The 'Emery Incident' of 1843
By Tota C. Mangar
March 13, 2003
During the early years of experiment and change following the termination of both slavery and apprenticeship in the nineteenth century, an incident of considerable significance occurred in the prestigious Combined Court - the financial arm of the government, in then Colonial British Guiana. This incident has come over the years to be known as the "Emery Incident."
At the time, Mr John Emery was a Financial Representative in the Combined Court. In this early post-emancipation period he was also part-proprietor of the Guiana Times, one of our earliest newspapers. As a Financial Representative at this important juncture of our country's history, Emery's political views often differed from those of his colleagues in the Combined Court and more so of the powerful planter interests in general.
At one of its regular sittings in May 1843, John Emery gave notice of a motion regarding the debate of the Governor's speech. The Governor at the time was Sir Henry Light. At a subsequent meeting of the Combined Court elective members representing the powerful plantocracy em-barked on a sort of 'smear campaign' on John Emery. They presented a petition in the Combined Court alleging that Emery's real name was John Imray and he was once outlawed from Scotland. More specifically, they alleged that he was "a fugitive from justice in the colony of British Guiana."
The petitioners further urged the Combined Court to get at the root of the matter in order to "effectually protect the interests of the constituency and at the same time vindicate the honour and dignity of the Combined Court.
Emery's complainants pressed him to respond to their charges. Of added significance was the fact that the allegations also publicly appeared in another newspaper of the day, The Freedman's Sentinel, much to the embarrassment and concern of Emery. His subsequent refusal to make any comment on the matter merely served to infuriate the petitioners to the extent that they sought Emery's expulsion from the Combined Court on the grounds of contempt and a breach of privileges.
This new development was one of great concern to many respected inhabitants of the colony. They promptly submitted a petition in which they expressed their fears about the "possibility of any member returned as Financial Representative by a majority of the constituency being expelled by a majority of the Combined Court to whom he had made himself personally obnoxious." They also strongly urged the Court not to sanction any expulsion order, but to proceed with normal business in the interest of the public.
The following day, a long and heated debate ensued in the Combined Court in relation to the Emery Expulsion motion. Emery for his part criticized his colleagues in the Court for "erecting itself as a tribunal to try the moral character of one of its members."
Governor Light himself was caught in the centre of this political and constitutional turmoil. He strongly declared that his legal advisers felt there was not a particle of evidence to show that Court member, Emery laboured under a sentence of outlawry, alleged to have been pronounced in his native Scotland. The administrator vetoed the expulsion motion on the ground that "the power of expelling from the Combined Court, a member of the College of Financial Representatives, is not a power which can be exercised by the Court owing to the very anomalous composition of the Court itself."
But, not surprisingly, that was far from the end of the matter. The Governor's action was met with stern protests from the planter representatives in the Combined Court. They even questioned his authority. What was of more serious concern was the fact that these powerful and arrogant members threatened to stop supplies in order to embarrass and pressurize Governor Light.
Their political blackmail was so grave that the administration was forced to avert a crisis by dissolving the Collage of Financial Representatives and to order fresh elections. This development was clearly a case where the Governor was bowing to planter-class pressure at this early stage of the post- Emancipation era.
The result of the Governor's latest action was inevitable. At the ensuing elections both Mr Emery and his ardent supporter Mr Noble, lost their seats at the hands of pro-planter candidates, McRae and Peter Rose respectively.
This Emery incident in the 1840's certainly attested to the enormous influence that was exercised by the planter class over the electoral process and the main governmental institutions of the day due to the extremely high and restrictive property qualifications for the franchise. Of greater significance, however, was the fact that the incident also revealed how vulnerable and powerless colonial administrators were at the hands of this prestigious and arrogant elite group. The latter body was to repeatedly demonstrate their immense power and arrogance in the numerous 'Civil List Disputes,' which characterized the nineteenth century much to the embarrassment of the Governor, the general public and the Colonial Office.