 1498, were the first Europeans to discover the Guianas. (Guyanese scholar and historian Ivan Van Sertima in his 1976 book, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, argues that there was an African presence in the Americas before Columbus.)
Columbus was quickly followed by other Europeans searching for El Dorado, the golden city. They never did find the golden city but many Europeans became rich on the coerced, unpaid labour of enslaved Africans. Beginning with the Dutch who colonized the Essequibo region when they established their first settlement on the Pomeroon River in 1581, Europeans exploited first the native people who they unsuccessfully tried to enslave, then the Africans. The native people being on familiar territory fled into the interior of the country unlike the Africans who were thousands of miles away from Africa and unfamiliar with the South American terrain.
In 1814, the Dutch were forced to cede the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo to the British after the Treaty of Paris was signed during the Congress of Vienna (November 1, 1814 – June 8, 1815). In 1831 the British unified the three colonies to become British Guiana.
British Guiana was sometimes referred to as Bookers Guiana because of the stranglehold on the economy of the British business firm, Booker Brothers, McConnell & Company, popularly known as Bookers. The company, which had its beginning when Josias Booker arrived from Britain to work as the manager of a cotton plantation in 1815, was formally established in 1834 as Booker Brothers & Company and bought its first transport ship, the Elizabeth, in 1835. Bookers held a monopoly on the economy of British Guiana by the end of the 1800s. The company’s history is inextricably linked to Britain’s slave holding and imperialist past.
When the Congress of Vienna divided the northeast coast of South America among Great Britain, the Netherlands and France in 1815, merchants from those countries quickly began to exploit the region’s natural resources. However, to do so, while avoiding the backbreaking work which this entailed, the Europeans brutally forced the enslave Africans to work without pay. The Booker brothers – Josias, George, and Richard – were part of this group which, between 1815 and 1834, bought several plantations and established several merchant trading houses in Liverpool to exploit a flourishing sugar and rum trade.
In 1854, Josias Booker Jr. (eldest son of Josias Sr.) and John McConnell (who had worked as a clerk for the Bookers since 1846) created a new partnership which they named the Demerara Company. With the deaths of the remaining Booker Brothers (Josias Sr. in 1865 and George in 1866), Josias Jr. and McConnell assumed control of all the Booker properties, including the sugar plantations and trading companies in Britain and South America.
Milton Moskowitz writes in his 1987 book The Global Marketplace that the Bookers Brothers company “became the principal shopkeepers of the colony”, building a formidable trade during the late 19th century. Their “Liverpool Line”, established in 1887, became one of the top shipping links between South America and Europe.
The fascinating story of how the Booker family practically owned British Guiana is documented in chapter 5 of Passage from India to El Dorado: Guyana and the great migration by Dave Hollett (published 1999). Hollett even details the amount of money the Booker brothers made from being compensated for the loss of their slaves. In the 1830s the family collected thousands of pounds in compensation; no wonder they were able to expand their company and buy ships.
While the enterprising Booker brothers and other White men from Britain were establishing companies (including Sandbach Parker) and making money hand over fist in British Guiana, racialized people were relegated to the backbreaking and underpaid work that made the wealth of the Europeans.
At the time of Guyana’s independence from Britain the population included not only the original people of the land, the Amerindians, but also some of the descendants of the colonizers from Britain, the descendants of the enslaved Africans and the descendants of the people who immigrated to British Guiana as indentured labourers beginning in 1834 after slavery was abolished. Although the Portuguese from Madeira were the first group of indentured labourers to arrive in British Guiana, the largest group of indentured labourers (which presently is the largest ethnic group in Guyana) hailed from the Indian sub-continent, arriving in Guyana beginning May 5, 1838.
The population of Guyana 44 years after independence also includes the descendants of the Chinese who immigrated as indentured labourers beginning in 1853 when three ships (the Glentanner, the Lord Elgin and the Samuel Boddington) left Amoy in the Fujian Province of China with 1,549 labourers bound for British Guiana.
The descendants of the people who populated Guyana from the 1500s to the 1800s and the indigenous people of Guyana are all Guyanese who share many parts of their culture to make a unique Guyanese culture including our easily recognizable Guyanese accent.
At 44 years old, Guyana is still experiencing growing pains but there are countries like Canada, the U.S., even Britain which achieved political independence from those they considered overlords more than 100 years ago, and there is evidence that they are still experiencing growing pains.
Happy 44th birthday Guyana!!