A sense of the past

Stabroek News
August 17, 2001

Georgetown is of relatively recent establishment as cities go, although that does not mean it does not have an interesting history. Founded by the British in 1781, the first moves to make that decision meaningful were taken by the French the following year. The Dutch returned to Demerara in 1784, and while they had been toying at an earlier stage with the notion of founding a new capital further upriver on the East Bank, faced with a fait accompli, they acquiesced in the choice of location fixed by their predecessors.

But for those Georgetown residents descended from the very first inhabitants, what, you might ask, remains today that their ancestors would recognize? The first thing is the city's unique layout. The capital was initially carved out of the frontlands of several plantations and its grid-like pattern reflects the limits imposed by estate boundaries and drainage systems. Stand today in Company Path, for instance, and you will be standing in an area once owned by the Dutch West India Company, separating two plantations. Under the regulations of the eighteenth century, all estates were parted from their neighbour by a width of land called the Company Path. Take a stroll down Regent street, to give another example, and you will be following in the footsteps of those forebears who walked down the middle walk of Plantation Vlissengen.

But is there any structure from the 1780s or 1790s which a returning ancestor might identify? While they would not recognize Brickdam, it is the same street which the French first laid out after their arrival here. As is well known, after the Dutch returned, the wife of Governor L'Espinasse complained to her husband about the mud in the street soiling the hems of her skirts. Presumably after she had nagged him sufficiently, he caved in and bricked the central portion of the roadway. It is the British who christened it the bricked dam, or Brickdam.

As for actual buildings from that period, there is possibly only one which has lasted, and even that was not within the Stabroek town boundaries of the time. It is the old house opposite Charlestown Government Secondary School which may have been one of the estate houses for Plantation Le Repentir, once owned by Pierre Louis de Saffon. Tradition has it that de Saffon fled to Demerara after he killed his brother in a duel in France over a woman. Ever remorseful, he named his three estates La Penitence, Le Repentir and Le Regret. Some distance away, in the churchyard of the Chinese Church a monument stands marking his grave. The monument was not erected until 1845 - he died in 1784 - but the yard may have been the burial ground of his plantation.

The Fort Groyne aside which dates possibly from the 1790s and represents the only surviving relic from Fort William Frederick, the next oldest structure in Georgetown is St Andrew's Kirk. Begun in 1811, it was opened in 1818, and despite a change of steeple and one or two other modifications it would still be recognizable to an ancestor of the period. If nothing else, its survival for nearly two hundred years demonstrates that with proper maintenance it is possible to preserve wooden buildings in a tropical environment.

Once one comes to the second half of the nineteenth century, of course, there are still a number of buildings around of historical and aesthetic interest.

The point is that preserving the material heritage of a city gives the inhabitants a greater sense of belonging, and encourages a pride in the craftsmanship and imagination of the early contractors, builders and, at a later period, architects. An awareness of the history of a city puts its residents in touch with those who lived there in the past, thereby imparting a feeling of continuity and tradition.

The character of Georgetown and its building traditions are fast being destroyed. Eccentric structures are appearing everywhere, and the handiwork of myriad talented early contractors is being reduced to rubble. We need to acquire a greater sensitivity to the city's past and its architectural traditions. If we don't, the capital will lose every unique quality it once had, thereby destroying that which would give the residents pride and, incidentally, would also attract the tourists.