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British Guiana

British Guiana was the name of the British colony on the northern coast of South America, now the independent nation of Guyana.

The area was originally settled by the Dutch at the start of the 17th century as the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice. These three colonies were captured by the British in 1796; they were returned to the (Dutch) Batavian Republic in 1802, but were again captured by British forces a year later and were officially ceded to the United Kingdom in 1814, and consolidated into a single colony in 1831. The colony's capital was at Georgetown (known as Stabroek prior to 1812). Guyana went on to become independent of the United Kingdom on 26 May 1966.


History of the colony


There had been at least two unsuccessful attempts by the English to colonise the lands that would later be known as British Guiana during the 17th century, when the Dutch had established two colonies in the area: Essequibo, administered by the Dutch West India Company, and Berbice, administered by the Berbice Association. A third colony, Demerara, was established under the West India Company in the mid-18th century. Effective British control began in 1796 during the French Revolutionary Wars, at which time the Netherlands were under French occupation and Great Britain and France were at war. A British expeditionary force was dispatched from its colony of Barbados to seize the colonies from the French-dominated Batavian Republic. The colonies surrendered without a struggle, and initially very little changed, as the British agreed to allow the long-established laws of the colonies to remain in force.

In 1802 the colonies were returned to the Batavian Republic under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens, but the United Kingdom seized the colonies again less than one year later upon resumption of hostilities with France in the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. The three colonies were officially ceded to the United Kingdom in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. The UK continued separate administration of the colonies until 1822, when the administration of Essequibo and Demerara was combined. In 1831, the administration Essequibo-Demerara and Berbice was combined, and the united colony became known as British Guiana.


The economy of British Guiana was completely dominated by sugarcane production until the 1880s, when falling cane sugar prices stimulated a greater shift toward rice farming, mining and forestry. However, sugarcane remained a significant part of the economy (sugar would account for nearly 50% of exports in 1959). Under the Dutch, settlement and economic activity was concentrated around sugar plantations lying inland from the coast. Under the British, cane planting expanded to richer coastal lands, with greater coastline protection. Until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, sugar planters relied very heavily on slave labour to produce sugar. Georgetown was the location of a significant slave rebellion in 1823.

In the 1880s gold and diamond deposits were discovered in British Guiana, but they did not produce significant revenue. Bauxite deposits, however, proved more promising and would remain an important part of the economy. The colony did not develop any significant manufacturing industry, other than sugar factories, rice mills, sawmills, and certain small-scale industries (including a brewery, a soap factory, a biscuit factory and an oxygen-acetylene plant, among others).

The London-based Booker Group of companies (Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co., Ltd.) dominated the economy of British Guiana. The Bookers had owned sugar plantations in the colony since the early 19th century; by the end of the century owned a majority of them; and by 1950 owned all but three. The increasing success and wealth of the Bookers Group allowed them to expand internationally, and to also become involved in rum, pharmaceuticals, publishing, advertising, retail stores, timber, and petroleum, among other industries. The Booker Group became the largest employer in the colony, leading some to refer to it as "Booker's Guiana".


The first railway system to be built in South America was that in British Guiana, 61 miles of standard gauge, from Georgetown to Rosignol, and 19 miles of 3' 6" line between Vreeden Hoop and Parika and opened in 1848. There were also a number of narrow gauge lines serving the sugar industry.

In 1948, when the railway in Bermuda was closed down, the locomotives, rolling stock, track, sleepers and virtually all the associated paraphanelia of a railroad were shipped to the colony to bring fresh life to the aged system.

The lines ceased to operate in 1972, but the former large Central Station can still be seen in Georgetown. Some of the inland mines still operate some narrow gauge lines. Guyana was considered the richest country in the West Indies after their independence from England. However, that was short-lived due to the greed of Forbes Burnham who stole the country's wealth and converted it to his own fortune.


The British long continued the forms of Dutch colonial government in British Guiana. A Court of Policy exercised both legislative and executive functions under the direction of the colonial Governor. A group known as the Financial Representatives sat with the Court of Policy in a Combined Court to set tax policies. A majority of the members of the Courts was appointed by the Governor, the rest were selected by a College of Kiezers (Electors). The Kiezers were elected by a restrictive franchise, limited to the larger landowners of the colony. The Courts were thus initially dominated by the sugar planters and their representatives.

In 1891 the College of Kiezers was abolished in favour of direct election of the elective membership of the Courts. of Policy became half elected and half appointed, and all of the Financial Representatives were now elected. The executive functions of the Court of Policy were transferred to a new Executive Council under the control of the Governor. Property qualifications were significantly relaxed for voters and for candidates for the Courts.

In 1928 the British Government abolished the Dutch-influenced constitution and replaced it with a crown colony constitution. A Legislative Council with an appointed majority was established, and the administrative powers of the Governor were strengthened. These constitutional changes were not popular among the Guyanese, who viewed them as a step backward. The franchise was also extended to women.

In 1938 the West India Royal Commission ("The Moyne Commission") was appointed to investigate the economic and social condition of all the British colonies in the Caribbean region after a number of civil and labour disturbances. Among other changes, the Commission recommended some constitutional reforms. As a result, in 1943 a majority of the Legislative Council seats became elective, the property qualifications for voters and for candidates for the Council were lowered, and the bar on women and clergy serving on the Council was abolished. The Governor retained control of the Executive Council, which had the power to veto or pass laws against the wishes of the Legislative Council.

The next round of constitutional reforms came in 1953. A bicameral legislature consisting of a lower House of Assembly and an upper State Council was established. The voting membership of the House of Assembly was entirely elective. The State Council had a nominated membership appointed by the Governor and the House of Assembly and possessed limited revisionary powers. A Court of Policy became the executive body, consisting of the Governor and other colonial officials. Universal adult suffrage was instituted, and the property qualifications for office abolished.

The election of 27 April 1953 under the new system provoked a serious constitutional crisis. The People's Progressive Party (PPP) won 18 of the 24 seats in the House of Assembly. This result alarmed the British Government, which was surprised by the strong showing of the PPP, and which viewed the PPP as too friendly with communist organizations. As a result of its fears of communist influence in the colony, the British Government suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency, and militarily occupied British Guiana on 9 October 1953.

Under the direction of the British Colonial Office, the Governor assumed direct rule of the colony under an Interim Government, which continued until 1957. On 12 August 1957 elections were held in which the PPP won nine of fourteen elective seats in a new legislature.

A constitutional convention convened in London in March 1960 reached agreement on yet another new legislature, to consist of an elected House of Assembly (35 seats) and a nominated Senate (13 seats). In the ensuing election of 21 August 1961 the PPP won 20 seats in the House of Assembly, entitling it to appoint eight senators as the majority party. Upon the 1961 election, British Guiana also became self-governing, except as to defence and external matters. The leader of the majority party became Prime Minister, who then named a Council of Ministers, replacing the former Executive Council.

From 1962 to 1964, riots, strikes and other disturbances stemming from racial, social and economic conflicts delayed full independence for British Guiana. The leaders of the political parties reported to the British Colonial Secretary that they were unable to reach agreement on the remaining details of forming an independent government. The British Colonial Office then intervened by imposing its own independence plan, in part requiring another election under a new proportional representation system. It was assumed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority.

The December 1964 elections for the new legislature gave the PPP 45.8% (24 seats), the People's National Congress (PNC) 40.5% (22 seats), and the United Force (UF) 12.4% (7 seats). The UF agreed to form a coalition government with the PNC, and accordingly the PNC leader became the new Prime Minister. In November 1965 an independence conference in London quickly reached agreement on an independent constitution, and set the date for independence as 26 May 1966. On that date, at 12 midnight, British Guiana became the new nation of Guyana.

Territorial disputes

Western boundary with Venezuela

In 1840, the British Government assigned Robert Hermann Schomburgk to survey and mark out the western boundary of British Guiana with newly independent Venezuela. Venezuela did not accept the Schomburgk Line, which placed the entire Cuyuni River basin within the colony. Venezuela claimed all lands west of the Essequibo River as its territory (see map above).

The dispute continued on and off for half a century, culminating in the Venezuela Crisis of 1895, in which Venezuela sought to use the United States' Monroe Doctrine to win support for its position. U.S. President Grover Cleveland used diplomatic pressure to get the British to agree to arbitration of the issue, ultimately agreeing terms for the arbitration which suited Britain. An arbitration tribunal convened in Paris in 1898, and issued its award in 1899. The tribunal awarded about 94% percent of the disputed territory to British Guiana. A commission surveyed a new border according to the award, and the parties accepted the boundary in 1905.

There the matter rested until 1962, when Venezuela renewed its 19th-century claim, alleging that the arbitral award was invalid. After his death, Severo Mallet-Prevost, legal counsel for Venezuela and a named partner in the New York law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle published a letter alleging that the judges on the tribunal acted improperly as a result of a back room deal between Russia and Great Britain. The British Government rejected this claim, asserting the validity of the 1899 award. The British Guiana Government, then under the leadership of the PPP, also strongly rejected this claim. Efforts by all the parties to resolve to matter on the eve of Guyana's independence in 1966 failed. As of November 2006 the dispute remains unresolved.

Eastern boundary with Suriname

Robert Schomburgk's 1840 commission also included a survey of the colony's eastern boundary with the Netherlands' colony of Dutch Guiana, now the independent nation of Suriname. The 1899 arbitration award settling the British Guiana Venezuela border made reference to the border with Suriname as continuing to the source of the Courantyne River, which it named as the Kutari River. The Netherlands raised a diplomatic protest, claiming that the New River, and not the Kutari, was to be regarded as the source of the Courantyne and the boundary. The British government in 1900 replied that the issue was already settled by the long acceptance of the Kutari as the boundary.

In 1962, the Netherlands finally made formal claim to the "New River Triangle", the triangular-shaped region between the New and Kutari rivers that was in dispute. The Suriname colonial government, and after 1975 the independent Suriname government, maintained the Dutch position; while the British Guiana Government, and later the independent Guyanese government, maintained the British position.

Stamps and postal history of British Guiana

British Guiana is famous among philatelists for its early postage stamps which were first issued in 1850. These stamps include some of the rarest, most expensive stamps in the world, including the unique British Guiana 1c magenta from 1856, which sold in 1980 for close to $1 million.

See also

  • Economy of Guyana
  • Geography of Guyana
  • Guyanese British
  • History of Guyana
  • Politics of Guyana
  • Robert Hermann Schomburgk
  • Charles Waterton

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