A brief history of the steamer service in Guyana 1825-1925
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
August 26, 2005

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Today the Steamer service, which has for many years provided an effective and relatively cheap form of transportation, appears to be declining, partly as a result of modernisation and the emergence of smaller and faster, privately-owned vessels that ply the country's numerous rivers daily.

Early History

The steamer service in Guyana dates back to the 19th century when the colonial government contracted a few privately-owned steamers to provide transportation for commuters and, more importantly, for the shipping of produce from the rural areas.

The first official documentation of a steamer service can be traced to the establishment of a Local Steamer Navigation Company, which appears to have been founded in 1825. This company commenced operations in 1826 with the Cambria, an immigrant ship, which was purchased for the sum of $50,000.

Expansion and Regulations

A few years later, the colonial authorities on August 24, 1828 established a steamer service across the Demerara River. In 1838, ten years later, operations were expanded as the steamer Royal Victoria commenced operations between Georgetown, Esse-quibo and Berbice. The transportation route was soon extended to the island of Leguan when Lady Flora Hastings was contracted on August 12, 1841.

In 1841 two important ordinances were passed by the Combined Court to allow for the expansion of ferry services in Guyana. The first, Ordinance No. 5 of 1841, was intended to 'promote and encourage steam navigation between British Guiana and other places.' The second, Ordinance No. 6 of 1841, led to the creation of the British Guiana Steam Navigation Company, which would later execute and control the government's actions as regards the provision and expansion of ferry services in Guyana.

The mid 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the number of steamers contracted by the government. By the 1850s other privately-owned vessels were also contracted to extend the transportation network across the various rivers. On October 10, 1850, the Tyne, a vessel owned and operated by Mr. Bayles, was commissioned to operate between George-town, Essequibo and Berbice.

In 1855 the Colonial officials imposed further regulations as the Georgetown Harbour Regulations ordinance was passed. This led to the creation of the post of the Harbour Master who was responsible for the operation of ferry services and other maritime activities throughout the country.

In May 1857, the Combined Court approved the release of $40,000 for steam communication between Georgetown and Berbice and Georgetown and Demerara. In 1858 and 1859 two additional steamers were contracted by the colonial authorities to operate across the Berbice and Essequibo rivers exclusively.

Despite these actions, the potential of the ferry service fell short of expectations as the steamers traversed the routes at the very least twice per month. Schedules of departure and arrival dates were advertised in the Royal Gazette, the Berbice Gazette and sometimes in the Colonist.

A New Era

The latter half of the 19th century saw the emergence of Sprostons Interests, a company which had been awarded the contract to effect all ferry operations in Guyana for the Government in 1860.

Who was Hugh Sproston?

In 1840 Hugh Sproston arrived in Demerara to manage the interests of a London ship owner with whom he had worked when he was only 15 years old. Five years later he established his own business, originally as a merchant. The pressing need for a regular steamer service caught his attention and a few years later he established Sprostons Limited.

Establishing a Dry Dock

During the early years of operating a steamer service, many of the flat-bottomed vessels, which ferried bauxite from Guyana to Trinidad, were damaged and had to be repaired in the United States, as there existed no dry dock facilities in British Guiana to effect the works needed to make the vessels seaworthy.

At the request of Hugh Sproston a team of British and American engineers surveyed several areas in Guyana, capable of holding ships 200 feet long with an estimated weight of 800 tons. An area at Charlestown was selected but the early efforts left Sproston close to ruin, as the Cofferdam erected to protect the dock gave way, destroying everything.

Nevertheless, Sproston persevered and on 26 October 1867 His Excellency Governor Hincks and his wife declared Sprostons dry dock open. It was christened by Mrs. Hincks as 'she loosed a silken cord to which a bottle of wine was attached against the iron gates.' At the opening ceremony, the steamer Berbice was decorated 'with flags from stem to stem.'

Further Expansion and Improvements

During the 1870s and 1880s Sproston did much to improve ferry services thoughout Guyana. 1878 represents a watershed in the history of steamer operations in Guyana as Sprostons operated a daily ferry service to Essequibo.

On December 11, 1878, the Sproston Creole, the first steamer built by Sprostons' dry dock in Guiana, commenced operations. Other steamers such as the Guiana (1879), Charlestown (1881), Sproston Wood (1881), Amy (1886), Horatio (1886), New Amsterdam (1887) and the steam tug, Cuyuni (1884) bolstered ferry services in the country. The areas navigated also increased. For example, in 1881 ferry services were extended from the Demerara River to Lucky Spot and along the Berbice River from New Amsterdam to Comaka.

Examples of other steamers operated by Sprostons under exclusive contract from the government included Eluza, Malali and the launches Gertie, Elfreda and Piranah. Steamers were divided into two sections, First Class and Second Class.

Tickets for First Class during the 1880s cost $2.00, while the Second Class cost 48 cents. First-Class passengers travelled in luxury saloons. The high price of a ticket ensured that the passengers would be exclusively white and a few rich Creoles. Second class, on the other hand, meant that one had to travel together with cargo, which often included cattle and produce.

In 1894, Sproston extended his interests to Linden, acquiring a portion of the Patterson Plantation, which had been acquired by the Government. During that year a steamer service was established between Georgetown and Rockstone. By 1914 Sprostons' fleet consisted of some 15 ships, traversing the interior. They were classified as Class A1 ships, all built at Lloyds in London.

Trade & Commerce

Whilst Sprostons' ingenuity transformed the steamer service for transport in Guyana, the actions of Booker Brothers successfully established international trade links to and from Guyana.

The Liverpool House of the Booker Family originally operated businesses through the firm of Messrs Lucas, Cook and Company. In 1829, after the death of William Lucas, George and Richard Booker founded Booker Brothers & Company (Demerara), buying out the business interests of their business associates, Messrs Lucas and Cook.

During the early years of operation they contracted several boats for shipping produce to and from Demerara. These vessels included Elizabeth, which was purchased in 1835 and sold in 1837 for 1, 220 pounds sterling, the Palmyra (1837), Standard Wood (1839), the Lancaster (1844 - 1853), the Excelsior, a square rig, purchased in 1850 and sold in 1865, the Royal George (1854) and John Harrocks, a brig of 350 tons purchased in 1841 and wrecked in 1854.

Trade routes were effectively established between Georgetown and Liverpool via Vera Cruz, Jamaica and Rio in 1867. Chartered vessels were employed for shipping until 1918 when the Company established the Booker Line.

The first fleet consisted of three vessels: the Imataka, which was purchased in 1911, the Castillian Prince, renamed the Amakura, which was purchased in 1912, and the steamer, Arakaka, which was purchased in 1913. The first two vessels were sunk in the First World War and the third was sold in 1922.

Two years later two new ships were purchased; they were also christened the Amakura and the Arakaka. Like their predecessors, they were also sunk, during the Second World War.

Changing Hands

The First World War proved to be very profitable for Sprostons as numerous ships were repaired at the dry dock. By 1923, however the company began a slow downward spiral. Its interests were purchased by the Aluminium Company Limited based in Montreal, Canada.

One plausible hypothesis for the decline of Sprostons could be the establishment of the Transport and Harbours Department. In 1919, based on the recommendation of Gerald O Case, a Harbour Board was formed to raise loans on the security of harbour dues - to undertake works to improve harbour facilities.

Under the regulations of Ordinance No. 2 of 1919, the Board created consisted of the Governor, who acted as the Chairman, the Comptroller of Customs, who acted as Vice-Chairman, the Harbour Master, merchants and private owners. The objective of this new list of regulations was to improve the harbours of Georgetown and to establish similar facilities in other parts of the country. Revenue for these tasks was to be derived from tonnage dues and taxes.

In 1925, a hydrographic survey of the Essequibo River was undertaken and feasibility studies were executed for the establishment of a Bartica Terminus.

The actions of the Harbour Board and the new regulations soon gave way to the government asserting control of the transportation network that it had contracted to Sprostons to operate. This was done under the guidance of the Colonial Steamer Service.

In 1922, the Colonial Steamer Service became the Government Steamer Service. It was later amalgamated with the Demerara Railway to form the Colonial Transportation Department. It marked the end of one era and the beginning of another, a change of the guards.