The impact of the first world war on British Guiana Part one By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
March 18, 2004

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By Arlene MunroWhen Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to Emperor Franz Josef, ruler of the Hapsburg Empire, was shot in the Balkan town of Sarajevo in June 1914, Europe was ready for war. On July 28, 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. On August 3, 1914 Germany declared war on France.

According to Brower, this "became known as the 'world' war, not because major battles occurred in distant parts of the globe but because for the first time the resources and peoples of distant, non-western lands played an important part in the European fighting." The aim of this article is to examine the impact of the First World War on British Guiana. The war affected the country socially and economically.

As a consequence of the war, the Volunteer Infantry in British Guiana was transformed into the Militia Artillery. The local forces were mobilised and the Police took their place with the Militia in the defence of the colony. The majority of the police in Georgetown were given only military duties.

The commandant of the local forces sent a letter to the governor, Sir Walter Egerton stating that there was only provision at Fort William Frederick for the storage of 30 rounds for the 4.7 guns. The rest of the ammunition was stored in a magazine about 3/4 mile away. Egerton instructed the Director of Public Works to consult the commandant of the local forces and the officer commanding the Artillery Militia and to build a supplementary magazine. This building accommodated a 216 shell, with primers and fuses being stored in Fort William Frederick in the old gun floor recesses and 240 cartridges in the new magazine.

In writing to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Walter Egerton reported: "The earlier notice to which you draw my attention was issued before it was settled that recruits from the Colony were to form part of a special Regiment instead of being enlisted on arrival in England and drafted to the British Regiments on the same terms as all other recruits as you informed as would be the case when the offer of men from the Colony was first made."

Consequently, Resolution No. XX of the Combined Court, passed on May 3, 1916, stated that in November 1915 the Combined Court had voted $48,000.00 to cover passages and separation allowances for Guianese. It stated that the cost of the prolonged training would exceed the amount voted. The Court resolved to meet the additional expense.

In a subsequent letter, Sir Egerton stated that the Combined Court had passed a resolution offering to contribute a maximum of $10,000 each year to the cost of sending home recruits from British Guiana to serve in the British West Indies Regiment during the war. He added that subsequently, another resolution was passed by the Combined Court when it became apparent that the expenses that year would exceed the above-mentioned sum of $10,000. The resolution stated that the Colony would meet the whole of this expenditure, including the additional one.

The Inspector General of Police also reported that some Guianese joined the British West Indies Regiment. This Regiment went to Egypt and East Africa, where the last German colony was captured. Five officers from British Guiana were made Companions of the Distinguished Service Order.

The British West Indian Regiment consisted of contingents from various West Indian Islands. It was reported that Guianese Sub-Inspector Craig and 40 Police Constables left the colony for England on August 21, 1915. These men as well as detachments from the Militia Com-panies and civilians joined the British West Indian Regiment. Mr. O. C. Rayner, another Sub-Inspector of police, resigned his appointment in order that he might proceed to England to apply for a Commission for service in the war.

Primary School teachers also joined the military service in 1914-1915. The Director of Primary Education reported that eleven teachers, including Head-teachers, had made this decision. In 1917, seven primary school teachers left to join the British West Indian regiment. They were Sergeant D.J. Baird, Private Bruce, Private Solomon, Private Hope, Private Hamilton, Private J. Alexander and Sergeant E.A. Rohlehr. The war and the organisation of local forces gave an impetus to the Boy Scout organisation. The number of Scouts in the Primary School increased.

Estate employees also desired to serve in the war. Booker Brothers, McConnell and Co., Ltd protested against the government further assisting employees on sugar estates to go to the war. They sent a letter to the Governor. He claimed that it was a difficult issue and that the Executive Council was divided on whether the government should pay the passages of persons such as overseers on sugar estates who desired to serve in the war. Although more soldiers were needed, it was felt that local industry would lose skilled staff.

Even men from the Government Service were leaving to join the Army in Canada as late as June 1918. The Governor reported that the Government Service could not spare any more men. The loss of staff had adversely affected the Government service.

Other persons who enlisted as officers in the British Guiana contingent were clerks, miners, tailors, labourers, painters, engineers, chauffeurs, grooms, car conductors, bakers, coopers, carpenters and porters. Statistics reveal that 150 Non-commissioned officers and men of the British Guiana contingent left Guiana on 19th September 1915. Their destination was the United Kingdom. Another 30 men left later and were due to arrive on 30th November 1915. However, not everyone was willing to join the British West India Regiment. In 1917, the Daily Chronicle of 8th February stated that the recruiting campaign was no longer successful. British Guiana was asked to send 250 more men to war, but up to press time less than fifty per cent had been recruited. The previous week 82 responded, but only 37 reported for the medical examination. Of this number only seven were fit for service. It was evident that by 1917 Guianese were no longer eager to serve in the war.

New ordinances were passed pertaining to the war effort. Ordinance No. 30 of 1915 prohibited the export of all arms, ammunition, military and naval stores to any country to prevent the use of these articles against British subjects and military or naval forces. Ordinance No. 2 of 1918 was passed to provide for the payment of duty on excess profits. This ordinance allowed for the collection from firms and companies of a tax of five percent on all profits earned in the colony in excess of ten per cent on the capital used in earning such profits. If the profits in excess of ten per cent did not exceed $2,500.00 then the tax was not levied. The war had so affected the local conditions that such an ordinance was thought necessary.

With the outbreak of the war the Combined Court voted to the British government gifts of sugar and rice worth $142,667.44 and spent $16,561.78 to defend the colony in case of attack. By 1916, war expenditure had risen to $22,085.67. In 1917 it was $30,687.00. It increased to $81,346.66 in 1918.

During the war A.H. Fuchs and three other prisoners were arrested in colonial waters on 22nd November 1916. His three companions were escap-ed convicts from Cayenne. Fuchs and his friends were German. Shortly after arrest they were sent to Mazaruni. These men formed a plot to seize a launch and escape. They were sent to George-town Prison. Fuchs was suffering from malaria.

During the war wages rose. The average rise of wages on the sugar estates from 1914 was eighty per cent. In some places the increase was 100 per cent. Before the war sugar workers worked for five days, but during the war they worked for four days. The demand for labour exceeded the supply.

Government officers also received a war bonus. These officers sent a petition to the Governor asking for a war bonus to enable them to meet the extra cost of living resulting from the war. The Governor, Sir Wilfred Collett, in a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies testified that the prices of foodstuff and necessities of life had increased. He added that the customs revenue had increased partly because of the increases in ad valorem duties received.

The Civil Servants were demanding either a bonus or advance equal to 10 per cent on their salary. With this bonus they proposed to start a Civil Service Cooperative Store in order to be able to supply themselves with their requirements at reasonable rates. Local merchants were making undue profit on the goods which they sold. They were perhaps selling goods at black market prices. Sub-sequently, the Combined Court passed a resolution approving of the payment of a war bonus to all Civil Servants whose personal emoluments exceeded 50 pounds a year. However, the Civil servants and Govern-ment officers formed a small proportion of the workers in the colony. Therefore, only a minority received war bonuses.

During the war certain concessions were made. The Governor wrote the Secretary of State about the purchase of gold produced in the colony and subsequently the Bank of England offered to assist in this matter. As a consequence, the local banks greatly reduced their charges and the producers deposited their gold in the local banks in the same way as they had done before the war. The extra charges on account of war risk and insurance were reduced by one-half prior to this. The banks began to purchase gold practically on the same terms as those offered by the Bank of England.

Another concession was made pertaining to the printing of money. At the outbreak of war it appeared that there was a likelihood of great scarcity of currency due to the people's habit of hoarding coins. They were withdrawing great sums of money from the Government Savings Bank. The governor decided to print a supply of government notes of small value ($1 and $2) to the face value of $50,000 for issue as legal tender. Since he did that he learnt that confidence had been restored and people had stopped withdrawing money from the banks.

An additional charge of two cents was imposed on each letter posted in the colony to places within the British Empire and the United States of America. This charge took the form of a war tax stamp and remained in force for the duration of the war. Also, certain rates of postage were charged on letters and newspapers posted locally to destinations within the colony.

The second instalment of the article will continue to examine the impact of the First World War on British Guiana.

In the first instalment of this article I examined the effects of the First World War on British Guiana. It was observed that the cost of living rose and civil servants and government officers received war bonuses. Extra currency was printed. More significantly, measures were taken to fortify the colony. In addition, skilled Guianese workers joined the British West Indian Regiment and this alarmed some heads of industry.

In 1915, the citizens of British Guiana also made financial contributions to the war effort. Special collections were made on Monday, October 1, Aircraft Day, and on Monday, November 4, Red Cross Day. The donations were used to buy an armed airplane or to help the Red Cross.

The primary schools of British Guiana also contributed to the war effort. The Head of the Department of Primary Education, H.W. Sconce, sent a circular letter to managers and headteachers of primary schools proposing that voluntary collections from the 37,000 children in these schools be organised. Each child was expected to give one cent or more per quarter to the British Red Cross Society. They gave in 1916 the first gift of 32 pounds to the Society. Teachers and students contributed to this cause. A second contribution was given of 31 pounds 5 shillings. A third contribution of 32 pounds was sent to London.

The Lord Mayor of London sent a letter dated June 15, 1916 to the Director of Education, British Guiana asking for further aid for the children of Belgium. The Guianese children and teachers responded by giving $729.97 to this need. Another contribution of 34 pounds was sent after this. A school in Wakapau for the Amerindian children gave a donation of Indian curios, which was sold to the Self-Help Depot for $240.00 and was given to the war effort. Three Indian Mission Schools in remote and sparsely populated localities, i.e. Calcuni on the Berbice River, and Orealla and Epera on the Corentyne River, gave financial contributions to the war effort.

In 1917, 259 children representing eight schools contributed to the War Fund that was organised to provide a Christmas Gift from the children of the Empire. The subscription did not arrive in England until January 1917. It was sent to the Overseas Club which requested it. It was pathetic that children should have been asked to subscribe to the war effort.

The Auditor-General reported that British Guiana sent a relief grant of $5,000.00 to Halifax sufferers. It also subscribed $7,200 to an aeroplane for the Royal Flying Crops. A Ram Narain Sharma sent a letter to Sir Walter Egerton informing him that he was attempting to collect subscriptions for the National War Relief Fund. The success of this venture is not known.

Other funds were in existence. For example, in a letter sent by Sir Walter Egerton to Lewis Harcourt the Prince of Wales Fund and Queen Alexander's Fund are mentioned. A National War Relief Fund was also mentioned. A committee of ladies, headed by Lady Egerton, organised a local War Relief Sewing Guide. The colony subscribed to the Red Cross Society and its branches. Clothing was also shipped by the ladies of the colony to Queen Mary's Needlework Guild.

The colony of British Guiana also presented a gift of 1,000 tons of sugar to the British Army worth $82,496.36 and another gift of 500,000 lbs of rice for the Indian troops valued at $16,561.78.

How did the war affect the industries in the colony? It adversely affected the balata and mining industries. Both industries were temporarily paralysed and the diamond industry came to a halt in October 1914. Diamonds became unsaleable and diamond mining ceased. The higher cost of imported food and increased freight and insurance charges greatly retarded gold mining. The heavy freights and scarcity of tonnage were additional weights on the export timber trade. As a consequence of the war, there was a heavy fall in the price of balata. The chief working company was given substantial assistance. By 1916, these industries had partly recovered. During the war bauxite exports were confined to England, Scotland, Ireland or Canada.

The war also affected the sugar industry. Most of the sugar crop in the colony was produced in the last quarter of 1914, and as a consequence of the First World War, almost the whole of this crop which had not been previously sold was purchased by the Imperial Government at the excellent price of 17 pounds per ton. The abnormal conditions in Europe interrupted the current of trade in sugar between the colony and Britain and were the main cause of the decrease during the year 1914.

The war also had an effect on hospitals and asylums in the colony. An excess of $979.20 on the head 'Bakery' was caused by the rise in the prices of materials due to the war.

There was a shortage of food during the war. Due to the global shortage of animal food and cereal, the Combined Court encouraged the citizens to raise food for consumption and export.

The price of extra flour rose from $6.45 per bag just before the war to an average of $12.81 during 1917 and $15.80 during 1918. This increase materially affected the cost price of the bread produced at bakeries. The average cost of bread in 1913-1914 was 2.8 cents per lb against 4.8 cents in 1917 and 6.14 in 1918. The increase in the cost of bread was smaller than the increase in the cost of flour. This was due to the use of cornmeal and rice mixed with flour during a portion of the year, thereby lowering the cost of production. No charge was made for bread issued to other institutions, the entire cost being shown against those institutions that had bakeries, viz., the Georgetown Prison, H.M. Penal Settlement, the Lunatic Asylum, and the Industrial School, Onderneeming.

An ordinance was passed to protect the poor from being overcharged for their provisions by profiteers. However, it was difficult to enforce this ordinance. The attempt to fix the price of rice proved to be a failure. Many dealers charged 4 to 6 cents per gallon above the price suggested.

Another consequence of war was labour unrest in Georgetown. During the war the cost of living rose and the working class suffered the most. Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow organised a protest in 1916. In January 1917 the waterfront went on strike under his leadership. Owing to Critchlow's successful negotiation, the Curtis Campbell Company offered the workers a nine-hour day with lunch-break. They also received payment for overtime work and work done on Sundays and holidays. The truckers' wages were raised from 48 cents to 60 cents per day. With the abolition of the quarter-day system, the stevedores gained half-a-day's pay.

It is noteworthy that merchant, G.R. Garnett wrote the Executive Council and made several observations during that period of labour unrest. He implied that the Water Street stores and shopkeepers were not giving fair value and honest treatment to their customers. He suggested that the wholesale dealers in Water Street and the retail shopkeepers were 'bleeding them unduly.'

Another consequence of the war was that firms such as J.P. Santos & Co., J.N. Perreira & Co., Santos, De Caires & Co., George Bettencourt & Co., Wm. Fogarty & Co., Ferreira & Gomes, Lopes Fernando & Co., and Booker Co. gained increased profits after the outbreak of the war. This claim was made by the merchant, G.R Garnett. He also accused these firms of encouraging the men to continue their strike for more wages so that they could spend money in their stores. Mr. Garnett wisely suggested that enquiries should be made into the cost of living to determine whether it could not be reduced. He also recommended that the government find out from the Registrar the profits made by the locally registered Water Street firms for the previous four or five years.

One year later, Sir Jules Pairadeau observed in a letter to the Government Secretary that there had been a rise in wages since the beginning of the war, "having regard to the increased cost of living." He stated that the Executive Council felt that people except seamstresses and clerks, were in a better economic position. The Council claimed that Georgetown workers had received 50 per cent increases in their wages and that the Estate labourers had received even more.

With the outbreak of war instructions were given that "movements of His Majesty's ships should not be published in the local Pressā€¦" for security reasons. British shops visiting British Guiana were warned not to carry goods comprising foodstuffs for Silleveldt Rotterdam, and to discourage shipment in neutral bottoms. Trade between British Guiana and Holland was carefully watched in the direction desired and the agents of shipping lines were privately cautioned on the subject. There were no merchants in British Guiana with trade relations with Silleveldt or J.C. Benstamy.

The widows and orphans of dead Government Officers endured much hardship during this period. At a meeting of the Combined Court, Mr. Brassington suggested that a monthly allowance be given to them from the Widows and Orphans' Fund. However, he observed that this allowance was 'a mere pittance' and that the war had caused prices to rise. It is not known whether this was implemented. At this same meeting, Mr Brassington mentioned that officers had returned from Egypt and needed assistance. He submitted a letter written by one of the soldiers who claimed that he was starving because he could not find work.

In 1917 the Mayor of Georgetown started a campaign for the erection in the city of a monument to Lord Kitchener to be a memorial to those who died in the war. A Kitchener Memorial Fund was started on February 3, in 1917 and was advertised in the newspapers. This is perhaps the same war memorial that was erected in 1923.

When the war ended in 1918, Sir Walter Collett reported that shortly after he published the news of the signing of the armistice with Germany, the citizens of Georgetown covered the town with bunting and people were taking joy rides in motor cars.

Sir Wilfred Collett assured the Secretary of State, Walter H. Long, that every attention would "be given to the needs of the discharged and disabled soldiers returned to British Guiana in respect of any artificial appliances they may require" He also promised that a Medical Board appointed by the Surgeon General would examine all cases returning to the colony.

The governor recommended that the Order of the British Empire should be conferred on Mr. J.B Cassels as a reward for unofficial services pertaining to the war.

He explained that Mr. Cassels, one of the Directors of Booker Brothers, McConnell and Company, had surpassed others in raising money for the Red Cross, the British West Indies Contingent Fund and other funds.

The First World War impacted socially and economically on British Guiana. Firstly, the colony temporarily lost some of its skilled and unskilled workers when they joined the British West Indies Regiment. Furthermore, the cost of living rose and the colonists had to pay more for daily necessities. There were shortages of food and widows of dead government officers were suffering.

Thirdly, the mining industries were adversely affected by this war.

Prices of the products fell and the diamond industry ceased temporarily in 1914. The financial resources of the colony were remitted to the Empire for the purchase of planes and other war machinery.

The colony also sent sugar and rice to the British Army and the Indian troops.

Therefore, the war exploited the human, financial and agricultural resources of this small, struggling colony.

It was unfortunate that returning soldiers could not find work and claimed to be starving.

The only positive impact of this war was the increased wages for sugar workers, government officers and civil servants.