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This second and final instalment of this article on the beginnings of the fishing industry in Guyana will focus on developments in the nineteenth century. In the first instalment it was established that fishing was initiated by the Amerindians. It entered a second phase from the seventeenth century with the efforts of Dutch settlers who not only gave a stimulus to inland fisheries, but also were involved in offshore and, it seems, a measure of deep-sea fishing.
The occupation of Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice by the British in 1796 and the subsequent official cession of these two Dutch colonies to Britain in 1814 prompted the departure of most of the Dutch residents and ushered in a new and third phase in fishing activities in these territories. Fishing seems to have declined, for it was not a major preoccupation of the British, who were largely content to depend on imported dried, smoked and pickled fish. The recognised inland fisheries of the Dutch period of colonisation in the Canje and Upper Essequibo River, for example, lost their importance.
This situation of reduced importance of fishing did not change after the amalgamation of Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice into a single entity, British Guiana, in 1831. This is evident in the Blue Books, the official annual statistical records of the new entity, which attest that for a long time after the unification in 1831 there was nothing which could be truly called fisheries or a fishing industry.
For example, in the section headed "Manufactures, Mines and Fisheries" in the Blue Book of 1838, it is stated: "No fisheries whatever. There are two or three small boats kept by the individuals who supply the inhabitants with fish." These boats supplied a small quantity of fresh fish to the residents of the colony's two towns, New Amsterdam and, especially, Georgetown.
While this off-shore fishing continued on a small scale, there was increased fishing in the coastal creeks, canals and trenches after 1838 by the emancipated Blacks and East Indian indentured immigrants largely for their own subsistence. Furthermore, the gradual growth of the population of Georgetown and New Amsterdam eventually created a growing but still limited demand for fish which was supplied by the owners of a small number of vessels which operated off-shore and in the estuaries of the main rivers which flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Thus the Blue Book for 1868 states: "A few Boats are engaged in supplying the Town Markets with a very small quantity of fish of several descriptions." No record was kept of the quantity or species of fish supplied or of its monetary value.
The colony, however, still did not have any recognised or established inland or marine fisheries. Thus the Blue Books for 1854 and 1860 respectively state: "There are no Mines in Work and no fisheries" and "There are not any Fisheries established in this colony".
In these circumstances the dependence on salted, smoked and pickled fish, imported mainly for North America, continued. In 1868, for example, British Guiana imported about 82,000 hundredweight of dried fish, 19,200 hundredweight of pickled fish and 375 hundredweight of smoked fish - in short, over 100,000 hundredweight of fish costing nearly 70,000 pounds sterling. These fish imports constituted just over four per cent of the colony's total imports. They were surpassed in value by only four other imports, namely, flour, machinery, rice and manure.
This reliance on imported fish was strengthened by the decreased involvement of Amerindians in fishing, especially after 1884 when the beginning of the gold mining industry resulted in the opening up of the interior of the country. Amerindians there began increasingly to depend on salted fish which they purchased from pedlars from the coast. Furthermore, the small quantity of smoked fish which Amerindians previously had been sending or bringing to Georgetown for sale declined substantially by the 1890s.
By 1890 fishing in the colony was distinguished by a least five features. Firstly, it was restricted to its rivers, creeks, canals, estuaries and areas in the sea relatively near the coast. There was no deep-sea fishing.
Secondly, few efforts were being made to preserve fish. Fish curing in the colony was very limited partly because the supply could always be sold while fresh.
Thirdly, fish did not feature among the colony's exports, except a small quantity of the imported fish which was re-exported especially to Suriname, French Guiana and the British Caribbean islands.
Fourthly, apart from these re-exports, the only fish product exported was fish glue or isinglass, which was made from the sounds or air bladders of certain species of fish, especially gilbacker, caught off-shore. Since about 1860 a comparatively small quantity of this commodity was being exported each year to the United Kingdom. In 1890, for example, 4203 pounds of fish glue, valued at about 225 pounds sterling, were exported.
Fifthly, the off-shore fishing was dominated by Portuguese residents. The Portuguese had been brought to the colony as early as 1835 as agricultural labourers, but they eventually abandoned the plantations and became involved in a variety of business enterprises, including fishing.
By 1890 the colony's limited involvement in fisheries was being increasingly lamented by local officials and other residents who complained that when compared with the emphasis on agriculture and gold mining, fishing was being neglected. For example, the Blue Book for the late 1880s and early 1890s in the "General Remarks" on "Fisheries" repeated the following observation: "There is abundance of Fish in the waters of the Colony, but as an industrial pursuit fishing is comparatively neglected, nor has any attempt been made to meet the existing demand by fishing in the Rivers and Creeks of the Colony which teem with valuable fresh water species."
Similar remarks were made in 1893 by James Rodway, one of the colony's prominent residents, in the publication, Hand-Book of British Guiana. In the book's last chapter, entitled "Resources and Capabilities", Rodway stated: "The fisheries of the colony are also capable of development to a considerable extent. At present the supply is unequal to the demand, from the fact that very few persons are engaged in the industry, the result being that salt cod is imported in immense quantities. Really good fish of a great many kinds are, however, plentiful both on the coast and in the rivers."
Shortly afterwards, however, a significant development took place. In 1894 deep-sea fishing, abandoned since the departure of the Dutch settlers early in that century, was started on a small scale. Thus the Blue Book for 1894-1895 reported: "Deep sea fishing has been established during the year, and the market is well-supplied with Grouper, Dolphin, Red Snapper, etc."
The beginning of sustained deep-sea fishing in 1894 was the first of several important developments which played a major role in expanding the fishing industry, enhancing its value, and causing fishing eventually to become a significant feature in the economic life of the country.