Village problems in Guyana 100 years ago
By Winston McGowan
April 12, 2001
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This article will focus on conditions in eighteen villages of Guyana, which one hundred years ago were under the control of the Central Board of Health. These villages were for the most part inhabited mainly by Africans. They included Sparendaam, Plaisance, Beterverwagting, Buxton and Friendship, Golden Grove and Nabaclis, Victoria and Ann's Grove and Two Friends on the East Coast of Demerara, Agricola, Mocha and Craig on the East Bank, Bagotville, Goed Intent and Sisters, and Stanleytown on the West Bank, Den Amstel and Fellowship and De Kinderen on the West Coast of Demerara, Queenstown and Danielstown in Essequibo and Cumberland in Berbice.
About one hundred years ago these villages were experiencing serious problems which made life for the residents very challenging. Perhaps their most fundamental and most disturbing problem was geophysical, namely, their inability for the most part to cope effectively with the formidable challenges of sea and river defence, drainage and irrigation. These difficulties stemmed from the fact that the coast was below sea level, the rivers often overflowed their banks and the country frequently suffered from seasons of heavy rainfall.
In these circumstances the principal annual works undertaken by most villages were the digging and clearing of drainage trenches and the construction or repair of sluices. In several villages, however, the main drainage could not be kept in order owing to a lack of funds. Furthermore, exceptionally heavy rainy seasons caused a considerable increase in expenditure for drainage, especially in large mechanically-drained villages such as Plaisance and Buxton, for the operation of such stream-driven machinery was very expensive.
Ultimately the question of drainage everywhere was a matter of funds which tended to be short in all villages. Villages often had no option but to seek loans from the government to cope with the problem of drainage. In 1902, for example, the Golden Grove and Nabaclis Village Council borrowed $2000.00 to cover the cost of renewing the Nabaclis Sea Sluice. That same year the Beterverwagting Village Council borrowed $950.00 to meet its share of the cost of replacing one of the boilers of the Triumph Draining Engine, which was the joint property of the villagers and the government.
The heavy rainfall which caused drainage problems also adversely affected the villages in other ways. In particular, it resulted in the erosion of village streets, thus increasing the cost of their upkeep. Many Village Councils discovered that after seeking to address the principal problem of drainage, they had no funds left to use to maintain and repair village roads. As Thomas Daly, the Inspector of Villages, reported about Plaisance in 1897, "in consequence of the heavy expenditure for drainage because of a very heavy and long rainy season we have had, the works of making up the streets and digging trenches could not be carried out."
The major financial difficulties which villages in Guyana were encountering one hundred years ago were a result of several factors. Prominent among them was the fact that the government, dominated by the White sugar plantocracy, was unwilling to use revenue in the national treasury to develop Black villages, apart from the grant of small loans repayable with interest. Furthermore, each year a significant part of village rates, by far the main source of funds available to Village Councils, was not collected, owing to the inability or unwillingness of villagers to pay them. The Inspector of Villages tended to blame the Chairmen of the Village Councils for this state of affairs, accusing them of dereliction of duty and criticizing them for their reluctance to resort to legal proceedings to enforce rate payments. Occasionally, as was the case of Agricola in 1898, villages also suffered because of the misappropriation of rates by dishonest Village Overseers.
The truth, however, was that in the absence of a subvention from the government, even if all the rates were collected, the Village Councils would still have been short of funds to maintain and develop the villages properly. The uncollected rates, however, made the situation worse, preventing the Councils from being able to undertake budgeted works in relation to drainage, roads and sanitation.
The condition of the villages was obviously partly a result of the quality of their administration, especially the sense of responsibility and enterprise of the Village Chairman and the efficiency and integrity of the Village Overseer. The Overseer, a full-time salaried employee of the Village Council, played a crucial role in the collection of rates and the execution of village projects.
Determined Village Chairmen were sometimes able to ensure the collection of a high proportion of rates by putting an effective system in place and, if necessary, by exerting pressure on the villagers to pay their rates by taking legal proceedings against them. For example the success of the Council of Den Amstel and Fellowship in 1902-3 in securing the highest proportion (97 per cent) of collected rates was attributed to "firmness on the part of the Chairman in insisting on regular payments at stated times."
Problems arose in village administration as a result of poor judgement in the choice of Village Overseers and the lack of effective supervision by the Chairman of the Overseer, who sometimes used the opportunity to misappropriate village funds. The realization of the importance of having an efficient Overseer prompted the Council of Ann's Grove and Two Friends to dismiss its Overseer in 1898 "on account of inattention to his work" and to appoint a successor on probation. However, the overall view of the Inspector of Villages in relation to Village Overseers seems valid. He remarked: "I think that, as a whole, the Councils have been fortunate in their selections, but I am sorry to say, there have been, exceptions, which have caused considerable loss to some of the villages."
The administration of villages was sometimes adversely affected by a number of other factors, including the unwieldy size of the Council, a lack of harmony among the councillors, friction between the Chairman and other members of the Council and hostility between the Council and villagers.
In 1898, for example, Mr. Hinds, the Chairman of the Plaisance Village Council, tendered his resignation in response to complaints by some councillors and other villagers, much to the regret of the Inspector of Villages, who regarded the complaints as "frivolous and vexatious". However, one of his successors, W.J. Johnson, refused to resign although, according to the Inspector of Villages, "his office has not been a bed of roses" as a result of "uncalled for opposition and annoyance on the part of some of the Villagers."
About one hundred years ago many coastal and riverain villages were also facing economic problems, especially in the key area of agriculture, which was the main source of subsistence and income for many villagers. With the exception of rice, which was beginning to be grown in small quantities in some villages, most of the crops cultivated were perishable. Paramount among them were ground provisions, especially cassava, yams, tannias and sweet potatoes, but some fruits, vegetables, plantains, coffee and cocoa were also cultivated. In a few villages there were scattered patches of sugarcane, with only Beterverwagting, with no more than 30 acres, having any significant area in canes. Cane farming on village lands was not making much progress for two main reasons. Firstly, most villagers did not see any benefit in giving up growing food crops in order to cultivate sugarcane. Secondly, village farmland was split up into lots which were too small to permit the cultivation of cane on a large and remunerative scale.
Agriculture in most coastal villages was in a precarious state. It was adversely affected by the vagaries of the weather (especially severe drought and very heavy rainfall), inadequate drainage, breaches in sea and riverain defence, the high cost of steam-driven drainage machinery, pests and disease, the inadequate knowledge of farmers and the small profit gained from the sale of ground provisions. Although these individually and collectively were formidable obstacles, the major problem which village farmers faced was what the Inspector of Villages rightly described in his 1903 Report as "the crushing weight of Praedial Larceny".
Because of praedial larceny and other disincentives, peasant agriculture in African villages around 1900 was in a state of severe depression. Large areas of land were completely uncultivated and much of the rest was cultivated in only a perfunctory manner, some beds being tilled and others untilled. According to the Inspector of Villages in his 1899 Report, "nearly all the coffee and fruit trees in most of the villages have been allowed to die for want of attention".
This apparent neglect of agriculture was due partly to the fact that many adult African males left the coast for several months each year to seek their financial fortunes in gold mining in the interior. This temporary migration created labour problems in the villages, forcing some African villages to have to hire free East Indians to undertake necessary works in drainage and road maintenance.
Villages one hundred years ago also had problems in the area of sanitation and health. Their two most urgent needs in sanitation were an adequate pure water supply for drinking purposes and an efficient method for the disposal of faecal matter. Poor sanitation was the cause of many diseases found in villages, especially those conveyed by impure water, such as dysentery, diarrhoea and enteric fever and those transmitted by insects, especially malaria and yellow fever.
This situation was partly a result of the attitude of the Central Board of Health which, influenced by the inadequate collection of rates in many villages, did little or no work there. Thus although in the towns malaria was being tackled through the use of quinine, there were very few anti-malaria measures being undertaken in the villages.
Lack of funds made it difficult for villages to address the problems of sanitation adequately. Some of them, however, were making some progress. For example, in 1898 the Village Council of Bagotville applied for and secured a loan of $410.00 to perform certain sanitary works with the result that the situation was "much improved". Furthermore, according to the Inspector of Villages, it "made a reservoir by which the villagers are now supplied with good drinking water." "Not surprisingly, the Chairman, Councillors and Overseer of the Village were lauded by the Inspector for keeping the village "in good order".
In short, one hundred years ago coastal and riverain villages in Guyana were grappling with a diversity of problems, some geophysical and others administrative, financial, economic and medical. Owing to these problems most of these villages were in a depressed state and their inhabitants were experiencing a disturbing deterioration in their quality of life.