The origins of the fishing industry in Guyana History this week
By Winston McGowan
Stabroek News
January 22, 2004

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One important development in the economic life of Guyana during the past fifty years has been the increased utilisation of its riverain and marine resources. Fish and prawns have become a significant addition to the country's exports and a valuable source of foreign exchange. Fishing also provides a means of livelihood for a growing number of Guyanese, while from a nutritional standpoint, fish is a major source of protein.

The development of a thriving fishing industry in the "land of many waters" may be considered by many as "inevitable", but this has not been the case historically. Difficulties have been encountered in the various phases of the development of the industry.

The beginning of a fishing industry in the area that constitutes the Republic of Guyana has to be attributed to the first Guyanese, the ancestors of the current Amerindian population. From time immemorial the Amerindians depended on fish as a vital part of their diet to supplement the food supplies which they obtained from hunting, gathering and, later, agriculture.

The early Amerindians devised a variety of methods to enable them to exploit the abundance of fish which could be found in the numerous rivers and creeks of the territory. Their expertise in fishing impressed European settlers in Essequibo and Berbice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when they were employing three main methods to catch fish.

Firstly, they depended considerably on the use of the hook and line, especially in the dry season in deeper waters. Secondly, in some circumstances they employed a method which modern fishermen would consider strange - namely, the use of poison. At certain times of the year they blocked up the creeks and streams and put poison in the water, causing the fish to rise and float insensibly on the surface, where they were taken easily.

The third main Amerin-dian method of catching fish particularly impressed Eur-opean eyewitnesses, who were amazed by their dexterity. The Amerindians shot fish with bows and arrows, especially as the fish sought food near the banks of rivers and creeks. This occurred particularly in the rainy season, when seeds and fruits fell into the water from trees on the banks and the fish crowded to the banks to feed on them.

Some Amerindians caught only enough fish for their own subsistence. Others, however, deliberately sought to secure a surplus, which they smoked or salted to exchange with other Amerindians or Europeans for foodstuff and other necessities. They also sold fresh fish to Europeans who pickled it, receiving in return articles of European manufacture such as axes and knives.

Among the Amerindian groups, the Warraus in particular had a reputation for being expert fishermen, who possessed a remarkable aim with the bow and arrow. In the eighteenth century they could be found mainly on the coastlands, particularly in the area between the Barima and Pomeroon Rivers and their tributaries. They had a diet in which fish and crabs featured prominently.

Some of Guyana's earliest fisheries developed in areas, such as the Moruka region, dominated by the Warraus. Early descriptions of these Amerindians reflect the importance of fishing in their lives. For example, in the 1670s Adriaan van Berkel, a Dutch official, observed that the Warraus in the Berbice River "do not bother with planting or reaping and gain their livelihood just by fishing and hunting for the Europeans."

The coming of Dutch settlers from the Netherlands to Essequibo and Berbice in the early decades of the seventeenth century and to Demerara after 1745 ushered in the second major phase in the development of a fishing industry in Guyana. Until their arrival fishing seems to have been conducted by the Amerindians in the region's rivers and creeks and their estuaries on a relatively small scale. It does not seem that fishing was conducted then by Guyanese Amerindians away from the coast, although they are known to have travelled at least as far as Trinidad on other business.

The Netherlands, especially the northern Maritime Provinces, had for centuries been the centre of a substantial fishing industry. Not surprisingly, the Dutch immigrants brought their knowledge of fishing to Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara, giving a significant impetus to fishing there. They valued fish not only for their nutrition, but also as the cheapest and most available form of protein food for the slaves whom they exploited to cultivate sugar cane, coffee and cotton.

The Dutch settlers played an important role in developing fishing in some inland fisheries, notably the one in the Canje River. They also embarked on marine fishing, especially in fisheries off the Waini, Barima and Orinoco rivers and possibly near Trinidad.

Their fishing operations, however, were often interrupted by Spaniards - coastguards, pirates and other individuals and vessels - from modern Venezuela and Trinidad, who seized their boats. Such disruption was particularly frequent in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the early 1970s the situation became so difficult that Laurens Storm van's Gravesande, the Director-General of Essequibo and Demerara, decided not to risk sending the Dutch West India Company's boats to the Orinoco, though as he recognised and lamented, "the loss of the fishery is most injurious to the Colony."

The limited supply of fish obtained from the marine and inland fisheries forced the Dutch in Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara to depend considerably on importing salted fish from North America. This situation was a source of grave concern to the Dutch planters for two reasons.

Firstly, when supplies of local fish failed, the Americans took advantage of the situation to raise the price of their commodity. Secondly, in times of shortage, when the planters were unable to provide slaves with their normal ration of three pounds of salted fish per fortnight, the slaves often responded by running away or resorting to other forms of resistance. The fish which the slaves caught in their free time in the evenings or on Sundays in the canals or trenches in or adjacent to the plantations was no substitute for the loss of their regular allowance.

This somewhat problematic second phase in the development of Guyana's fishing industry ended with the occupation of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice by the British in 1796 and the subsequent official cession of these Dutch colonies to Britain in 1814.

The departure of almost all the Dutch residents in the wake of these two events had a significant impact on fishing in Guyana as will be seen in the second and final instalment of this article. That instalment will focus on developments in fishing in the country until the 1890s.

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.