Old problems Editorial
Stabroek News
October 19, 2001

"Demerara land of trenches,
Giving out most awful stenches.
Land of every biting beast
Making human flesh its feast..."

wrote one exasperated civil servant in the century before the last. At its inception, Guyana's capital had a fairly unsavoury reputation, although that was to change during the course of the nineteenth century. Ernst Rodschied, a German doctor who worked on Tiger Island and is perhaps the first man in this country to have grasped the importance of clean water to public health, visited Georgetown in the 1790s. He was not impressed. He reported seeing approximately 100 houses, mostly of shingle-covered wood roofed with troolie. The whole place, he concluded, was really just like a very bad European village. It has to be borne in mind that most European villages of that era were not noted for their high standards of comfort or sanitation.

A British visitor around the same period described Stabroek houses painted in "tawdry colours," and drains which were little better than open sewers. In the dry season, we are told, the stench was intolerable. Other sources record how rubbish was simply thrown in the river, although by the beginning of the nineteenth century periodic clean-up campaigns were coming into evidence - a phenomenon which it seems is still with us. In 1803, for example, the powers-that-be announced that every lot owner had fourteen days in which to clear the "road, street, dam or path as is adjoining his lot... of dung or dirt."

During the appointed two weeks, the "dung" or "dirt" was to be transported by the lot-owner to a punt equipped with a crane lying in the river, which would then dispose of it in deep water. Anyone found with "dirt or filth" in the vicinity of his home at the end of the designated fortnight, was subject to a fine of 25 guilders - a fairly hefty sum for its time.

In between the clean-up campaigns, one presumes, the residents continued undisturbed in their insanitary ways. In 1803, of course, there was no plastic and no tin cans, so most of the litter, at least, would have been bio-degradable.

If today the City Council complains about the electricity company's lack of concern about street lights, that was one department to which the early Georgetown authorities paid some attention. The streets were lit at night by oil lanterns suspended from posts, and in 1791, an official lamplighter was appointed for Stabroek. Where clean water was concerned, however, it was every man for himself.

All residents had their own rainwater cisterns, which provided adequate supplies in the wet season, but which were of little help in the dry. It was not uncommon in the long dry season to have to go upriver to collect fresh water from the creeks.

During the course of the nineteenth century various experiments were tried to bring water into the city, but it was not until the advent of William Russell, whose bust now stands in the City Hall compound, that the problem was finally solved.

Certainly the early inhabitants of Georgetown would be familiar with the state of some of our roads. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries these were mostly impassable in the rainy season, and in the dry they were hazardous to traverse on account of their deep carriage ruts. One of the few exceptions was Brickdam, which had a bricked thoroughfare down its centre, and which was widened in 1804. The local authorities guarded this solitary stretch of brick paving jealously. Early regulations prohibited citizens from rolling barrels down it, or riding horses along it. Disgruntled officers were obliged to dismount from their chargers and lead them down the walkway; it was, perhaps, Georgetown's first pedestrian zone.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Guyana's capital was to acquire a reputation for breeziness, grace and greenery. In the twentieth century when sewage disposal problems were finally tackled in a comprehensive way, and the mosquito population was reduced by the use of DDT, it also became known as a remarkably clean, healthy and sanitary tropical city.

Somewhere along the line we seem to have regressed again, with even the City Council conceding (according to Mr Cecil Griffith's City Council Roundup, October 15) that at present the capital "lacks proper drainage, proper roads, a complete and integrated sewerage system, as well as a complete integrated and efficient potable water supply system." If the problems of Georgetown were not beyond solution for the nineteenth and early twentieth century authorities, surely in these modern times they are not beyond our capabilities to solve.