Developments during the 40 years before Independence
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
April 27, 2006
A month from today we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of our country's political independence. We shall be reflecting on, depending on your perspective, the many areas in which we have achieved much or failed to achieve anything. We shall analyse the reasons for our blatant successes and equally blatant failures and hopefully from the lessons learned chart a way forward for future generations. But the past forty years were but a continuum not only of the forty years before but also the many decades beyond that. And so before we become too self absorbed in our recent past, let's spend a while reflecting on the forty or so years before 1966.
The focus of this first article will be the political, constitutional and economic development to the end of World War II.
Political and Constitutional Developments
In 1928 British Guiana began to be administered under the Crown Colony system of Government when many of Britain's Caribbean possessions had already been under this system of administration. Prior to that, political and constitutional developments were influenced by the vagaries of its Dutch inherited political institutions - College of Electors, the Court of Policy and the Combined Court. However after decades of protest from the fledgling mainly black and coloured middle class, bolstered by the complaints of the planter class, the governor and the Colonial Office, there was some fiddling with the constitution in 1891 which ultimately satisfied none of the stakeholders.
Deteriorating socio economic conditions in the Caribbean have always acted as a stimulus for protest and demand for change in the existing political institutions. By 1922 the brief fillip to the economy which World War I had inspired had worn off, a sugar slump in the late 1920s and worsening industrial conditions led to strike action. The new consciousness among black and coloured nationalists stemming from the experience of returned war veterans and teachings of Marcus Garvey led to the demand by West Indians nationals for some measure of representative government. As a consequence, Major General E. Wood was dispatched to British Guiana, at the height of depression caused by the sugar slump, to assess the constitutional situation. However, in his report he did not feel there was any justification for making any substantive constitutional changes as long as the colony could balance its budget. The ferocity with which the October 1926 General Election was fought and the animosity which followed the victory of the Popular Party and led to almost every seat in the Legislature being challenged, further underscored the total dissatisfaction of all the stakeholders with the 1891 constitution.
It is against this background that the Parliamentary commission of November 1926 was appointed to examine the economic conditions of the colony. One of the main recommendations of the Snell - Wilson report was that there should be changes to the constitution which would make the "authorities finally responsible for the government of the Colony power in the last resort to carry into effect measures which they consider essential for its well being." Despite the vigorous objection of the elected members, the British Guiana, (Constitution) Order-in-Council of July 13, 1928 abolished the Court of Policy and the Combined Court and substituted a Legislative Council with 3 ex-officio members including the Governor, 8 nominated official members, 5 nominated unofficial members and 14 elected members. The members of the Executive had to be chosen from the Legislative Council. Although article 54 of the new constitution gave the governor the power "to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the country," Crown Colony government failed to deliver on its promise, though in the case of British Guiana it came into operation barely months before the 1929 crash which plunged the world into economic depression. Again the deteriorating economic conditions led to a series of strikes and riots in the entire Caribbean. This belied the contention that the governor's discretionary powers would be used "on behalf of the unrepresented classes." While the 1938 Royal Commission's main terms of reference were an investigation of the social and economic conditions of the Colony, it also took within the scope of its enquiry, constitutional and other aspects of government of the colonies.
Though the report was ready by December 1939 the exigencies of World War II delayed its official publication until mid 1945. However, its essential provisions were published in Parliament in early 1940. One of its main recommendations was the widening of the franchise. Indeed one of the main focuses of attack by Caribbean nationalists during the disturbances was the necessity of widening the franchise to wit universal adult suffrage. On May 1941 a local franchise Commission was appointed in accordance with the Moyne recommendations. The majority of the members of the franchise commission were against the introduction of universal adult suffrage but favoured a reduction in the property qualification for voters and for candidates for election to the Legislative Council. The recommendations were implemented by legislation in 1945 but new elections were not held until 1947.
The above discussion helps to illustrate the extent to which British Guiana was indeed a political economy, which continued to dance or wail depending on the tune played by sugar. A good point of departure is the appointment of the 1926 Parliamentary Commission to report on the economic position of the colony in respect of the causes, which had retarded and measures which could be taken to promote its development.
The commissioners felt that the constitution should be changed so that the government and not the elected majority of the Combined Court had the last word in taxation and expenditure. More importantly, it was suggested that the future of sugar would be assured if British preference was retained to help insulate the industry from subsidised and protected world competition. As it had done in the 19th century, the sugar interests of British Guiana were able to convince the representatives of the Colonial Government that the continued existence of the colony was tied to the survival of sugar, if necessary, at the expense of other crops or industries. The industry had been given a boost when on July 6, 1925 a new Reciprocity agreement was signed with Ottawa, which, among other things, granted a preference of $1 per 100 tons, on 96% of sugar. Additionally, in 1926 the problem of labour for the sugar and rice industries seemed to be addressed with the publication of the Nunan scheme for immigration from India to British Guiana. As in the days of slavery and indentureship, sugar remained the dominant economic activity and the survival of every other form of economic activity depended on whether it complemented the sugar industry or competed with it for scarce financial and human resources. The rice industry managed to survive and prosper because it fell into the former category. On the other hand, the development of economic activity in the interior especially the gold and diamond industry, tended to receive support from the planter dominated political community only during periods of acute unemployment in the industry. However, once the sugar industry revived and the immediate threat of economic collapse of the colony was temporarily eliminated, the need to pour resources into any other facet of economic activity - such as road construction and road maintenance in the interior or on the coast was vigorously opposed.
Some other economic activity during the period was the establishment of the Department of Forestry in 1926. Also in 1926, the two principal diamond producing industries were united to create the United Diamond Fields of British Guiana with a capital of $350,000. The period of most intense dissatisfaction with economic conditions of the colony coincided with a period of record population growth between 1931 and 1946 at a time when the country, region and the world was facing a severe economic crisis. In fact, the rate of population increase in British Guiana was one of the highest in the world.
The worsening economic crisis accelerated the establishment of Trade Unions. The British Guiana Labour Union had been established in 1919. It was not until 1931 that the second Trade Union, the British Guiana Workers League was established. Between 1937 and 1938 in the midst of the riots and strikes, seven trade unions were registered and in 1939 alone another five were registered. Among the most important of these unions was the registration of the MPCA on November 5, 1937 for the purpose of organizing sugar workers especially field workers. This union was to play a significant role in trade union development and in the sugar workers' struggle for better working conditions.
The Royal Commission visited British Guiana in January and February 1939 and took evidence and memoranda from different stakeholders in the colony. Its recommendations had far reaching effects on the economic, social and political life of the colony.
In the next article, socio cultural developments and the situation of women in the period to the end of World War II will be examined
In honour of Guyana's 40th birthday as an independent nation and aware that the focus of reflection and evaluation would be on the past forty years, I thought it would be pertinent to reflect on the forty years prior to 1966. The end of World War 11 in 1945 was a very significant year in this period and hence the developments - economic, political, social and cultural - would be examined. In the previous article, political and constitutional as well as socio-cultural developments were looked at. In this article, the focus will be on socio-cultural developments and the situation of women.
One of the main justifications for the introduction of the Crown Colony system of the government in 1928, was that the overwhelming majority of the citizens were uneducated and therefore did not have the ability to deal with the intricacies of representative government. However, it was expected that the control over finance, which the new constitutional arrangements would give to the governor and executive, would put them in a position to provide the resources necessary for improvements in education.
Compulsory education and the dual system of education were introduced in 1876. However, by the 1920s both teachers and pupils were dissatisfied with poor standards of teaching especially the system of payment-by-results, the unsuitable curriculum, the inadequate salaries paid to teachers and the many irritants of dual control. It was against this background that the new Commissioner of Education made his report three months after his appointment as Commissioner in 1925. The Bain Gray report was one of the major documents, which guided education policy in British Guiana for several decades. Important changes were recommended regarding the training of teachers, the establishment of government primary schools and one or more technical schools.
To this end, the Teacher's Training College was opened in 1928. In 1931, the cornerstone of St. Stanislaus College was laid by General Rodney on the eve of his departure from the Colony. A Trade Centre for youth was opened in Georgetown in 1931, while in 1932 a gift of $70,000 from the Carnegie Corporation in New York led in 1933 to the provision of a Trade Centre for women also in Georgetown. The Royal Commission of 1939 made an exhaustive inquiry into Education, resulting in, among other things, the appointment of an Educational Advisor to the Comptroller of Development and Welfare. In January 1943, the Bishops High School for girls was taken over from the Anglican Church by government and in 1944 Queen's College celebrated one hundred years of providing secondary education for boys in the Colony. However, the nature and content of the education being provided gave a clear indication that the majority of the citizens were expected to be little more than 'hewers of wood and drawers of water', while a selected few would just qualify to fill the lower ranks of the last decades of the 19th century. By 1916 the British Guiana East Indian Association published its own journal, the Indian Opinion, while in New Amsterdam in the 1920's the newspaper, The People, was published by the Ruhomans.
By 1930, perhaps in an attempt to provide an escape from the grim realities of the appalling socio-economic conditions, many cultural events were staged regularly. For example, regular Indian plays were staged by the British Guiana Dramatic Society for its mainly East Indian membership and also by the Georgetown Dramatic Club which was open to all. Several other clubs included drama as a part of their cultural activity.
However, poetry writing was significant among all groups in the society. In 1931, Norman Cameron edited "An Anthology of Guyanese Poetry", while in 1934 Ramcharitar Lalla edited, "An Anthology of Local Indian verse". In May 1945 Basil Balgobin presented a political play on Indians.
Black consciousness, always latent, watered by the ideas of Marcus Garvey and the establishment of his United Negro Improvement Association began to flower in earnest in the 1930's through the works of the redoubtable Norman E. Cameron and the activities of the League of Coloured People. These activities increased in the 1940's and 1950's with the Art and Sculpture of E.R. Burrowes, the writings of the coloured intelligentsia like A.J. Seymour and later the writings of Edgar Mittleholzer, Jan Carew and Wilson Harris, among others.
Perhaps the cultural energy of the period was best epitomised by the publication of KYK-OVER-AL. In the first volume, December 1945, A.J. Seymour, the editor, stated that cultural life was quickening in many ways and saw KYK-OVER-AL as an "instrument to help forge Guyanese people and to make them conscious of their own intellectual and spiritual possibilities." For decades to come the journal fulfilled its mandate by publishing the works of many Guyanese.
The situation of women
In the first decades of the 20th century while the existence of women could not be denied, their role and contribution to development were barely acknowledged and miserly remunerated.
However, then as now, women and their children represented the most vulnerable group in the society. The economic depression and the resulting underemployment and unemployment added to their vulnerability as often they, either as single heads of the households or with unemployed husbands, became the sole breadwinner of their families. Working-class women had, however, already made their presence felt for they had actively participated in the working-class protests of 1924 and by 1939 represented 30.6% of the total labour force employed on the sugar estates. Because of their significant numbers in the teaching profession many improvements in the field of education had perforce to include them. For example, five women were among the first batch of 30 who completed a two-year course at the Training College which had been opened in 1928 and in July 1935 a group of 12 female students completed a special one-year course.
Several pieces of legislation were passed which specifically benefited women. Ordinance No. 14 of 1923 provided for a Pension Fund for Widows and Orphans of Deceased Public Officers.
In 1924, the nationality laws of the Colony of British Guiana dealt with the national status of married women and infant children. In Ordinance No. 17 of 1929, which imposed a tax on income and regulated its collection, provisions were made for the deduction in respect of life insurance and contribution to a Widows and Orphans Pension Fund. However, few working class women, especially if they were common-law wives, would have benefited from the aforementioned legislation. However, in 1932 a Bill to carry out certain Conventions relating to the employment of women, young persons and children was passed.
Shut out of the process of political participation by legislation, lack of income, literacy and property qualification, women expressed their political activism through their involvement in charitable and welfare organizations. It was, however, the exigencies of World War II, which brought several of these mainly middle class women's organisations together under the banner of the Women's League of Social Services in 1940. This led to the establishment of Women's Institutes in the rural areas. Given the then current perception of the place of women in the political and economic scheme of things, it was not surprising that there were no women in positions of power and decision-making. However, undoubtedly because of their outstanding advisory role in women's organizations three of the 23 members of the 1941 British Guiana
Franchise Commission were women - Mrs. M. Bayley, L. Kawall and M.T. Mansfield, all three of whom were to continue an active role in NGOs or politics. Several women testified as witnesses before and submitted memoranda to the 1939 Royal Commission. Ms B. Paul in her capacity as General Secretary (ag) of the British Guiana Workers' League, Ms. Gertie Wood on behalf of the B.G.L.U and the B.G.T.U.C., Miss E. Sewdin and Miss E. Corbin on behalf of the M.P.C.A. Miss Gertie Wood was the only woman to submit a memorandum. The situation faced by women could be summoned up from the memorandum of Arthur G. King.
"I am not in favour of admitting members of the female sex to the Legislative Council; not that I am of the opinion that some women in the Colony are not as competent to be in the Legislative Council as some of the present members of that Council, but I am of the opinion that it is not the proper place for a woman".
Despite the above, by 1945, British Guianese women had begun to stake a claim to occupancy of the political space once dominated by men. The recommendations of both the Moyne Commission and the Franchise Commission provided them with their tools to make the challenge.