Governor Henry Irving's immigration policy 1882-1887 Part One: Consolidation By Tota C. Mangar
Stabroek News
June 14, 2002

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With the abolition of slavery and more so the termination of the apprenticeship system in 1838, the powerful plantocracy in the colony of British Guiana realised that a grave labour shortage would inevitably mean complete disaster to themselves and the sugar industry in general. Their fear, uncertainty and uneasiness during this critical period of 'crisis' and change were hastened by the large-scale exodus of ex-slaves from the sugar plantations, especially after 1838. This situation was not surprising as several decades of the despicable system of slavery had resulted in the plantation being viewed as the symbol of dehumanisation, degradation and demoralisation as far as the victims were concerned. They quite naturally wanted to rid themselves of planter-class social, cultural and political domination and at the same time they wanted to assert their economic independence. With great enthusiasm and in the face of tremendous odds, they started the village movement and peasantry.

Immigrant labour was quickly seen as the answer to the much-feared labour problem.

Thereafter several immigration schemes emerged during this period of change and experimentation. Of these, East Indian immigration from the sub-continent of India emerged as the dominant one, both in terms of numbers and in duration. Starting with the 'Gladstone Experiment' in 1838, this immigration scheme was temporarily halted in July 1839.

It recommenced in 1845, was briefly suspended in 1848 and then continued virtually uninterrupted from 1851 to 1917. During this period from 1838 to 1917 approximately 239,000 indentured Indians landed in Guyana. Of this figure 75,547 were repatriated to their homeland.

Within a few week of his arrival in Guyana in 1882, Governor Henry Turner Irving acquainted himself with several aspects of immigration and the immigration scheme in general. He was obviously conscious that East Indian immigration was by then firmly entrenched in the colony and had become the mainstay of the sugar industry.

Hence, he promptly made an innovation in their land settlement scheme. In this regard he must have been influenced by both the difficulties confronting the settlement at Huist D'ieren on the Essequibo Coast and the rising cost of repatriation along with his earlier experience in Trinidad.

The Governor proposed a modification to the earlier scheme and that was the creation of opportunities for immigrants to purchase land in localities best suited to their individual needs. He was of the view that a more effective system was for the government to "foster the spontaneous settlement by rendering available for it the abandoned estates" as "no artificial means are required to stimulate the settlement of the Indian population."

After outlining his intended approach on the settlement of immigrants, Irving disclosed: "To give practical effect to these views I have instructed the Immigration Agent-General to select one of the abandoned estates in order that its drainage may be restored and that it may be set out in lots for sale."

It was against this background that the issue of grants of land in lieu of return passages ceased and in its place came the sale of house lots.

Huist D'ieren was identified to take the lead and cultivation and residential lots were advertised for sale after basic infrastructural works were effected by Government.

Sixty-two lots were immediately purchased by immigrants whose terms of service under indentureship had expired. It was the Governor's feeling that settlements brought about in this manner would be more likely to succeed than those established through grants of land in lieu of return passages. Moreover, it was his view that someone establishing himself and his family on a homestead of his own would hardly attempt to claim his right to a return passage.

This initial response suggested that Irving's modification might lead to the creation of "an ethnically separate peasantry." In reality, sea encroachments, bush water floodings, inadequate drainage and the failure of crops, especially rice, continued to beleaguer the settlers. Nonetheless, the Huist D'ieren experiment paved the way for similar steps to be taken in later years at Plantation Cotton Tree, West Coast Berbice, Helena, Mahaica, Whim and Bush Lot on the Corentyne Coast, Maria's Pleasure, Wakenaam and Anna Regina on the Essequibo Coast.

The long-term impact of this policy was the inducement of immigrants to settle permanently in the colony. The late 1880s and 1890s witnessed a gradual movement from the estates as immigrants began to buy, rent or even squat on lands along the coastal plain. These settlements became inextricably bound to the emerging rice industry.

Governor Irving was also very conscious of the importance of the sugar industry to the colony's overall development and its dependence on an adequate and regular supply of labourers.

At the opening session of the Combined Court in December 1882 he was elated over the fact that the year's sugar crop was the largest ever and he observed that prosperity in the sugar industry had given impetus to trade and commerce and an increase in revenue. In that year a record 137,891 hogsheads of sugar, 29,209 puncheons of rum and 17,120 casks of molasses were exported.

Immigration between 1882 and 1887 was confined to East Indians and to a lesser degree Barbadians. No immigrants came from Barbados in 1886 and 1887, as there was a temporary discontinuation from this source. This was a direct result of the effects of the international business cycle and of intense beet sugar competition. In any event East Indian immigration increased during 1887, while that of Barbadians was halted during the period of sugar depression, implying a preference for the former.

On this score the late-distinguished Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney was emphatic that Barbadian immigration "was not accorded the same fundamental importance as Indian Indentureship". In fact 20,273 indentured immigrants were imported from the Indian sub-continent between 1882 and 1887, clearly a testimony to the importance that was attached to this source of immigration.

While statistics are not readily available as regards the actual volume of the productive areas, sugar, rum and molasses which depended heavily on immigrant labour, one can easily see a trend in the quantity of exports during the years, 1882-1887 as illustrated in the following table:

YEAR                SUGAR                       RUM                   MOLASSES
                 (IN HOGSHEADS)   (IN PUNCHEONS)         (IN CASKS)
1882              137,891                         29,209                         17,120
1883              129,595                          26,490                        20,214
1884              139,246                          33,393                        12,854
1885              107,028                          22,773                        10,384
1886              124,283                          24,773                        20,001
1887              149,860                          24,839                        19,006

From the Table above, it can be seen that with the exception of 1885, exports of sugar, rum and molasses were consistently high. The record production and export of sugar in 1882 was surpassed in 1884 and again in 1887.

The volume of production of sugar in 1887 alone was put at 131,127 tons and this figure was higher than in any year up to 1912. There was a significant reduction in sugar exports, and no doubt sugar production, in 1885. This was partly due to adverse weather conditions when the crop was affected by two severe droughts. The by-products of rum and molasses also declined as a consequence of a reduction in the output of sugar. This was also the period when muscovado sugar proved to be unacceptable to buyers on the European market.

Certain other developments complemented the relatively high production, which was achieved throughout most of Irving's tenure in the colony. The planter class responded to the sugar depression by adopting improved techniques in sugar-cane cultivation and manufacture. Muscovado processing gave way to vacuum pan manufacture.

This latter process involved steam heating and boiling at a lower temperature than before and it led to the production of a great quantity of crystallised sugar. Further enhancement was achieved with the introduction of the triple-effect evaporator, which saw steam heating in three separate pans and this in turn speeded up the manufacturing process.

Such was the transformation during the period that our local sugar industry was described as "technologically the most advanced" in the region. Moreover, the sugar estates were hailed as "models of efficiency." There were improvements in the method of cane juice extraction, a more efficient means of clarification and crystallisation, extensions to steam ploughing and drainage and the deepening of canals, thereby making them more navigable in order to facilitate prompt transportation of canes to the factories.

During Irving's administration special attention was focused on the conditions of indentured labourers. As early as November 1882, Attorney-General Haynes-Smith forwarded a memo on the plight of immigrants in which he spoke of their powerless position, more so because of the channelling of grievances through a highly questionable source, the driver or 'Sirdar', who acted as interpreter.

According to him, complaints against drivers were wrongly interpreted or even neglected by managers and charges reaching Immigration Agents were often nullified, owing to a heavy reliance on drivers for information. Furthermore, because of their authority, drivers frequently harassed and persecuted indentured labourers while at work. Labourers were often not informed of impending visits of Sub-Agents of Immigra-tion for fear of complaints being aired directly. Magistrates had little know-ledge of the Hindi language and interpreters were inadequate and lacked sincerity. These problems led to desertion, imprisonment and demoralisation on the part of immigrants.

So concerned was Irving about these injustices that he stipulated a knowledge of Hindi as a sine qua non for appointments to the posts of Sub-Agents in the Immigration Department. He also disclosed that the crucial interpretative service in Courts was much improved with the "weeding out of untrustworthy men and supplying their place with honest and efficient interpreters." Less than a year later, Haynes-Smith reported that more immigrant complaints were reaching the Immigration Department.

The spate of wife-murders among East Indian indentured labourers also worried the Governor. This sad state of affairs had its roots in the disproportion of the sexes and the subsequent enticement of females. Between 1879 and 1893 female arrivals were barely averaging forty per cent of all indentured labourers coming out of India. According to Dodd, the customary arranged marriages among East Indians suffered as a result of both effectual and financial considerations. It was the author's view that most of these murders were premeditated.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Bronkhurst, who perceived that wife-murders were increasing annually. The latter also contended that hanging, instead of being a deterrent to the immigrant, was looked at "with a feeling of satisfaction and delight, believing it is the means of introducing him to a state of sensual beautitude which awaits him in the next world." In a dispatch to the Colonial Office Irving questioned whether the male immigrant could not be induced to resort to a form of compensation from his rival instead of turning to extreme forms of physical violence for vengeance.

He also urged the registration of marriages of Indians and the empowering of Sub-Agents of Immigration to act as registrars. As a consequence, bills were passed in September 1885 amending the law relating to Marriages and the Immigration Ordinance of 1873.

The Governor argued that "it would be better if immigration could be so organised that the principle of family life so potent in the East should be maintained unbroken". Indeed, while he did not remain in the colony to observe the trend, by the turn of the century there began to emerge a stronger family unit among the East Indians.

Governor Henry Irvingís aggressive Immigration Policy in the period 1882-1887 inevitably led to controversy and confrontation. Over the years immigrants remained under the protection of the Immigration Department, headed by the Immigration Agent-General. This official had the right of communication with the Governor on all immigration matters. Following the transfer of Robert Mitchell to India, Arthur Harvey Alexander was appointed Immigration Agent-General of British Guiana in 1884.

Initially, Alexander shared a cordial relationship with Irving but within two years, the situation changed dramatically, as the two officers came headlong into conflict over matters affecting the administration of the Immigration Agent-Generalís Office. The rift widened and a prolonged confrontation ensued with charges and counter charges. This strained relationship continued to the very end of the Governorís tenure in office and the initial healthy association Irving shared with the plantocracy on immigration matters was adversely affected.

The background to the confrontation was the reorganisation of the Colonyís Medical Service. Under the existing system the Medical Service was attached to the Immigration Department while being financed by the government. As a consequence, it was the tendency that immigration work was given priority over the health of the rural population at large. Conscious of the problems experienced, Irving felt that changes were necessary within the Medical Service. He proposed an amalgamation of the Immigration Medical Service and the Government Medical Service under the Surgeon-General of the Colony. He also stressed the importance of having an independent Medical Service under Governmentís supervision.

At this stage the Immigration-Agent General, Mr. Alexander, began to feature prominently. This official complained that changes were being made without previous consultation with him, a charge which was flatly denied by the Governor. From the Immigration Agent-Generalís standpoint, Irving was going too far. In initiating change, he was undermining the influence of the Immigration Department and Mr. Alexander found this intolerable. But that was not the case. The Governor was merely interested in an improvement in the system.

Commenting on a letter from Alexander resisting the proposed reorganisation of the system, Irving advised, "I hold it essential that the Medical Protector of the Colony should be an independent officer responsible to the Governor, that he should be a check on the Immigration Agent-General and should not be under his influence or subject to his control..."

Not long after, the administrator forwarded a draft bill to reorganise the Medical Service to the Colonial Office. The end result was a reorganisation of the Medical Service with the Medical Department of the colony replacing the Immigration Department in the administration of estate hospitals and the general care of immigrants. This development added fuel to the fire. The Immigration Agent-General was infuriated and became increasingly hostile to the Governor and Officers in charge of the Medical Department.

By the end of 1886, a fall in sugar prices was having its toll as wages dropped to a minimum, estate expenditure was generally curtailed and labourers were not given full employment. Governor Irving also made a startling disclosure that earnings at Plantation Bel Air were below those necessary for subsistence.

Further, Irving demanded the prompt intervention of the Immigration Agent-General into the depressing state of affairs at Bel Air and for the official to determine whether the situation was widespread.

Later Irving acknowledged that his instructions were not accorded a great degree of importance and urgency by Alexander. On the latterís attitude to the Medical Officers the Governor disclosed, "Instead of gladly availing himself of their assistance, he sets about to obstruct them......his opposition is a stumbling block in the way of the successful working of the new system."

The situation worsened as several other charges were levelled at the Immigration Agent-General. Among them was one of neglect to visit estates in his capacity as Protector of Immigrants. Secretary of State, H.T. Holland, was of the view that Alexander had taken a negative perception of his duties and he should have visited all estates since his assumption of duty and also he should have furnished information on the earnings of indentured labourers. He was urged to discharge his duty with zeal and diligence, in conformity with the Governorís directions, and to give loyal co-operation to the medical staff. The relationship between Governor Irving and Mr. Alexander further deteriorated when Dr. Williams presented his Medical Report for 1886. The report was comprehensive and it exposed many of the defects within the immigration system. It focused on the insanitary conditions on the estates, the appalling housing conditions, the shocking state of estate hospitals characterised by overcrowding, insufficient clothing and bedding, inadequate nurses and the high mortality rate among immigrants. In a real sense the report was a serious indictment of the Immigration Department.

Copies of the report were widely circulated within the planting community and planters were enraged. This powerful political elite sought to have Irving withdraw the report which they described as "slanderous and unfounded." But as he had repeatedly shown in the past, Irving was not prepared to compromise his position. He was convinced that the report was factual and informative and revealed the several weaknesses in the system. He was not particularly concerned that some of its contents both irritated and embarrassed the Immigration Agent-General and the plantocracy. The Governor was adamant in his refusal to withdraw the document and the issue ignited a major controversy. In a deliberate display of power and arrogance the electives promptly decided to withdraw from the Court of Policy on that fateful day, October 25, 1887, after declaring "if we enter upon public business we stultify ourselves."

The Governor had no choice but to adjourn the Court indefinitely. This action of withdrawal of service by the planter representatives was political blackmail. It meant that no business could be carried out in the Court of Policy and the Combined Court without their presence owing to the lack of a quorum.

The administrator persisted in his refusal to withdraw the report and electives continued with their boycott. The result was a political deadlock which gripped the colony for days as the main governmental institution at the time could not function. Colonial British Guiana was in essence without a government. This crisis prompted Irving to renew his pleas for constitutional reforms.

On the question of the Medical Report and the unnecessary interruption of the Court, an editorial in the Echo newspaper of October 29, 1887 raised two very pertinent questions, namely:

1. Would the Governor infringe on his power should he withdraw the report?

2. Was it within the power of the electives to demand its withdrawal?

The paper did not attempt to answer the question. Rather it argued that whatever readers came up with, one thing was certain, the Constitution must be reformed to ensure the elimination of such "public scandals."

The Colonial Office eventually intervened in the matter and the electives resumed business in both Courts. But the planter class, through their built-in majority in the combined Court, unashamedly reduced the Medical Inspectorís annual income to the most ridiculous sum of a single cent only days before the administratorís term in office came to an end. What a price to pay for aggravating the powerful elite class!

This incident was clearly as act of vengeance on the part of the plantocracy; it was a callous display of abuse of power. Clearly a matter which should have been the concern of all - the Medical report - was blown out of proportion and deliberately capitalised on by the planter oligarchy at that critical juncture of our countryís history.

Governor Irvingís approach to immigration and the immigrant population was a commendable blend of practical politics and resolute decision-making. He sought to ensure a steady stream of immigrants since he realised the importance of the sugar industry to the economy and, in spite of fallen sugar prices, there was economic growth. Improved techniques in sugar-cane cultivation and sugar manufacture were adopted and there was lowering of production costs. Thrice during his tenure, the record for sugar production was broken and sugarís by-products, molasses and rum, were produced in vast quantities.

Irvingís enthusiasm led to an innovative East Indian immigrant land settlement policy, a more reliable system of interpretation in the courts and the introduction of registration of indentured marriages. His major contribution was the reorganisation of the Medical Service to ensure a more effective and efficient functioning of this vital arm of government. In so doing he incurred the wrath of the Immigration Agent-General and the plantocracy. The generally cordial relations which he started with the plantocracy, mainly on immigration matters, were finally broken as a consequence of the report on the Medical Service which provoked the anger of this powerful class. The atmosphere was charged with animosity and it culminated in a political deadlock as electives withdrew from the major government institutions. All the while, the Governor stoutly defended his principled position and firmly resisted threats and abuse from the planter class.