January 19, 2001
Georgetown's oldest market, by far, is Stabroek. The nineteenth century historian, James Rodway, writes that the first reference to Stabroek Market was in 1792, when the Court of Policy gave permission for Blacks to sell plantains there on Sundays, but would not allow them to sell dry goods. At that time the market was sited on the middle dam, he says, near the present Demico House or St Andrew's Kirk.
While this may be the first reference to official sanction being given to a market, it is possible that both Africans and Amerindians had been selling around there unofficially anywhere from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. Before the capital was conceived in 1781, the Dutch had a Brandwagt, or signal station, if not on the actual site of the present market, then perhaps as Rodway suggests, around where the Magistrate's court now stands. In a colony which had no towns or villages, the soldiers of the Brandwagt would have represented important potential customers for the slaves from the plantations in the area.
In addition, we know from an Essequibo ordinance of 1765 that both Africans and Amerindians were in the habit of trading with the crews of boats coming from outside, and vessels entering the Demerara river would almost certainly have been required to stop at the Brandwagt for clearance before proceeding upstream. They too, might have attracted the attention of those slaves in the vicinity who were of an entrepreneurial bent. After all, it is not too difficult to imagine that after a long sea journey living on a diet of sometimes maggot-ridden salt beef and mouldy hardtack (ship's biscuit), the sailors would have been only too anxious to purchase fresh produce, eggs and a chicken or two.
It might be noted in passing, that the Essequibo Africans and Amerindians, at least, were in the habit of selling what was termed "Colony produce" to the sailors, which was listed as syrup, sugar, cotton, cacao and anatto. It was these products which both groups were banned from trading with the sailors in 1765, for reasons which were only too obvious. (Anatto was produced only by the Amerindians, and constituted an important export for a time.)
Where the first official market of 1792 was concerned, it was soon removed on account, says Rodway, of its proximity to the Court House, where religious services were held on Sundays. It was resited in 1793 to the area where the present Smith Church stands, and then moved again. However, these new locations were not a success, being too inconvenient for all concerned, and the authorities finally relented, and allowed the market to return to its old spot. James Rodway describes the early market as constituting a few sheds - perhaps not unlike some of the vendors' structures of today. The first covered market dated from 1842, when the Town Council of the time raised a loan of $50,000 for its construction. It was close to, or on the site of the present Stabroek Market, and according to the author of The Story of Georgetown, while described as the best market in the West Indies, was nevertheless a rowdy sort of place.
The present market, which is something of a landmark, was erected by an American engineer called McKay in 1881. The eye-catching iron structure plus the river wall and foundations cost in all what would nowadays be the very modest sum of $200,000. The square in front of Stabroek was not always as untidy as it is now, although there was a time when 'donkey city,' as it was called, was situated there. However, at its best, the square was graced by a small garden.
And now the Mayor and his Council are considering a privately generated proposal for the development of the Stabroek Market area, and its conversion to a modern shopping facility. No problem with that, provided that the plan includes not just the retention of the historical sites of the market itself and Demico House, but architecturally speaking, makes them the centrepiece of the plan. Their impact should not be diluted by juxtaposing them with massive concrete structures, whose aesthetic appeal is in doubt. There must be some attempt at architectural harmony. It has been reported that the proposal speaks of the tourism potential of the area. True enough. But tourism potential in cities rests always on their historical offerings, and when considering the plan the Mayor and his Council should bear that in mind. It would be a pity to hide the unique character of Stabroek Market in a concrete forest.
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