Background to 1891 constitutional reforms in Colonial British Guiana
By Tota C. Mangar
December 5, 2002
In 1882 Sir Henry Turner Irving assumed office as Governor of the colony of British Guiana and he quickly established himself as both pro-reform and a strong administrator. Of him Alan Adamson wrote "...he did not allow himself to become an instrument in the hands of the planting interest." This observation was emphatically brought out by The Echo newspaper when it declared that Irving was "the very last man in the world to be used as a kind of human putty to be pinched and squeezed into such shapes as the Court desired."
The Governor had his first taste of planter-class political power in the colony when the elective members unanimously rejected another attempt for the Civil List to be made permanent. Not long after, he was to clash with the unofficial Combined Court on the issue of maintenance of roads running through estates. Electives wanted the government to assume responsibility for all road maintenance, or alternatively, the imposition of a special tax on those lands not under sugar cultivation. Such demands demonstrated the narrow, selfish motives of the electives. The Governor, on the other hand, was adamant that the plantocracy should assume the responsibility of road maintenance in estate areas. He also saw the imposition of a special tax on villages as an unreasonable step. On this matter he complained "...it is not surprising that this proposed appropriation...should be opposed by a Legislative body mainly composed of Sugar Planters" and he warned of the changing circumstances of the colony with a growing public opinion which could not be ignored by a Conservative Court. In reality, the administrator was in a subtle manner sounding a warning to the plantocracy for its insensitivity and intransigence.
From the mid 1880's, a number of developments took place in the colony and these played a significant role in both reviving reform proposals and hastening actual reforms of the existing constitution. Of considerable interest was the fact that Henry Turner Irving was associated with, or was directly involved in, many of these developments.
Through the active role of Governor Irving, the colony's Medical Department took over from the Immigration Department the administration of estate hospitals in 1886. This action was greatly resented by the then Immigration Agent-General, Mr. Alexander, who became increasingly hostile to the Medical Department and to the Governor. On this issue Irving commented: "He has disputed my authority and stigmatized its exercise as illegal. By the adoption of a dictatorial, contentious and irritating tone in his official correspondence, he has created friction, and having done so he has represented it as the result of my illegal action."
It is reasonable to assume that it was Alexander's feeling that by initiating such a change, the Governor was interfering with the administration of Immigration matters. On the other hand, the Governor was acting responsibly since as the person at the helm of the colony's affairs he was desirous of ensuring a more efficient system of protecting the health of immigrants.
The situation was further aggravated when the colony's Medical Inspector presented his 1886 report in which he exposed the insanitary conditions on estates, the poor state of estate hospitals and the excessive mortality rate of immigrants among other depressing issues. This report quite naturally was the spark that ignited a major constitutional controversy. Planters responded with angry criticism and the elective members or the Court of Policy urged Irving to withdraw the report on the grounds that it was slanderous and unfounded. But as he had repeatedly shown in the past, the Governor was not prepared to compromise his position. It was clear that he felt the report was both factual and informative in revealing the shortcomings in the system. Its only problem was that some of its contents were both irritating and embarrassing to the Immigration Agent- General and, more so, the powerful plantocracy.
On this issue Irving remained firm in his refusal to withdraw the report. And in a deliberate display of power, the electives promptly decided to retire as a body from the Court after declaring. "If we enter upon Public business we stultify ourselves." Once again the callousness of planter-representatives was revealed in no uncertain manner. Inspite of the stern and vindictive action of the electives in withdrawing themselves from the Court, the administrator remained steadfast.
It is interesting to note that business could not be entertained unless at least one elective member was present. Further, the Governor was not empowered to dissolve the Court of Policy at any time. This was an inherent weakness in the political system since it meant that once electives continued with their political blackmail, there would be a standstill in both Courts as no business could be carried out.
The Governor persisted in his refusal to withdraw the report in spite of personal attacks from the plantocracy. At the same time the electives continued with their disassociation from government and for days a political deadlock gripped colonial British Guiana as the main governmental institutions could not function. This stalemate prompted Irving and others to renew their pleas for constitutional reforms. As to the predicament, the Governor wrote:
"It has long been obvious that some change in the existing constitution of the Colony is inevitable and these recent occurrences cannot fail to bring home to the minds of all persons interested in the Colony that the time had come when such a change must be effected. A constitution, in which one interest is only represented...is politically indefensible and necessarily breaks down the moment the elective section come in collision with the Govern-ment, acting on behalf of the represented class. This is what has occurred now, has occurred in the past and will occur with growing frequency in the future as other interests than those of the sugar planter increase in importance. I do not think that any convincing illustration of the necessity for such reform could be afforded than by the action of the elective members of the Court of Policy in refusing to do business on personal grounds, arising our of a matter in which none but themselves and the class to which they belong, have any interest or concern."
On the question of the 1886 Medical report and the deliberate interruption of the Courts an editorial in The Echo newspaper raised two pertinent questions, namely:-
(a) Would the Governor infringe on his power should he withdraw the report?
(b) Is it within the power of the electives to demand its withdrawal?
The paper did not attempt to answer these questions. Rather, it argued that whatever readers came up with, one thing was certain and that was the constitution must be reformed to ensure the elimination of such public scandal.
As the Colony's Medical Inspector, Dr Williams was expected to furnish a report even if it meant divulging information related to malpractices within the immigration system. Had Irving ordered the withdrawal of the document he would have been guilty of questioning the integrity and undermining the confidence of a leading public official. On the other hand the officials were presumptuous to demand a withdrawal mainly because the negligence and inefficiency of the plantocracy were uncovered.
The Colonial Officer was in general agreement with the Governor on the Medical Report issue. It also denounced the action taken by the electives and urged that body to end their boycott. In the end the electives resumed normal business and both Courts continued with their deliberations.
In any event, this latest incident propelled the Governor to continue making stirring pleas for reforms of the constitution. To this end he even submitted proposals including the abolition of the College of Keizers, the election of unofficial members of the Court directly by the respective constituencies, moderate improvements in the franchise and the Governor's right to dissolve either of the Courts. The administrator's calls were complemented by a petition of the British Guiana Reform Club. The Club was formed in June 1887 and it was popular among merchants and the coloured class. It held several public meetings throughout the colony urging the people to undertake a more lively interest in political affairs and calling for a more representative form of government. Henry Will credits this body with making the first real attempt at agitating the rural population within reach of the city of Georgetown.
Henry Irving's firm stand on the Medical Inspector Report had seemingly shaken the unofficials. His uncomprising attitude in the Court of Policy and the Combined Court and his systematic attack on the plantocracy did much to expose their narrow class interests to the Colonial Office. It is little wonder that the Daily Chronicle of the time remarked "there are no greater outlaws than the planters and Governor Irving is the right person to govern such a colony."
The electives in the Combined Court were to be in the limelight only days after Henry Irving's term in office came to an end. The Combined Court was at the time deliberating the 1888 Estimates. Firstly the Colonial Civil Engineer, Mr Hutchens had his annual salary slashed from 1,000 to 600 pounds sterling. Hutchens was disliked by the unofficials who felt the Public Works Department was indulging in much extravagant public finance. Such an attitude was exacerbated by Irving's village policy which necessitated the channelling of funds for developmental works. Through it, he not only encouraged the cultivation of crops other than sugar by the peasant proprietory, but he also ensured Government assumed responsibility for drainage and irrigation, sea defences and road construction and maintenance in the villages much to the consternation of the planter class.
As if the reduction to Hutchens' salary was not enough, the electives in a dramatic move unashamedly reduced the Medical Inspector's annual income to the most ridiculous sum of one cent. This latter action was a clear act of vengeance on the part of the planter class against Williams, who had earlier submitted the 'controversial' report. Even at this late stage of Irving's administration, the planter representatives were reminding him who had real power.
These issues caused Irving to question whether the Court had the right to reduce or abolish salaries of public officers. Interestingly enough, the Secretary of State disclosed that under the present laws the Court had the power to reduce or withhold the salaries. This interpretation again highlighted a major defect in the constitution and the extensive power enjoyed by those who represented the plantocracy at that juncture of our country's history. Such disdainful actions on the part of electives were of great concern to the Colonial Office. As a follow up, the new Secretary of State, Lord Knutsford expressed the need for the Combined Court to modify the Civil List by making the salaries of the principal Department Heads independent of its annual vote. He also admitted that the Civil List Ordinance was closely related to constitutional reforms which were under serious consideration.
It was obvious that by the time Governor Irving retired from the colony constitutional reforms were well on the way.