Victoria Village - first village bought by freed slaves By Sunn E. Lyvan
Guyana Chronicle
October 7, 2001

WHEN the village movement - the acquisition of slaves of property to form villages - was fully galvanised, it was some years after emancipation.

But Bush Negroes had long before made the first tentative steps along this route and had succeeded to some degree. They had squatted upon lands far aback of the plantations, in the `bush’, and there set up thatched structures on which they dwelled, and farms from which they earned a comfortable livelihood by subsistence farming. They even welcomed other runaway slaves to join them in this pursuit, from which a kind of village system emerged.

Of course, they were hounded by the plantocracy; their villages, when found, were set afire and their hoard of foodstuff, totally destroyed. This did not deter the runaway, however, because all it meant was putting down their roots on other lands which were there for the taking, as many estates were failing and soon were left desolate and in ruins.

During the 1810 campaign by the plantocracy, and expedition was dispatched to destroy these settlements where rice, tannias, plantains, rams, and tobacco were being cultivated. The Major General in command of the sortie, Mr. Charles Beard, recorded 14 houses, filled with rice, and fields of cultivation equal to support 700 Negroes for 12 months, destroyed.

One can well ascertain that indeed, it was a very profitable endeavour and yes, rice was first cultivated in Guyana by the Bush Negroes.

After emancipation, there were strong factors responsible for the rush to acquire land: insecurity of tenure on the estate, the availability of land; and the hunger of the ex-slaves.

In 1838, slaves mobilised. They were now free to move about, free to choose residence, free to use their time upon their own lands, free to bargain for wages. Rawle Farley pins down the act, reaction, aptly: “The Abolition Act was therefore important, in that one of its major results was to accelerate the development of the village settlements.”

These settlements took three legal branches:

1. Ex-slaves were given lands by their estate proprietors to farm. These were freehold property and, as a consequence, freehold villages came into existence providing the estate with a ready supply of indentured workers, anchored to the land.

2. The proprietary villages which spread over the front lands of various estates. These lands were demarcated for a house lot, plus lands for planting by the owner of estates, and sold to blacks as an effort to keep them on the estates. The argument advanced by the planters was that if the freed people owned and lived on lands upon or adjacent to the plantation, they would be less likely to migrate and would remain to serve the estate as ready labour.

3. Communal villages were established separate and apart from the plantation by a group of slaves who distanced themselves from plantation life. Emancipation then, led to a large number of villages wholly independent of the plantation system.

Of course, this independence was disturbing to many planters who felt that the pool of free labourers would eventually disappear and so rob them of replenishing labour supply. But this was not to be since many of the newly freed labourers chose to purchase plantations and so settle on the coastal plain of the country.

This effort to become independent of plantation life stands as a significant achievement since it was indicative of the cooperative spirit filling the hearts of the ex-slaves, whose sole purpose was to work together to become independent. The spirit of cooperation and the art of saving which the ex-slaves combined together could quite rightly be said to have changed the colony.

The first purchase to have paved the way for the first village was made in November 1839. This was a brilliant cooperative effort between 83 labourers from five nearby estates: Douchfour, Ann’s Grove, Hope, Paradise and Enmore. Did I mention that among the labourers were two women? Together, these ex-slaves pooled the sum of $6 000 which they made as a down payment on the purchase price of $10 000. With the down payment made, the Negroes took control of Plantation Northbrook on the East Coast Demerara, 18 miles from Georgetown.

Ownership was divided between the 83 sub-owners with one lot going to one owner. These owners re-christened the estate Victoria and though there is no written record of how or from whom the name was derived, the village served its purpose to dramatic degree when the then Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham chose it to inaugurate 1975 Coop Week. It was a well-calculated move, uplifting the efforts of those early citizens who had practiced cooperatives 168 years ago.

Two theories surround the name of the village. One source puts forward that it was named in honour of Queen Victoria. Another suggests that it was so named to signify the victory of the Africans. Whatever the origin of the name, the fact remains that the birth of this rural community gave momentum to the village movement which touched almost every nook and cranny of the then British Guiana.

Daly in 1975 explained: “The emergence of village life is indicative of the Africans’ will to be free from the custodial and exploitative plantation system. Ownership of lands was their only salvation if they wished to be free from the economic pressures of the planters.”

A former headteacher and President of the Guyana Teachers Association, William Nicholas Arno, in his book `History of Victoria Village’ gives is an interesting look into the past of the village.

Mr. Arno says: “In May, 1845, six years after the purchase, the owners agreed to a number of regulations for the proper management of the estate which is among the first attempts at a code of Local Government in Guyana.

“The people in the village showed a great desire for church worship and used to travel as far as Le Ressouvenir, 11 miles to the West to attend services conducted by the Reverend John Smith. At the same time, some of them were taught to read and write.

As time when by, William Africa Baptiste, known popularly as `Boss Africa’, became accepted as the Father of the village.

The keen desire for church worship resulted in the construction of church buildings. The first church was built by the Congregationalists in 1845 and named Wilberforce, after abolitionist who was prominent among those striving for the liberation of slaves.

Other churches followed suit and soon the Wesleyans, Plymouth Brethren, Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Anglicans were numbered among those functional.

`Boss Africa, despite his literary limitations, was the first schoolmaster of the village when he was appointed to Wilberforce church that carried on School in the building with a government-aided programme.

`Boss Africa’ eventually passed away in 1881 at the age of 92 and is immortalized by a tablet in his memory in the Wilberforce Church.

The cultural standards of the village improved, chiefly influenced by the churches and the schools. Associations were formed with the aim of suppressing indulgence in alcohol and holding debates. Employment and thus the economy were boosted by the Cove and John sugar plantation and Belfield coconut estates. In addition, a fishing industry was launched by the group and the catches brought in to the village through the canal dividing Victoria from Cove and John.

When the Local Government ordinance was instituted in 1892, a village Council was formed. Mr. Arno, not surprisingly, states “Commendable it is to record that administration of the Council over the long period of years has never been impeded by serious conflicts among the councilors. As a matter of fact, Victoria Village earned the reputation of being a most peaceful place in which to live.”

And it had a right to be peaceful because enshrined in its articles of understanding were a host of do’s and don’ts which no doubt led to the enormous success of the village. The committee of management which was soon founded, did not only plan the development of the village, but also oversaw the works carried out by residents who were the shareholders. Such measures implemented by the overseers were sometimes said to be harsher than that on the estates, but it had the desired effect. All shareholders and their families had to work their plots and certain crops had to be planted so that the village would have enough food.

Each habitat was required to cooperate in cleaning and digging trenches to drain the land. They were also asked to construct dams and roads and to repair them when it became necessary.

Discipline seems to have always been the watchword in the village, and strict adherence was attached to the upkeep of the brand instituted by the committee. There was to be no fighting, no swearing, no cursing or gambling. Drunkenness was abhorred. No strangers were allowed into the village. The attendance of church services on Sundays was made part of the curriculum of activities and played an important role in the spiritual upkeep of the inhabitants. “Anyone found committing these calumnies was required to pay a fine of one chilling (24 cents)

On the education front, it was compulsory that every child of age attend school regularly and punctually for the village leaders saw the importance of an education not only in its necessity to the longevity of the village, but also as a tool if and whenever the inhabitants might be called upon to venture out into the wider society.

On the political level, many petitions are recorded to have been directed to the Colonial Administrators expressing Victoria’s dissatisfaction over decisions handed down to them. One notable example was the Registration Tax which required the residents to pay $2.00 for every male and $1.00 for every female. This tax was introduced to pay for the cost of damage done during the `Angel Gabriel’ riots.

The need to succeed was of paramount importance to the inhabitants of this unique village, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, a lesson which is extended to all Guyana today. Another lesson is that success is easier achieved through the collective efforts of all inhabitants. Living in mutual respect and committed to the cause.