A distinction should be drawn between the original Dutch settlers here and British colonialism

Stabroek News
June 13, 2001

Dear Editor,

Melissa Ifill's essay (7.6.200l) "The plantation system and the expert economy of British Guiana", in the History This Week series is very focused but the reason she gives for the underdevelopment of Guyana by a European master class is too simplistic and shallow an analysis which ignores other important issues of settlement in 17th and 18th century Guiana which had a negative effect on Guyana's later development. These other issues involve a crucial underlying difference between the Dutch and British colonial aspirations in Guiana, but this difference is time and time again sacrificed by contemporary Guyanese analysis (often echoing the writings of Walter Rodney), concerned mainly with racially lumping together all European endeavours here as one and the same problem.

A true and proper re-search or investigation into Guyanese history reveals a less clear-cut black-and- white picture of European intentions to exploit Guyana only for the benefit of the Metropolitan "mother" country. First of all, from the beginning of the plantation system under the Dutch in mid 17th century Guyana, a split had occurred between private pioneer merchant-planters, long resident in Guyana, and numerous new official Commanders sent out to govern Guiana by the Dutch West India company, whose interests were mainly to benefit the State of Holland and not her colonies. Guyanese historical records mention the cold and suspicious reception Juan Van der Goes, one of the first heads of the Dutch West India company sent to Essequibo, received upon his arrival there by the long resident Flemish, Dutch, and Huguenot patroon planters there. Why was this? Because the ultimate intentions of the two colonial enterprises differed.

Tough seafearing Netherland merchant pioneers in early Guiana, like Peiter Van Rhee, Jan de Moor, Van Peeran, Matheson, Adrian Groenwegel etc, knew well the importance of maintaining their independence from a total reliance on, and contribution to, only a European-based economy. A regional trade and plantation-based economy was first visualised by such unconventional and daring European individuals who first set up the framework for the regional Caricom-shaped economy we see today. It was Jan de Moor and Groenwegel who first influenced the proper development of Barbados agriculturally by sending over there a good number of Guyanese Amerindians skilled in planting new crops. It was Groenwegel and Matheson who understood the necessity of regional salt and mules which only trade with neighbouring Spaniards in the Orinoco and in the islands off the Venezuelan coast could bring them.

It was the small number of Dutch settlers in the Pomeroon river who welcomed the influx of skilled Flemish and Dutch settlers of the Prince of Nassau's colony in Pernambuco, Brazil after they were expelled from there by the Portuguese. These and other facts are what eventually led to the first ideas of regional economic integration, dependant upon European markets for money and imported products, but not at the expense of creating economic benefits to emerging Guyana.

The efforts of these upstart individuals merchant- planters to create any lasting progressive framework for Guyana's future development were frustrated continually over the centuries, and eventually erased completely by the takeover of Guiana by Britain, and the systematic governance of British Guiana as a colony of the British Empire.

But why would many early settlers in Guyana from the Netherlands, who were slave owners to boot, care anyway about Guyana's future, or want to create anything profitable for this nation's future? Time and time again this is a question asked by present day sociological analysts of Guyanese history. The answer lies in the fact that these early planters were largely heretical, non-conformist and even anti-monarchist, as well as Huguenot descendants, and we must remember that non-conformist radical European thinkers of the time, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Rene Descartes, were Swiss and French Huguenots. Such types found remote Guyana of that time a safe haven from European inclusive dogmas of mass conformity, and they settled in Guyana for life; most died here, as Henry Bolingbroke in his "Voyage of Demerary" clearly states, in showing the differences between Dutch and British attitudes to Guyana. Earlier, Storm Van Gravesande, the famous Dutch 18th century Protestant Governor here, had clearly asked in his famous 2-volume dispatches to the Dutch State Heads, that Holland not allow any more Flemish Catholics and Huguenots to settle in Guyana, because they got along well with neighbouring Spanish or Latin people, and even worse they chose spouses from among the Native Indian women and African slave women, the resulting children of which he could find no use for, since they were wild, ungovernable, and Guyana-oriented, rather than leaning towards the white European heritage of their fathers. With such circumstances we can see the differences developing between the official European Loyalists sent out to govern early Guyana, and those other Europeans comprising a majority settled here. The latter were not committed in a diehard fashion to a plantation system benefiting only the European mother country, as is so often stated, but to the development of their settlements in early Guyana as well. Such early radical lifestyles by Europeans in Guyana faced numerous obstacles to the development of a profitable Guyanese fledgling economy, but nevertheless their example should not be swept aside as part of the general problem of European colonialism here.

Some obstacles they faced in trying to foster economic stability in early Guyana were as follows:

(1) Devastating pillaging of estates and total theft of savings repeatedly by British and French pirates. In fact, one dozen years after the Pomeroon received refugee Dutch settlers from Brazil it was prospering like never before, but this came to a bitter end in the 1660's when the British pirate John Scott sailed from Barbados and pillaged everything, even holding Groenwegel, his Carib wife and two sons they had captive. This was one of the first major blows to Guyana's plantation system economy as a foundation for local development. The bad effect was felt here in Guyana much more than in Europe. Furthermore, diagrams in Gravesande's published dispatches reveal the sumptuous plans for a large harbour and town in the Pomeroon river which the Dutch had planned, but which never saw fruition due to repeated loss of local wealth as a result of piracy and invasion.

(2) As the State of Holland, via the Dutch West India company, took over the governance of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, there was no scope left for European planters settled permanently here to develop any independent local manufacturing infrastructure in competition with an official one in Europe. I agree with Ms Ifill that no such development would have been tolerated by the bullying representatives of the "mother" country's economy. But in any case imported African labour and local native Indian labour were agricultural and unskilled in European manufacturing processes, which produced far more revenue. The only real local Guyanese goods manufactured in those days by native Indian and African servants were woven craft products, and carved wooden utensils.

(3) After Guyana became part of the British Empire the diversity of the agricultural plantation economy it possessed under the Dutch was severely reduced to a sugar-rice dominated economy achieved by the merger of scores of small diverse Dutch estates into such money-hungry creations. Important diverse crops such as Indigo, cotton, coffee, cocoa, herbal medicines and spices etc., which the Dutch had cultivated, vanished, thus limiting the future power of Guyana to inherit and develop its own manufactured products derived from such sources. In addition, the British Empire, which was colossal in comparison to the tiny Dutch Empire, did not need such diverse crops which Guyana had already undertaken under the Dutch, because other colonies of Britain were already producing enough of these raw materials to cover the British supplied markets. Though as a British colony Guyana benefited from these other products other British colonies produced, once we all had become independent that non-competitive shelter was lost. A good example is the case of cocoa, a difficult crop which takes five years to reach maturity. Guyana during its Dutch era had painstakingly produced prize-winning cocoa in European competitions, but this product was ignored when we entered the period of British Guiana, because Nigeria, another British colony, was already supplying the British market.

There are many other similar examples in our history to prove my point, but finally it should be stated that even though the plantation economy exported our hinterland products, at least the Dutch settlers here consumed mainly Guyanese, or non- European meals, because their mainly female servants here knew how to cook no other types of food, and in fact held favour with the "master" this way, as well as with intimacy. Alcohol, wheat, cloth, clothes, furniture, tools and utilitarian objects were imported from Europe, but the majority of edible products consumed, were not imported from abroad.

It is Guyanese intellectuals and social critics who have repeatedly failed to reveal what is outside the stereotypical and obvious in our history as a plantation-based economy. We need more innovative, and less chip-on-the-shoulder analysis to show a more practical aspect to our Colonial heritage which we can still make use of. We should not fall into the same trap of a limited productiveness which the British Guiana export economy fell into. Neither should we continue to follow-pattern each other with an endless opening up of mechanic shops, restaurants, supermarkets, minibuses, etc; what we need are more businesses that will develop the mentality of our people so that proper nation-building administrative decisions are made; at present there's a huge opportunity, in Georgetown at least, for more classic and intelligent films to be shown in our cinemas, more video stores of quality, more book and magazine stores with current information on movies, art, fashion, more contemporary art galleries that are not filled with cheap tourist paintings, etc. We need above all, a national publishing house. By importing resourceful knowledge for the mind we can cut through all the red tape, procrastination and stagnation left over from the pessimistic malaise of a plantation economy, and get down to the exciting and often profitable business of producing many new products of quality for ourselves, and for export.

Yours faithfully,

Terence Roberts