'The Chinese settlement of Hopetown: Expectation and disappointment'
By Tota C. Mangar
June 10, 2004
O Tye Kim began his project of an exclusive settlement with a party of twenty-five Chinese immigrants. He commenced land clearing and the construction of huts. By the end of March 1865 the area had 70 settlers and this was increased to 150 including 21 women, five months later. Governor Hincks was impressed with the progress and he described the venture as "a most interesting experiment and I have formed very great expectations of a satisfactory result."
In October 1865 Vice Admiral Sir James Hope of the British Navy visited the colony. He accompanied Governor Hincks to the site of the settlement and in honour of such a distinguished visitor it was named Hopetown.
By the end of December 1865 the settlement had 170 immigrants. O Tye Kim encouraged occupations of different kinds including charcoal production, shingle manufacture and poultry and pig-rearing. A store was opened to cater for village supplies. Over fifty acres of heavily timbered forest were cleared and crops including rice and cash crops were introduced. The settlers had initially overcome numerous difficulties including excessive rainfall and a flooded creek. By the end of the year Governor Hincks was describing Hopetown as an "acknowledged success."
Charcoal production quickly emerged as the most significant aspect of the settlement's economy. By early 1866 Hopetown was averaging 1700 barrels of charcoal monthly. In this regard Chinese settlers adopted a new technique in the production process. Instead of pit digging as was traditionally employed by Portuguese and Creoles they built clay ovens with walls three to five feet in thickness. As a consequence a better quality of charcoal was produced. Of added significance was the breaking of the Portuguese monopoly of the trade especially in the populated towns of Georgetown and New Amsterdam and the reduction of the price by about thirty per cent.
It was this real threat that caused the Portuguese charcoal producers and traders to complain about the effects of Chinese competition. Within two years of its establishment Hopetown had 40 charcoal ovens. O Tye Kim's plan of establishing a settlement to primarily spread Christianity was overshadowed by the pursuit of economic prosperity. While the population continued to increase less than half were Christians. Even so O Tye Kim's missionary role received official recognition from the local clergy. In August 1866 the Court of Policy approved a salary of 200 pounds per annum in addition to 100 pounds as travelling expenses for him. This was a clear testimony of the esteem in which the missionary was held. In any event he laid the foundation for the subsequent large-scale conversion of Chinese immigrants in the colony.
When everything at Hopetown seemed to be progressing satisfactorily the missionary and architect of Hopetown was involved in a scandal that shocked his acquaintances including the Governor and other leading officials of the colony. The first hint of controversy surfaced in February 1866, when Revenue Officer, T.G Wright reported that complaints were made by Chinese settlers that O Tye Kim was demanding a quarter of all charcoal production from them and he was surcharging settlers four cents per barrel for transportation of the charcoal. Official Tubman also reported that based on his investigation no proper accounts were being kept in relation to charcoal production and its sale to Chinese shops in Georgetown and other areas. Further it was revealed that the missionary was renting out lands on the banks of the Kamuni Creek and was not issuing receipts for the rents collected.
Wright for his part recommended an investigation in the operation of the entire settlement and Kim's role in its fiscal management. The investigation was very slow to get off the ground since Governor Hincks was by this time embroiled in controversy with both his Chief Justice, Charles Beaumont and his Immigration Agent General, James Crosby.
As if there were no end to O Tye Kim's problems, charges of immorality were levelled against him. He was accused of having an intimate relationship with a coloured woman who was by then pregnant. The latter charge shocked church officials.
Publicly disgraced O Tye Kim was so embarrassed that he made a secret departure from the settlement he founded. With the help of three settlers he left by boat for the Essequibo Coast and Moruka and then through the Orinoco to Trinidad. Police were sent on his trail but found no trace of him.
A public inquiry was subsequently ordered into the financial management of Hopetown under O Tye Kim. The investigation was hampered by the lack of tangible evidence due to non-existent record-keeping and the non-issuance of receipts. Moreover settlers were reluctant to come forward with evidence.
The public scandal along with the sudden departure of O Tye Kim put a damper on the experiment. As so often happens in history other problems increasingly surfaced. There was the exhaustion of wood supplies for charcoal production in the immediate environment. Settlers were frustrated in not receiving titles to land despite numerous assurances. The settlement continued to suffer from periodic flooding due to heavy rainfall and overflow of creek water. Birds and wild animals created havoc among the cash crops. Rice suffered from a want of adequate drying facilities and transportation and communication networks were poor.
Governor Hincks who was impressed with O Tye Kim's missionary zeal and ability ended up being a very disappointed administrator. The Board of Trustees was grossly incompetent and ineffective. It neglected the settlement and it left administrative matters solely in the hands of the missionary. Following the end of Hincks' tenure in office Hopetown went into a slow and continuous decline.
The founding of the settlement of Hopetown could be regarded as an important landmark in the history of Chinese in Guyana. It was born out of the missionary zeal and concern for the moral and spiritual upliftment of Chinese immigrants by O Tye Kim with full support from Governor Hincks. As a surveyor himself O Tye Kim ought to have recognised the likely difficulties to be posed by such a site development. The Board of Trustees shirked its responsibilities, and instead allowed the missionary the luxury of administrative and fiscal management - expertise that was sadly lacking.
In the end, scandal and controversy engulfed the settlement. Hopetown which initially flourished could no longer answer to its name and settlers were forced to leave for urban and coastal centres where they pursued other business ventures.
Despite its initial failure the Hopetown Experiment aided succeeding administrators in formulating policies relating to immigrant village policies. A mere decade and a half later an innovative village development scheme was promoted in the form of the "Huist D'ieren Experiment" that paved the way for the emergence of several predominantly East Indian coastal villages before the turn of the century. The Hopetown Experiment could also be seen as a pioneering effort in the opening up of interior and riverine locations within the then colony of British Guiana.