The capital of Berbice

Stabroek News
November 17, 2000

Far more is written about the history of Georgetown than the history of New Amsterdam, but Guyana's second town also has a past worthy of notice. In a sense it is much older than the capital, since it has its origins in a village which grew up alongside Fort Nassau in the 1730s and 40s. Georgetown, in contrast, dates back no further than 1781. The first Nieuw Amsterdam, as it then was, was situated about fifty-six miles up the Berbice river on the right bank, and before the 1763 uprising, comprised a Court of Policy building, a warehouse, an inn, two smithies, a bakery, a Lutheran church and a number of houses, among other buildings.

In terms of bye-laws, the little township was a pioneer in several respects; it boasted the first sanitation regulations on record (no privies near the public path, drains to be dug and places kept weeded) and the first price controls in the only hostelry in town. The serious imbibers in this society would be happy to learn that many of these applied to alcoholic beverages, including madeira, genever (Dutch gin), kilthum (the forerunner of rum) and even a drink made by the Amerindians. Of course, alcohol was not considered an indulgence in those days, but rather a necessity, since it was erroneously believed that it warded off diseases like malaria, which it was claimed came from exposure to 'miasmas'.

In March 1763, Coffy made the Court of Policy building in the little town his headquarters, and he placed two cannon - which had been repaired for him by Prins, the blacksmith - on either side of its doorway. When the revolutionaries were forced to retreat upriver in 1764, Nieuw Amsterdam was torched under the supervision of Prins, and only the brick Lutheran church survived. After the rising was crushed, he was charged with arson and executed.

While the village was rebuilt afterwards, by the 1770s it was already becoming apparent that it had ceased to be the centre of the colony. The planters had begun to move to the more fertile soils of the lower river, leaving the township somewhat isolated upstream. At first the Dutch authorities had some grandiose plans to construct imposing government buildings there - plans which can still be seen in the State Archives in The Hague. However, eventually they had to recognize that such development would be futile in a context where Berbice's economic activity was centred on the lower river, and in 1785 they took a decision to relocate the town to the mouth of the Canje.

As is often the case with bureaucrats, nothing happened immediately. However, by June 1790, the authorities were ready for private residents, and in January of the following year they published an ordinance laying down the conditions for the granting of house lots in the present New Amsterdam. Each resident had to empolder his land and dig drainage ditches, and anyone who had not built a house within six months of the government being transferred from upstream, was to lose his lot.

Five years later, Berbice's capital fell into British hands, although not all its early visitors from that quarter of Europe were impressed by its appearance. Gradually, however, it acquired a character of its own, and to its credit it still boasts (among many other advantages) what is arguably the best example of Cesar Castellani's architecture extant, namely, the New Amsterdam hospital. (It might be remembered that the powers-that-be allowed the Palms, the best example in Georgetown, to fall into such a state of disrepair that the building had to be broken down.)

In 1831, New Amsterdam lost its status as a capital, when the two colonies of Berbice and Essequibo/Demerara were combined into one to become British Guiana.

Recently, Berbice's premier urban centre held a Town Day, which might, we are told, become an annual event. What perhaps would enhance it both from the point of view of tourism as well as raising the historical consciousness of young people, would be if a photographic exhibition of New Amsterdam in earlier times were mounted, or some other kind of exercise recalling its past undertaken. After all, Guyana's oldest town and Berbice's one-time capital surely deserves no less.

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