Writers of history in the 19th century
By Arlene Munro
December 19, 2002
After the British gained control of the colonies of Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice in 1796, which were unified in 1831 to become British Guiana, several British expatriates came there to work in various capacities. Among these were George Pinckard, Thomas Staunton St. Clair, Henry Bolingbroke, Robert Schomburgk, Rev. Edwin Wallbridge, and Rev. Henry V. P. Bronkhurst. These men were professionals and wrote about their journeys and experiences in Guiana. Their books are a valuable source of information on the social and economic life of the colonies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were written from a Eurocentric perspective. At that point of history, books were written by Europeans whose social position and financial resources enabled them to publish books. The coloured masses were still labouring in the canefields.
George Pinckard was born in 1768 in Northamptonshire and studied medicine in London, then at Edinburgh and Leyden. He graduated in 1792. He became a Licentiate of the College of Physicians of London in September 1794. In October 1795 he was appointed a doctor to the British forces and sailed for the West Indies with Sir Ralph Abercromby. Pinckard arrived in Demerara on April 21, 1796. He resided in Demerara and Berbice until May 1797 and wrote several letters which became the foundation of his book, Letters from Guiana. He returned to England in 1797, visiting Martinique, Jamaica and St. Domingue on his homeward journey.
The result of his travels in the West Indies was the publication of a book entitled Notes on the West Indies in 1806. In 1798 he served as a physician during the rebellion in Ireland. Consequently, he was appointed Deputy-General of Hospitals. He also served in the Duke of York's expedition to the Helder in Holland.
Subsequently, he founded the Bloomsbury Dispensary in London. He died on May 15, 1835. His book, Letters from Guiana, is a valuable source of historical information on Guiana at the end of the eighteenth century.
Sir Robert Schomburgk was born in Prussian Saxony on June 5, 1804. He travelled to the United States in 1829, then to Anegada in the British Virgin Islands in 1830. He took the opportunity to survey the islands and submitted a report to the Royal Geographical Society in London. The Geographical Society was so impressed by the report that it commissioned Robert Schomburgk to explore British Guiana. In 1841 he surveyed the colony and fixed the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela. This boundary, which was known as the 'Schomburgk Line', was recognized from 1841 to 1895. In 1840 he published, in London, A Description of British Guiana. He wrote several articles for the Royal Geographical Society. After completing his work, he returned to England where he was knighted in 1844. He was appointed British Consul to Santo Domingo in 1848 and to Bangkok in 1857. He died in Berlin in 1865 after retiring from public service the previous year.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Staunton St. Clair was another expatriate who wrote a book about British Guiana. The date of his birth is unknown, but it appears that he was born in the penultimate decade of the eighteenth century. He studied in Edinburgh. His father arranged for him to be given an ensign's commission in a force, which was under the command of the Duke of Kent.
In 1805 Thomas Staunton St. Clair joined the 1st battalion which was appointed for service in Guiana. He arrived in Demerara on 3rd January 1806. He left Guiana on 9th June 1808 and returned to Britain. In 1809 he and his expedition went to Walcheren. Subsequently, he served under Wellington in Portugal, Spain and France.
He also worked in Gibraltar and Ireland. His book on Guiana was written several years after his departure from this country. It is entitled A Soldier's Sojourn in British Guiana and was published in 1834. It is a source of valuable information on the forts of Guiana.
Henry Bolingbroke was another expatriate who wrote a book about this country. It is entitled A Voyage to Demerary and was published in 1807. His book gives a description of the town of Stabroek, the African slave trade and the Amerindians. There is a paucity of information on Henry Bolingbroke. He was born in 1785 and came to Demerara to work as a Deputy Vendue-Master in January 1799. He returned to his country in 1806. He served as the Deputy Vendue Master in Suriname between 1807-1813 and died in 1855 in Norwich, England.
Rev. Edwin Angel Wallbridge was born on the Isle of Wight. He was ordained a Congregational Minister before he was assigned to work in British Guiana in 1842. The Smith Congregational Church was constructed under his supervision as a memorial to Rev. John Smith who, twenty years earlier, was wrongly condemned to death for inciting the 1823 slave insurrection. Rev. Smith died in prison as the result of a serious illness.
Rev. Wallbridge wrote a book about this injustice entitled Smith, the Demerara Martyr. He was also the editor of a periodical entitled The Monthly Messenger. He did not support Church Establishment nor the policy of immigration. He wrote several articles in which he condemned them. He participated in activities sponsored by the Reading Room and supported the annual colonial exhibitions. He died in 1876.
Rev Henry Valentine Peter Bronkhurst was another expatriate who served in this country and published books about British Guiana. He was a Wesleyan minister of religion. He was born in 1836 to a Dutch father and an Indian mother and received his early education in Ceylon. On becoming a minister, he was assigned to work among the East Indians in British Guiana by the United Kingdom Wesleyan Missionary Society. He arrived in the colony in 1860 to replace another missionary who had died. At first he served as a lay-teacher and was subsequently ordained in British Guiana. His knowledge of Indian languages enabled him to serve as a Tamil interpreter and to teach both English and Tamil to children at a school in Lacytown in Georgetown. Rev. Bronkhurst's knowledge of Sanskrit, Syriac, and Hebrew was gained while he was resident in India and Palestine. In 1881 he published a book entitled The Origin of the Guiana Indians. The Colony of British Guiana and its Labouring Population, the most valuable of his historical writings, was published in 1883. A Descriptive and Historical Geography of British Guiana and the West Indies was published in 1890. Rev. Bronkhurst died in British Guiana on the 17th July 1895.
Many expatriates came to British Guiana to work during the nineteenth century and wrote books about their experiences in the colony. At that time the majority of the masses did not have the social position nor the finances to publish books of their own. Some of them were not literate in the English language. Consequently, the majority of the books which were published, were the writings of European expatriates. These books are a valuable secondary source of historical information on British Guiana for students of history and all persons who are interested in Guyana's colonial past.