James Rodway
1848 – 1926 Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
November 5, 2006

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ON ONE hand, James Rodway was reluctant to go to British Guiana because the ‘bad name of Demerara was prevalent among a few people in England’. Among those few bearers of the bad image of the colony were influential men of the cloth. On the other hand, Rodway was attracted more to British Guiana through his reading of Charles Waterton’s WANDERINGS IN SOUTH AMERICA, published 1825. That and the fact that Rodway was a botanist by profession cause him to declare he was “ardently desirous of seeing tropical America.”

On September 26, 1870, James Rodway arrived in British Guiana and instantly fell in love with the city. Initially, he wrote that he was “certainly pleased with my superficial view especially with Cummingsburg with its canals in which grew plants that were particularly interesting to a botanist.” Eventually, he would record the stark realities of the story of Georgetown in such a manner that it remains unmatched in the annuals of our literature.

As with most love affairs, there is the bittersweet element with which to contend. Soon, Rodway was forced to declare “then came the fly in the ointment” – the city was dirty and repulsive, a city that was sanitised by the great fires. All of which gave birth to the fascinating study, `STORY OF GEORGETOWN’, first published in 1922 by the Argosy Co. in Georgetown, later reprinted by the Guyana Heritage Society in 1997, and many other publications including a novel, one of the first novels of Guyana.

That novel, `IN GUIANA WILDS’, a study of two women, tells a tale of romance and riches, a story of a Glasgow clerk who comes to British Guiana in search of employment. The story goes that he marries a half-Amerindian girl, leading to Roraima and the discovery of gold coins with the image of Queen Elizabeth. `IN GUIANA WILDS’ was published in 1899, some two decades after the publication of the first Guyanese novel, `LUTCHMEE AND DILLOO’, a study of West Indian Life, 1877. Both books were written by English-born men.

Apart from similar characteristics in the subtitles of both novels, there are other similarities to be found in the lives and writings of both men. Both men were white and elite, a category of persons doing almost all the writing on the dependencies of Britain at the time. Interestingly, both men departed Britain for British Guiana in the same year, 1870. That was the year, Jenkins published his first novel, `GINX’S BABY’, `HIS BIRTH AND OTHER MISFORTUNES’, which became a bestseller, running into 36 editions by 1876. The success of the book made Jenkins a controversial figure overnight because it was “a satire on sectarian religious education.” Both men wrote copiously on British Guiana, but Rodway who lived and died here was the more prolific of the two.

Rodway became so intimate and integrated in functioning of the colony that by 1886 he was made the Librarian and Assistant Secretary of one of the more influential organisations, Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society, in which capacity he served until 1888. He was also Honorary Curator of the British Guiana Museum. Between 1894 and 1899, he was co-editor of the TIMEHRI journal, moving to the position of editor by 1911.

The TIMEHRI journal, founded by the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society in 1882, functioning into the late 1970s, is most valuable set of information on this country. Some of its contributors included Roth, McTurk, Cruickshank, Verrill, Dalton, Beebe, im Thurn, Clementi, Young, all with at least one book on Guyana to their name.

Some of the articles Rodway contributed to TIMEHRI include titles like ‘Books and their Enemies’, ‘Mr. Beebe’s New Book’, ‘Mrs. Clementi’s Book’, ‘Our River Names’, ‘The Names of our plantations’, ‘Colonial Development’, ‘Constitution of British Guiana’ and ‘Our Boundary War-scare’ when in 1895, ‘President Cleveland startled the world by his message to Congress in reference to the Venezuela-British Guiana Boundary Question’.

Those writings amounted to a lot, but they were not the full extent of his work. James Rodway also contributed to magazines in the UK and the USA. His published books include `HANDBOOK OF BRITISH GUIANA’, `HISTORY OF BRITISH GUIANA from 1668’, and `IN THE GUIANA FOREST.’

James Rodway, born in 1848 in the UK, educated in the UK, re-educated the UK and the rest of the world about British Guiana through his invaluable and copious writings.

Sources: * Seymour, Elma & Arthur. Dictionary of Guyanese Biography

* Rodway, James. Story of Georgetown, 1997

Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: oraltradition2002@yahoo.com

Literary update

* Re-launch of Upscale open mic poetry night - Tuesday November 7, 2006.