Tropical Splendour: Reflections on Georgetown's Botanical Gardens

History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
October 14, 2005

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With hundreds of ornate flowers neatly arranged on spacious beds, Georgetown's Botanical Gardens were once regarded as the largest and finest in the British West Indies. The seeds for the creation of this horticultural heirloom were sown by the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society who decided at a meeting on April 3, 1877 that a Botanical and Horticultural Gardens be established in Georgetown. In the circumstance a committee comprising of Messrs J. Hampden King, Henry Watson, Henry Kirke, John S Hill, W.H. Campbell and R.W. Imlach was formed.

Their proposal was favourably considered and the Attorney General and Messrs Robert Smith and William Russell were appointed to plan the scheme.

In 1879 further steps were taken when a Board of Directors, chaired by Hon. J.E. Tinne, was appointed by the Royal Agricultural & Commercial Society to advise on the formation of a Botanic Garden which would be devoted to the study of local flora and the introduction of economic and ornamental plants from other tropical and sub-tropical countries.

The site identified for the creation of the Botanic Garden was that of an abandoned sugar estate which was described by the Board of Directors as "an area of waste land which was intersected by the remains of old trenches and drains, which, during wet weather, became a swamp." The Shelter Belt, currently the Guyana Water Incorporated, was also purchased from the proprietors of Plantation Bel Air and retained as an experimental station.

In 1883, a loan of $240,000 was secured for the execution of the following:

Purchase of the Botanic Gardens $52,140.95

Labour $95,016.73

Expenses $15,861.99

Surveying and lining $1,410.34

Plants $1,609.85

Cartage $2,466.87

Manure $2,342.19

Building $2,619.26

Irrigation $26,571.86

Drainage $7,090.93

Salary and allowance $13,534.61

Stock $373.94

Insurance $36.00

The Court of Policy, the administrative body responsible for the governing of British Guiana, in 1883 approved the design submitted by the Government Botanist of Trinidad, Mr J Prestoe. The project commenced under the supervision of Mr J.F. Waby who was sent from the botanic gardens of Trinidad.

Mr G.S. Jenman, a former Superintendent of Castleton Gardens, Jamaica, who had been appointed as the government botanist of British Guiana in 1879, soon replaced him. It was under the astute direction of Jenman that the gardens blossomed. One aspect of the original plan, the construction of a glasshouse to house exotic plants, was never executed owing to financial problems.

Two ready-made avenues of oronoque trees, which probably lined the main walkway of the old sugar estate, would be the main feature of the new gardens.

They were planted on either side with a variety of trees, some representative of the country's forests and others introduced from abroad.

Specimens of the local trees grown included the Sand Box Tree, balata tree, the water cacao and the silk cotton tree.

Foreign trees included the Manicheel tree, common on the shores of West Indian islands, the tailpot palm, indigenous to India and Ceylon, the Ylang-Ylang tree of Burma and the banyan tree that is sacred in India.

In 1934 the garden was described as one divided by "a broad central avenue running east and west, which passes through the flower garden. On the northern side are the artificial lakes whilst the southern section is laid out as open lawns interspersed with flower beds and trees."

To alleviate the drainage of the swampy land, large artificial lakes were dug and the soil was used to fill the old trenches and other depressions, to raise the level of the central roadway. It was also a source of burnt earth, which was used to surface the avenues and pathways of the garden.

This earth was said to have made "very beautiful smooth roads, with its dark red colour which affords a good contrast to the grass that is restful to the eye." During the rainy season, the avenue of the garden was repeatedly washed away. This problem would later be resolved when it was paved over. To connect the islands created by the digging of the artificial lakes, wooden bridges were first used, but in the 1890 they were replaced by the ornate cast iron structures present today.

For the flower beds and flower garden drainage was carried out by a series of tile drains and irrigation was made possible through a large iron tank which was filled by a steam-driven pump and the water distributed by a series of pipes. Unfortunately this system did not alleviate the drainage problems. In 1902 the present open drains were laid down by Mr B. Gainfort, an engineer, of the Public Works Department.

In 1905 the irrigation trench at the back of the gardens was dug to provide an independent supply of water directly from the Lamaha Canal.

During the early stages of planning the gardens, it was resolved by the Board that besides providing attractive pleasure grounds for the citizens of the country, the gardens should be established as a centre for agricultural investigation. As early as 1881, Jenman commenced experiments in the cultivation of sugar cane, fodder grasses, coffee, cacao, fibres, pineapples and other fruits such as mangoes and even grapes. Later experiments included rice, rubber, balata and other indigenous forest products.

An examination of the Reports of the Botanical Gardens in 1903 - 1904 indicated that the gardens had successfully cultivated cotton and onions, which were distributed to the estates of J. Junior at Vryheid's Lust and J. Vieira of Plantation Springlands. In addition, experiments had expanded to facilitate the cultivation of dholl seeds that had been imported from the Director of the Royal Gardens in Calcutta.

Other crops planted by the Agricultural Research Department included jute, sisal hemp and ginger. Of further interest was the export of ten bags of cotton cultivated in the gardens in 1906 to the Imperial Institute where it was exhibited at a 'Cotton Exhibition' held in London.

By the 1930s on the northern side of the main avenue, near the circle where motorists circle presently the site of the seven ponds and the Mausoleum, a model apiary of the Department of Agriculture was established.

A visitor to the garden could observe fields of rice on either side. These, together with an area to the southeast where fruits and vegetables were grown for experimental purposes, were connected to a Government Stock Farm and a Sugar Experiment Station.

A Nursery originally located at the northern end of the Lodge, an ornate wooden structure that presently houses the Jenman Education Centre, also cultivated several varieties of oranges, spices (nutmeg) and Brazilian Rubber seedlings, which were sold. In addition, the Gardens also earned considerable revenue through the sale of flower plants, in particular orchids, ornamental ferns, palms and flowering plants.

This lodge, which was utilised for the meetings of the board of the Botanical Gardens, is adorned with a fine brass clock, which was installed as a memorial to G.S. Jenman who died in 1902.

It is also interesting to note that the Botanical Gardens not only bore the responsibility of maintaining their environment but also the smaller gardens in the town. References in the annual reports of the Botanical Gardens included in the British Guiana Administrative Reports 1883 - 1935 indicate that the grounds of Parliament Buildings, the Victoria Law Court, Government House, the Old Military Burial Ground, the Berbice Botanic Gardens and the Municipal Garden were maintained by the administration of the Botanical Gardens.

For the purpose of social recreation benabs were once constructed at the back of the gardens. Special applications had to be filled out for those desirous of having picnics and school retreats.

Early records indicate that some of the benabs and trees had been destroyed by fires caused by patrons who cooked within the vicinity of this area. Though not prohibited, officials discouraged the lighting of fires for any purpose within the grounds of the Botanical Gardens.

The bandstand which was erected in 1899 in memory of Mr Brummell, Sheriff of Demerara, by his Worship Mayor J.A. Murdoch, Esq., still stands today a charming reminder of an era when concerts by the British Guiana Militia Band were a key ingredient in the cultural life of Guyana.

Originally the Band performed every second Tuesday evening in the garden. However, in 1906 the Government granted permission for the band to play one Sunday every month. They were paid $36.00 for every performance.

This action was probably as a result of J.B. Harrison, the Director of Science and Agriculture of British Guiana, who noted that with the exception of the days when the band plays ''very few people visit the gardens, and the number that do so especially in the morning and early afternoon is largely made up of tourists and others making a short stay.''

The tropical splendour of Georgetown's Botanical Gardens was immortalised by the representatives of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Film Company and the Empire Marketing Board who photographed the surreal environment in 1933 for the production of a film.

Today, though still beautiful, the Botanical Gardens are a mere shadow of their former glory. Garden art is one of the oldest forms of culture. It represents a living monument, a composition of architecture and vegetation, which is of public interest from a historic or artistic viewpoint.