Social conditions in British Guiana, 1914-1918
By Arlene Munro
Stabroek News
May 13, 2004

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The administrator of British Guiana when the First World War began in 1914 was Sir Walter Egerton. He was succeeded by Sir Wilfred Collett in March 1917. It was a period of economic hardship and strikes. The aim of this paper is to examine the social conditions in British Guiana during the First World War.

The First World War started in 1914. The Report of the Director of Primary Education for 1914 reveals that reading, writing, arithmetic, English and Geography, drawing and manual occupations (paper folding, clay or plasticine modelling), Nature Knowledge, Hygiene and Infant Care, Singing, Drill and Needlework were taught.

School gardens were kept in an unsatisfactory manner. All schools in Georgetown and New Amsterdam were visited once a quarter by an Inspector.

During the First World War there was a building programme for the renovation of extant schools and the construction of new schools. 228 schools received grants-in-aid for this programme in 1915. As a consequence, many schools made improvements to their buildings. Blackboards and maps were bought. Registers and journals were kept neatly.

Schools were threatened with withdrawal of the grant if defects were not fixed at the end of six months. Great renovation of buildings was done in response to these threats. There were still a few who barely fulfilled the requirements of the Code.

By the end of 1916 the Director was able to report that two schools had been entirely rebuilt and "a fairly large number" had undergone extensive repairs. Twelve schools had been rebuilt between 1911 and 1916 including St. George's, Victoria Roman Catholic, Friendship Roman Catholic, Agricola and Mindenburg. However, several school buildings were still in bad condition.

In 1916 the Canadian Presbyterian Church constructed a secondary school which was intended mainly for East Indians, but children from other races were also admitted. In 1917, a Canadian Presbyterian school building was handed over to the Canadian Presbyterian Mission at Plantation Wales on the West Coast of Demerara. It was built by the owners of the Estate for the instruction of East Indian children living on the estate. This reveals that some school building programmes were not funded by the government.

An Education Code was drafted and passed by the Court of Policy in February 1914. The regulations became operative on 1st April, 1914. In 1915 a Committee appointed to report on Primary Education submitted a draft code containing recommendations on the subject. The committee's objective was to strengthen the control exercised over Lower Primary Schools by the governing bodies of the denominations, to recognise that the teaching staff of the schools was directly responsible to the school managers and the denominational governing bodies, subject to general supervision by the Education Department and to reconstruct the financial clauses in such a manner that the money allocated for Primary Education by the Combined Court would be equitably distributed among the grant-in-aid schools without applying to the Combined Court for supplementary votes.

It was also to provide for East Indian education, to outline the system upon which the Upper Primary School may be established in the Colony and to leave matters of detail as far as possible to the discretion of the Governor-in-Council.

In 1917 another Education Code was drafted. The Director felt that the Draft Code was suitable and met "in a great measure the primary educational needs of the colony" that had been observed for several years. The code stated that the schools were to be inspected at anytime without notice.

It advocated that manual work should have a "practical and vocational bias". It could be gardening or simple handicraft. Physical training and practical lessons in hygiene were also advocated.

In 1916, the governor asked a Mr. Grannum who was on leave in England to attend a Conference on behalf of British Guiana with the guarantee that his expenses would be refunded to him. It was an Imperial Education Conference.

The Report of the Director of Primary Education for 1916 revealed that in Georgetown no less than 16 percent of the pupils attended school under 100 times in the year. In Leguan, Wakenaam and the East Bank Berbice the attendance was worse. In the East Bank Berbice District 32 percent of the children made less that 200 attendances, while in the Pomeroon where the tide affected school attendance, only 37 percent of the children attended school between 100 and 200 times.

In 1917, 228 schools were examined during the year. Some schools still needed to be repaired. No new buildings had been added to the list. Schools on the West Coast of Demerara, the lower Corentyne Coast and in the Mahaica District did not receive any visit from the Inspector of Schools. This was due to the "long drawn out agony of the Board of Education".

In 1917, Ordinance No. 6 was passed to provide for the obtaining of permission by persons other than British subjects to undertake Missionary or educational works in British Guiana. Rev. J. B. Cropper, the Superintendent of the Canadian Presbyterian Mission, wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies about the protest from certain clergymen against the Education Ordinance.

On 25th February 1914, the Combined Court proposed that the salary of the Director of Primary Education be increased from 625 pounds to 750 pounds. The salaries of the other officers in the Education Department were also to be improved. However, with the outbreak of the war this issue was not addressed until peace was restored in 1918.

From 1913 quinine was supplied to schools in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and other schools by the Surgeon General's Department. The headteachers of ten schools claimed that less children suffered from fever after taking the quinine.

In July 1916, a scheme for the medical examination of all the children attending the Georgetown schools was submitted to the Department of the Surgeon General. The programme received the approval of the Department and the government.

The Onderneeming Industrial School was visited by the Government Medical Officer who stated that he was satisfied that all buildings and rooms where there was likely to be any danger from the presence of flies had been made properly fly proof with wire gauze, in accordance with his instructions.

The Superintendent reported that the campaign for exterminating the flies and their breeding places on lines advocated by the Government Biologist was resulting in a reduction of the nuisance to a minimum.

During the war period the Governor of British Guiana discussed with the Secretary of State the issue of assistance given to churches by the Government. The following churches received assistance: -

Scots Church $1.14 c/s

Anglican Church 54 c/s

Roman Catholic Church 38 c/s

Wesleyan Church 24 c/s

Other Churches 2 c/s

Sir Collett did not think it necessary for the government to subsidise any church except for missionary purposes. He, however, approved of subsidization of missions to the Aboriginal Indians and immigrant East Indians because it was "impossible for them to be self-supporting".

Collett also condemned the richer churches, which required large subsidies from the revenue of the colony to which the poor members of other denominations contributed. The Scots Church received more assistance than the others. The smaller churches, e.g. Congregationalists and Wesleyans, were self-supporting. Collett made these observations because he had received a manorial from the Bishop and Moderator of the Church of Scotland stating that some of their clergymen had not received a war bonus.

On 23rd April the Combined Court passed a resolution authorizing that on the retirement of certain Ministers of Religion named in the resolution, they should be granted such pension as might have been allowed to them if they had been officers on the Fixed Establishment of the Colony.

Ordinance No. 2 of 1916, was passed in order to regulate the position of the Salvation Army in the colony by creating a corporation capable of being represented by one of the officers of the Salvation Army as holder of his power of Attorney.

In 1918, a bill was passed to repeal the Board of Education, 1910, and to establish a new Board of Education. By 1918 there were 225 schools with 32, 167 children.

It appears that during the war period there was an upsurge in crime perhaps because of the shortages of food and materials and the hoarding and black-marketing practised by some shopkeepers. Statistics of corporal punishment reveal that orders were passed by the Supreme Court, the Magistrates, the Inspector of Prisons, the Government Industrial School, and the Orphan Asylum for corporal punishment to be inflicted on persons who had committed misdemeanours. The total number of corporal punishments in 1913 was 33. This increased to 44 in 1914, dropped to 37 in 1915, rose to 41 in 1916 and fell to 22 in 1917. Therefore, there was an increase in corporal punishment from 1913 to 1916, which reflects an increase in crime.

In the year 1914-1915 the criminal statistics show a decrease of 322 cases less than the number reported in 1913. There was an increase of praedial larceny. 173 cases were reported as against 63 in 1913-1914. In 1914, 436 were prosecuted, 336 were convicted, 56 were acquitted, and 44 cases were withdrawn.

In 1915 there was no increase in petty theft and there was a decrease in more serious forms of offences against property. This is significant since many people were unemployed at the beginning of the year, yet they did not resort to crime. During the crop season there was an increase in the number of people employed in handling produce who were caught stealing sugar and rum. Two criminals were executed on 10th July 1915 for the offence of murder tried at the Supreme Criminal Court in Georgetown.

In 1914 an "unusually large number of children" were convicted of theft. However, there was a reduction in the number of juvenile offenders in 1915.

In 1915 there was an increase of 229 cases over the number reported in 1914. There were increases in offences against the person, disorderly conduct and Sunday trading. In 1917 6,278 persons were charged for various offences, while 6,357 were charged in 1916. Of the 6,357 cases in 1916, seven were murder cases. Two cases were withdrawn, three were acquitted and two convicted.

The Governor inspected the penal settlement at Mazaruni. He was impressed by the management of the settlement. The buildings were not in good condition. He stated: "The prison was originally a Dutch one, and it contains many cells in which no-one should be confined except for the very shortest periods. They are low down, badly lighted and ventilated, and very damp". However, he described the hospital as a fine one.

It is noteworthy that the Governor of British Guiana wrote asking for information on electricity supplied by waterfalls in Canada. He suggested that waterfalls in the colony could be used to generate electricity for the coastland and the city of Georgetown. He also suggested that a railway from Georgetown to the Brazilian frontier be operated with electrical power. The result of this communication is unknown. Other persons also observed the potential of waterpower in British Guiana. In 1918, J. B. Harrison wrote a letter to Professor Watts about the waterpower in the Mazaruni, Cuyuni and Potaro Rivers. The second instalment of the article will examine other features of the social conditions of British Guiana during the First World War.

During the First World War there was some improvement in social conditions in British Guiana. For example 228 schools were renovated and Education Codes were drafted. School medical services were ameliorated. However, there was an upsurge in criminal activity.

This instalment will focus especially on health conditions and legal matters in the colony during the war period. There were seven medical officers who served the government, namely, F.T. Wills, E.H. Gewand, J.S. Douglas, A.A. McKinnon, A. Matthey, C.H. Downer and Nedd. Drs. Downer and Nedd left the service. Drs. Douglas, McKinnon and Matthey remained.

The most common diseases and illnesses in the villages in 1914 were malaria, pneumonia, bronchitis, influenza, ankylostomiasis and intestinal disorders. On the estates of Buxton and Peter's Hall there was a severe epidemic of influenza. Dysentery occurred at Port Mourant and Albion. The highest rate of mortality was for the maladies phthisis, pneumonia, Bright's disease, enteric fever and dysentery. The enteric fever and tuberculosis were encouraged by the overcrowding and lack of ventilation in the building occupied by the poorer classes in Georgetown.

The number of in and outpatients increased during the last six months of 1915. During the last nine months of 1915 there were 9,187 inpatients and 27,885 outpatients.

The wave of increased sickness and mortality was the cause of this.

Many babies below the age of one died in 1915. The infant mortality rate for the colony was 184 per 1,000 births and for the City of Georgetown 228. Both these rates were higher than the previous year (170 and 210 respectively in 1914). The Baby Saving League completed its second year of work.

In 1915, 156 deliveries of babies took place during the nine months. The actual member of births on the estates during 1915 was 2,213 (2,463 in 1914) and of deaths 1,392 (1,263 in 1914). Infantile enteritis was one of the causes of the high rate of infantile mortality in British Guiana, Europe and North America. There was a fall in the birth rate in the colony during 1916 due largely to the grave change in economic conditions and cost of living.

The report of the Surgeon-General for 1916 stated that malaria, hookworm disease and respiratory and intestinal disorders undermined the strength of the Guianese people during that year. One hundred and forty-five patients died from pneumonia. Phthisis caused 88 deaths and bronchitis 28 deaths. There were 823 deaths at the Public Hospital, Georgetown in 1916. By that time there were two dispensaries in Georgetown and five county dispensaries.

There were two hospitals in Georgetown and New Amsterdam.

Eighty-nine schools were visited by Government Medical Officers in 1916. The Government Dispensers also visited the schools in their district and gave advice and treatment.

In 1917, 69 people died from pneumonia, 32 people from phthisis, and 15 people from bronchitis. The number of births in Georgetown was 1,461, which was greater than the previous year, but three less than that of 1915. The number of deaths increased from 1,545 in 1915 to 1,617 in 1917. There was a decrease in the infant mortality rate from 228 in 1915 to 216 in 1917. The Surgeon-General commented on the "medical system of water supply and the inadequate system of sewage disposal."

In 1918, 56 persons died from enteric fever and 86 from pneumonia. Twenty-six died from bronchitis, 86 died from influenza, while 47 died from phthisis. There were 1,440 deaths in the Georgetown Public Hospital. The high mortality rate was due to the flu. There were 565 deliveries in 1918 at that same hospital.

Drainage and Irrigation Schemes received funding during this ear. The Combined Court approved the sum of $45,000 to be spent on three irrigation schemes. The irrigation schemes were for Fyrish and Gibraltar ($16,228), Bush Lot Country District ($15,000), and Craig Village District ($12,859). Owing to the war and the impossibility of raising a large loan, the irrigation schemes had to be deferred.

The Governor sent a copy of a Resolution passed in the Combined Court on the votes of the Elective Section, recommending that 25 per cent of the cost of the East Mahaica Drainage Scheme, as approved by Resolution of the Court of September 7, 1914, to be charged to the general revenue of the colony as was done in the case of sea defence works.

There were changes in the legal system during the war years. The Governor attempted to reform the legal system by sending the Report of the Committee appointed to consider which English statutes should be adopted in the colony to enable the law to be altered from Roman-Dutch to English. The Governor stated that he had already addressed the issue of the revised Common Law Bill and that of the ten subsidiary bills; one was forwarded to London in his dispatch No. 422 of December 10, 1915. The remaining nine - the Common Carriers' Bill; the Accidental Deaths and Workmen's Injuries' Bill; the Infants' Bill; the Deeds of Arrangement Bill; the Matrimonial Causes' Bill; the Registry of Deeds' Bill; and the Deceased Persons Estates' Bill - were bound up with the print of the Report of the Committee.

A new jury law was introduced. There were some half-hearted attempts to incite a protest against the ordinance. The Governor doubted that the persons opposing it had any real desire to have any part abrogated.

The Attorney-General proposed changes in the Law Department. He suggested that the posts of Solicitor-General, his clerk and messenger be abolished. He also recommended that an Assistant Attorney-General and a Fourth Class Clerk for typing and general office work should be substituted.

A proposal was made for partial amalgamation of the functions of barristers and solicitors. The Attorney-General recommended that local solicitors be afforded the facilities given to solicitors in the United Kingdom for call to the bar. After reaching "a certain standing in practice", they had to pass an examination qualifying them for call.

M. T. Berkeley stated that he was opposed to the amalgamation of the two branches of barristers and solicitors. He stated that there was a class of solicitors whose incomes were derived from practicing in the courts of Stipendiary Magistrates. Sometimes they took cases for a few shillings and this helped them to earn a living. Berkeley opined that if the branches were amalgamated, the solicitors would continue the same practice in the criminal jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. He felt that the remedy would be worse than the disease.

Reform in the legal system was also advocated by Cecil Clementi, Officer administering the Government in 1917. He wrote to the Secretary of State informing him that in 1912 Sir H. Bovell, Sir T. C. Raynor and Mr. Hewick expressed the view that Phillip N. Browne should be appointed one of His Majesty's Counsels, for British Guiana. A vacancy had been created in the King's Counsel due to the death of D. M. Hutson. Mr. Phillip N. Browne was a Negro. Clementi added that A. B. Brown, J. S. Arthur and Mr. G. Woolford had played prominent roles in the 'disgraceful agitation' against Sir Walter Egerton. On the other hand, Phillip N. Browne had continued to support the Government in relation to the attack on Sir Walter Egerton. Clementi felt that the appointment of a Negro barrister as King's Counsel would have a good effect on the colony.

The Governor claimed that the amount provided on the Civil List for Stipendiary Magistrates was 6,300 pounds, equivalent to $30,240. The amount provided on the Estimates for 1917 was only $20,288.

There was a large margin between the amount authorized by the Combined Court and that which was being expended. Secondly, the Governor appointed an additional magistrate because the magisterial staff was undermanned. The salary of the new post was to be 500 pounds per annum.

A West Indian Court of Appeal was proposed. It was decided that British Honduras would refer its appeals to Jamaica. The Governor stated that if the proposed Court of Appeal was established, the Secretary of State would have power to appoint an additional judge.

The next and final instalment will examine other aspects of the social conditions of British Guiana during the First World War.

During the First World War there was some improvement in social conditions in British Guiana. For example, schools were renovated, education codes were drafted, school medical services were ameliorated, and the legal system was reformed.

In addition, the government invested money in public works during this period. Road extensions were done in the year 1914. One was constructed in the Pomeroon to connect this area to the coast. Old roads were also reopened and this motivated farmers to apply for land and settlement. The East Bank Demerara Road was also extended. A new public road was constructed between Buxton and Felicity on the East Coast Demerara in 1916.

The estimated cost of this new road was $39,000.00. The British Guiana Combined Court at the first Special Session of 1916 by Resolution No. X approved the construction of this road at the cost of $39,999 which would be charged to the Loan Account. Meanwhile funds would be taken from Revenue and Surplus Balances.

The Governor sent a copy of a resolution passed in the Combined Court on the 7th December approving the construction of a new road between Three Friends and Reliance in the county of Essequibo being undertaken at an estimated cost, exclusive of land, of $15,400 as a charge against the Loan Account. An artesian well was sunk at the Naval Wireless Station at George-town. The work of boring started on 3rd March and ended on 17th March at the cost of $2,536.74.

Attempts were made to improve transportation facilities during the war years. The Governor received a letter from D Gordon Cameron, a member of the London Chamber of Commerce, applying on behalf of a syndicate which had been registered in London, for a grant of an exclusive permission to construct a railway to the Brazilian frontier or to the Venezuelan frontier or both, starting from the neighbourhood of Georgetown. This plan did not materialise.

The Railway Company was considering the question of an application to the government for financial assistance to help the Company to establish proper wharfage and storage facilities at their Georgetown Terminus. Mr McConnell of the firm of Messrs. Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co. stated that had he known that the Company planned to proceed with the wharfage scheme, he would not have negotiated with the Railway Company in preference to negotiating with Mr Campbell. He said that the scheme was an interference with his business and that he would discuss the issue with Mr Campbell. The result of this discussion is not known.

Governor Sir Wilfred Collett sent a report on the measures of relief which would be afforded to Sprostons Limited in relation to their contract steamer services. On 24th April 1918 a resolution was moved by the Acting Government Secretary approving the recommendations of the relevant committee and was passed in the Combined Court.

As late as 1915, indentured immigration was still being considered essential for the survival of the plantations. On 1st December 1915, the Combined Court passed a resolution asking the Governor to appoint a committee to consider and report upon the best means of increasing the introduction of immigrants, either free or under indenture. It also demanded the introduction of the "most equitable method of taxation to provide the funds necessary for immigration purposes."

Consequently, the Com-mittee on Immigration was appointed on 23rd February 1916. This committee had been formed before the receipt of the Secretary of State's letter stating that the Indian government had decided to abolish indentured immigration. The committee's work was modified after learning of the Indian government's intentions. The report of the Committee was presented to the Combined Court at its first special session in 1916. The report focused on immigration, the system of recruitment, inspection, shipping and sanitary regulations, indenture to government, the sex ratio, settlements of immigrants, education, and repatriation.

The Indian government's decision to terminate Inden-tureship must have disappointed the Court of Policy which had already asked for an addition of 1,540 immigrants so that they could receive 3,740 in 1916. This increased demand was due to expansion of the area under sugar cultivation. The Indentureship of Indian immigrants was officially terminated in 1917. In 1918 the final shipment of 1,630 arrived, while 1,407 departed for India.

In 1918, the Governor asked the Secretary of State to consider sending Chinese labourers to work in the colony after the war. He had heard that 150,000 Chinese were working in France as peasants and artisans and were labouring well in the rear of the fighting line and at the shipping ports. The British Guiana Sugar Planters' Association informed the government that it had asked the West India Committee in London about the possibility of obtaining after the war, Chinese labour employed on the Western front. This proposal was approved by the Governor. However, these plans did not come to fruition.

The war years were a period of industrial unrest due to the rise in the cost of living. Yet the Governor enquired of the Secretary of State whether unemployed workers of the United Fruit Company in Panama could be sent to British Guiana to work. In March 1918 the Elective members of the Combined Court asked whether it would not be possible to improve the position of some of the Sixth Class clerks in the Registry. The Governor thought that this suggestion was a good one.

Waterfront workers were also discontented. Therefore, Hubert N Critchlow organised a protest in 1916. In January 1917, the waterfront workers went on strike under his leadership. Due to Critchlow's successful negotiation, the Curtis Campbell Company offered the worker a nine-hour day with a lunch-break. They also received payment for overtime work and work done on Sundays and holidays. The truckers' wages were increased from 48 cents to 60 cents per day. With the abolition of the quarter-day system, the stevedores gained half-a-day's pay.

There was unrest among the Indian immigrants as well. The India Office observed that there was an 'abnormal number of strikes among East Indians ...' in British Guiana in 1916. It was noted that there had been an increase in suicides in 1916 and 1917 among the East Indians. On the eight plantations where the suicides had occurred in 1917 there had been no strikes. Cane Grove, Lusignan and Ogle were among the plantations where the suicides had occurred. It appears that conditions on plantations were so poor that the Indians resorted to strike action or suicide attempts.

Statistics revealed that there was an increase in wages between 1913 and 1917. However, the number of labourers was more than the supply which caused problems. On a sugar estate in Berbice during the week ending 3rd May 1918, the average wage earned by the males was 51 cents per day. Out of 1416 working days, only 828 were worked. There were 493 days of 'unlawful absence,' 12 days of absence with leave, and 83 days of sick leave for that year.

In conclusion, social conditions in British Guiana improved slightly between 1914 and 1918. On the one hand, some schools were renovated, education codes were drafted, school medical services were ameliorated and the legal system was reformed. Four new roads were constructed. On the other hand, health conditions remained the same. Malaria continued to be one of the common diseases in the colony. Pneumonia was the leading cause of death. There was an increase in criminal activity. The period was one of industrial unrest due to the high cost of living which was a consequence of the First World War. Indentured immigration which has been a support to the sugar industry since 1835 came to an end.