Demographic change in nineteenth century Guyana

History This Week
By Winston McGowan
Stabroek News
October 28, 2005

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One of the most striking features of the history of Guyana in the nineteenth century was changes in the population, especially in its size, ethnic composition and spatial distribution. This was particularly evident in the period between 1834 and 1850.

The changes which occurred in these sixteen years were precipitated mainly by the legal abolition of slavery in 1834 and the expectations of the sugar plantocracy that the full emancipation of the slaves in 1838 or in 1840 would result in a mass exodus from the estates, creating a labour crisis. To prepare for this unwelcome prospect, the planters began in 1835 to make efforts to secure an alternative labour force by inviting immigrants from the Caribbean and more remote areas of the world. This immigration had an immense impact on demographic and other aspects of the country's history.

Owing to immigration, the decline in the size of the black element in the population witnessed between 1817 and 1834 as a result of the abolition of the slave trade from Africa was checked. The number of Blacks in British Guiana increased between 1834 and 1850 from two sources. One was the arrival of thousands of residents of British Caribbean islands who were attracted to British Guiana especially by the prospect of better wages. In 1850 British Guiana had about 9200 such immigrants, of whom more than 50 per cent came from Barbados, where there was a surplus of labour and very low wages.

The Black population of British Guiana received a second impetus from 1841 from immigrants from West Africa, particularly from Sierra Leone. These immigrants were mostly Liberated Africans, i.e. former slaves who had been rescued mainly by British warships from slave vessels involved in the illegal slave trade across the Atlantic in defiance of their country's abolition laws. In the first year, 1841, 1102 Liberated Africans arrived in the colony. By 1850 there were an estimated 1761 of them, constituting about 6 per cent of the colony's non-Amerindian population. In spite of their presence, however, because of high mortality among the colony's ex-slaves, the African-born element in its population declined from about 30,500 in 1826, to about 15,800 in 1841 to about 14,200 in 1850.

As a result of the arrival of West Indians and Liberated Africans, notwithstanding the fact that deaths exceeded births, the Black population of the colony grew, reaching about 91,710 by 1851. The White component in the population, which for many years had been small and virtually stationary, also increased significantly between 1834 and 1850 due partly to small additions of British, Germans and Maltese but, above all, to Portuguese immigrants from the Atlantic island of Madeira, a Portuguese possession.

The first batch of Portuguese immigrants arrived in 1835 and by 1850 there were about 7900 Portuguese in British Guiana. Mainly due to their presence the White population of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, which numbered only about 3500 in 1829, had by 1850 increased to about 11,500, of whom about 7500 were Portuguese born in Madeira. The remaining 4000 Whites consisted of other Europeans and Portuguese children born in the colony. The number of Whites apart from Portuguese, however, was actually declining, owing to the collapse of coffee and cotton plantations and difficulties being experienced in the sugar industry.

Although the Portuguese immigrants were Europeans, they were regarded as distinct by the British residents who viewed them as second-class Whites mainly because they were brought to the colony as indentured labourers to do despised manual labour. In addition, the Portuguese, who were Roman Catholics and not Protestants, were different in religion and also spoke a different language. Thus in censuses and other official records the Portuguese were not listed as Europeans. This was the origin of the practice that still persists of considering Guyana as the land of six, not five, peoples (Amerindians, Africans, Europeans, Portuguese, East Indian and Chinese).

The most significant development in the colony's population between 1834 and 1850 was the arrival of immigrants from India who first arrived in May 1838 and eventually became the main replacement for Africans on the plantations. By 1850 this important development was still in its early phase, with the Indian population in 1850 numbering about 7500.

In the period between 1834 and 1850 there was also a growing population of mixed race, which in 1851 was estimated at 14,754. As before, this group consisted largely of a mixture of European and African descent.

By 1850 the population of the colony (excluding Amerindians) had grown to about 125,000. This increase was due to immigration, not natural increase, for the mortality rate continued to exceed the birth rate. In 1848 a medical report showed a death rate of 84.8 per 1000 among the indentured population, with the rate among the Portuguese being almost double that of the other groups.

In 1850 Blacks, numbering about 91,000, were still a sizable majority in the population, but not as dominant numerically as in 1834, owing to Portuguese and East Indian immigration. By 1850, however, new trends were appearing among immigrants with an increase of Indians and a decline in the number of West Indians and Africans. Of the 24,848 immigrants estimated to have arrived in the colony during the years 1846, 1847 and 1848, 11,025 were from India and 10,036 from Madeira, which meant that only 3787 were West Indians and Liberated Africans. In short, by 1850 changes were taking place, which would later result in the decline of the numerical ascendancy of Blacks in the population.

According to the 1851 census, the population of British Guiana (excluding all but 2003 of the Amerindian) was 127,695. This figure included 91,710 Blacks, 14,754 persons of mixed raced, 11,558 Whites, and 7682 East Indians. In short, about 71% of this population was Black. Furthermore, about two-thirds of the population given (86,000 persons) were Creole, that is, born in the colony.

Between 1834 and 1850, the population changed not only in size and composition but also in spatial distribution. The urban population (especially the population of Georgetown) was increasing, due not to natural increase, but to migration from the countryside especially of former slaves and indentured immigrants who had completed their contracts, both of whom were seeking jobs away from agriculture. The population of Georgetown grew from 9097 in 1820, to 12,604 in 1829 to 18,586 in 1841 to 25,508 in 1851 - an average annual increase of about 7 per cent. By 1850 the urban population was about 30,000 and the rural population (excluding Amerindians) about 95,000.

Because the majority of Amerindians lived in the interior, they were not included in the 19th century censuses, except "those located in or near the cultivated portions of the colony." Typical of the comments in the censuses was the following: "In consequence of the wandering habits of the Indians (Amerindians) and the difficulty in reaching them, no exact account has been attempted of the different tribes."