Local Government experiment in Colonial British Guiana By Tota C. Mangar
Stabroek News
August 8, 2002

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Our country Guyana, the former British Guiana, has a long history of local government. Prior to 1838, the year when the apprenticeship was terminated and full freedom attained, the capital city Georgetown had some aspect of Local Government. For example, Ordinance Number 2 of 1837 created the Mayor and Town Council of Georgetown, which in a way was an emulation of the English Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

In June, 1837 a Mayor’s Court was established and it was presided over by the Mayor and two of his councillors and with summary jurisdiction that embraced the Town.

Following emancipation and the termination of the apprenticeship system there was a marked exodus of freed slaves from the plantations.

This was really the beginning of the village movement as the ex-slaves who left the plantations looked to the land and agriculture for their very survival. A number of reasons could be advanced for this development. For decades the plantation had stigmatised degradation, demoralisation and dehumanisation of the victims and with full freedom they wanted to rid themselves of planter economic, social, cultural and political domination. They also wanted to enjoy the pleasure of ownership and to establish an economic base for themselves through the cultivation of cash crops. In short, the exodus was a reaction to plantation economy, to monocrop dependence and to rigid metropolitan control.

Subsequently, freed slaves promptly bought out abandoned coffee and sugar estates from their original owners. The first decade after apprenticeship witnessed a steady stream of labourers from the estates to the newly created villages.

With the emergence of the communal and proprietary villages in post-emancipation nineteenth century Guyana, villagers had to address several problems such as water control in the form of sea defences, drainage and irrigation and also road repairs and bridges. There was periodic flooding and such was the situation that an undrained village at the time was aptly described as “an inhabited swamp.”

During the initial stage of the village movement Governor Henry Light adopted a laissez-faire approach. This seemingly negative attitude could be seen as giving tacit support to the plantocracy in thwarting the efforts of villagers.

On the other hand, the then administrator might have adopted such a cautious attitude since he was at that point in time arousing planters’ indignation over constitutional and other matters.

The early village movement came under a more or less co-operative management system. In other words, a committee of management was elected in each village under a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman, a Treasurer, a Secretary and not less than seven committee members. These were the acknowledged village leaders who exercised authority that flowed from voluntary mutual agreement, with villagers pledging to carry out vital works to ensure the successful operation of the village. Local Government at this early stage was at best a community in action and this system was easily implemented in the communal villagers. To some extent it was adopted in the proprietary ones as well.

Village administration under the village management committees or councils initially worked well but numerous problems were to serve as hindrances to the system. Foremost among them was planter class hostility. Planters feared that the success of the villagers would eventually undermine their continued economic, social, cultural and political dominance. It was not surprising that villagers were periodically and deliberately flooded out by adjoining estates and this invariably meant destruction to crops. Planters also helped to create friction within the committees to management through their strong influence in the local legislature on the question of issuance of title deeds.

This in itself led to grave uncertainty among villagers and was a stumbling block to an effective system of village administration. Villagers themselves and their village councils were often starved of capital for investment and development works. As a result there was serious deterioration in the areas of sea defences, polders, irrigation and drainage canals and roads, bridges and dams and general sanitation.

Despite these major setbacks in the nineteenth century some degree of local autonomy was able to survive as the people showed an interest in wanting to govern themselves.

The birth of the local government in Guyana as a formal institution is linked to the attempts by the colonial administration to establish its control over village affairs. For example, as early as 1845 an ordinance was passed to create a Board of Commissioners for public roads, and bridges. Governor Henry Light’s successor, Henry Barkly, also gave some measure of encouragement to villagers. He addressed the question of village administration and the sensitive issue of land titles but his efforts in these areas were impeded by the strong influence of the plantocracy.

In 1850 a Central Board of Health was created for both Essequibo and Demerara and a separate one for Berbice. Two years later a single board of Health for drainage and sanitation purposes was established. It had supervision over local Boards of Health.

Governor Philip Wodehouse went further with the implementation of his village Management Ordinance of 1856. This Ordinance had a three-fold aim namely:-

1. Acting as a further check on the formation of new communal villages by restricting communal purchase to a maximum of twenty persons.

2. Affording an easier system of partitioning village councils with identical structure.

3. Seeking to establish a uniform system by providing village councils with an identical structure.

Allan Young, author of The Approaches to Local Government in British Guiana argued that this step by Philip Wodehouse was the first active effort in the direction of grappling with village problems. It was a policy in decentralisation: it empowered the newly created villages to maintain drainage, public roads and general village works: it gave the respective district registrar the right to approve village estimates; and generally villagers had control over village matters. But unfortunately, this policy had immediate setbacks.

The Angel Gabriel Riots of 1856 and the subsequent imposition of the very unpopular head registration tax had a negative impact on the village management schemes. In spite of this state of affairs it was the view of Allan Young that the new system worked “tolerably well” with those villages which came under its umbrella.

In 1859 under Francis Hincks as administrator of the colony, another ordinance was passed to establish general administration for drainage and sanitation. Boards of Improvement Commissioners were established for each village in 1862. This was followed with the enactment of the 1866 Village Ordinance which placed village affairs under a Central Board of Health. This body had powers to create new villagers and to borrow funds on their behalf.

Admirable as they may seem, these changes did very little to alleviate major village problems. In any event they laid the basis of local government in Guyana.

As a consequence of the numerous problems faced by villagers in the second half of the nineteenth century they attempted to highlight their concerns from time to time. For example, they sent petitions to respective Governors and both the Court of Policy and the Combined Court in relation to their plight. Yet the powerful plantocracy adopted a negative attitude to village problems. It was their view that village programmes should only be implemented on the basis of whatever village rates were realised. Their dominance in the political institutions of the day resulted in villagers experiencing great difficulty in securing Government loans.

The late Walter Rodney in his major work History of the Guyanese Working People 1881 - 1905 notes that whatever loans were forthcoming were grossly inadequate and were limited to only a handful of villages. Such an observation was nothing but the truth in the immediate post-emancipation decades of the nineteenth century as far as the village movement is concerned.

As the years progressed there were other developments. Governor John Scott implemented his 1873 village Ordinance which related primarily to the communal villages and in 1878 his successor, Governor Charles Kortright created a new Central Board of Health along with a number of sanitation districts. But by 1880, even this system had proven to be largely ineffective.

Between the years 1882 and 1887 the colony was under the administration of Henry Turner Irving and it was his view that the existing system of village management was unsuitable. He recognised the main areas of defect as being inadequate empoldering and sea defences, a lack of maintenance of drainage and irrigation trenches, the poor state of roads, dams and bridges and the insanitary conditions and depressed state of affairs of the villages.

Irving embarked on a new village management scheme and he took it upon himself to struggle at the highest form on behalf of village communities. He had to contend with an intolerant and even hostile plantocracy and also with severe financial restrictions. In spite of these setbacks he fought relentlessly to provide some of the basic amenities of life for the labouring population. As an incessant critic of the plantocracy for its selfish attitude towards village development, the Governor helped to undermine the power base of that considerably influential group.

Among the villages which benefited were Bagotville, Stanleytown, Sisters and Good Intent on the West Bank of Demerara, Den Amstel and Fellowship on the West Coast of Demerara and Queenstown on the Essequibo Coast. Drainage and irrigation and sanitation were also improved in a number of East Coast Demerara villages. Indeed, Rodney tells of the plight of Plaisance residents for a number of years until Governor Irving "took the bull by the horns and had the main drainage canals dug out and machinery connected, with the drainage engines put into repairs."

Local government was enhanced through the implementation of Governor Gormanston's village ordinance in 1892. Under this system, a single authority, the Central Board of Health, was responsible for the supervision of village administration instead of the Public Works Department as spelt out in the 1883 Village Management Ordinance. Of greater significance, it meant that village councils were given the right to vote and raise taxes, appoint village officers, construct village developmental works and all village property previously vested in central authority was revested in village councils. This was certainly a step in decentralisation.

In relation to the new system of local government the Inspector of Villages in his 1897 annual report declared: "With one exception I think the village councils are doing their work thoroughly and well, greater confidence exists between Councillors and the Proprietors than was the case of two years ago. The people are gradually acquiring habits of self-reliance and learning the lesson of self-government. In most of the villagers there is a marked improvement in the condition of the streets and drainage.

The year 1902 could be considered a turning point in the working of Local Government. It marked the beginning of a regular annual assembly of village Chairmen. This first conference of village chairmen was held at Den Amstel on the West Coast of Demerara. By this time there were 214 villages in Guyana of which 96 were in Berbice, 66 in Demerara and 52 in Essequibo, all with a total village population of 86,935.

In 1907 the Local Government Board of British Guiana was formed with the passage of the Local Government Ordinance. It was a Board appointed by Central Government and comprised of eight members. The Board had powers of supervision in matters relating to sanitation and other matters of Local Government. It appointed Village Chairman while other members were either appointed or elected.

Under the 1907 Local Government Ordinance the whole country of the then British Guiana was divided into four major categories:-

(a) The Urban Sanitation Districts of Georgetown and New Amsterdam.

(b) The Village Districts.

(c) The Country Districts or Country Sanitation Districts.

(d) The Rural Sanitary Districts. These included all plantations or estates not forming part of an urban, village or country district.

In 1924, under Governor Graeme Thomas, a village Commission was appointed to inquire and report as to whether existing methods of village administration could be improved. Among the main recommendations of this Commission were the need for an efficient control of Public Health and Sanitation and that each Local Authority be given a greater measure of autonomous Government. It was not surprising therefore that in 1935 an ordinance was passed paving the way for improved methods of village elections.

In 1945 a new Local Government Ordinance was enacted after in-depth consultation with the Local Authorities. Such was the state of affairs in relation to Local Government at the time that Dr L.C. Hill reported, "British Guiana is a solitary example in the West Indies of a Colony which passed in 1945 something in the nature of a vital system of Local Government."

According to him its success had probably been due to two causes:

(a) contact between village councils and Central Government through an active Local Government Department and its Local Commissioners, and

(b) the representative nature of local authorities and their relationship with government, especially in the areas of agreement and persuasion.

Clearly Local Government had come a long way at this crucial juncture of our country's history which was soon to experience growing political consciousness among the masses.