The Evolution of an Education System in Nineteenth-Century Colonial British Guiana
History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
Stabroek News
November 18, 2005

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Based on the available evidence, it is quite reasonable to conclude that very little was done during the long years of Dutch settlement and colonisation towards educating the slave population in their colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice. Such a situation was not entirely surprising as these early European colonisers focused almost exclusively on trading and agricultural development. Dutch planters were obviously more interested in the acquisition of an unskilled labour force for their estates and hence they saw nothing advantageous to themselves and their associates in attaching importance to education. Whatever little opportunity availed itself to the slaves came from the Church, and in particular the Dutch Reform Church, in the form of evangelisation and with the emphasis on qualities of spiritual and moral goodness.

The early years of British rule after 1796 witnessed a general reluctance and even discouragement on the part of planters to educate their slaves. Indeed, education was far from being a governmental policy and planters were highly suspicious of missionary activities. Planters were to a great extent, fearful that missionary work would go beyond the stage of proselytising and that their teaching might eventually incite slaves to rebel. With such an attitude around, the work of early missionaries was considerably hindered or even stymied from time to time.

For example, in 1805 John Hawkshaw, a Methodist clergyman, was promptly expelled when he attempted to provide religious instruction to slaves. In 1823 Reverend John Smith, a prominent member of the London Missionary Society (LMS), was blamed and made to suffer for the East Coast Demerara Slave Insurrection. In the first place, planters were preoccupied with their personal safety and also the economic stability and viability of their plantations. Coupled with this was their obvious fear and concern that "the notions of freedom and equality inherent in Christianity would lead to a disruption of slavery."

Despite tremendous odds, the London Missionary Society in particular did reach out to some slaves during the early stages of British rule. It was obvious that from the 1820s onwards some missionaries were making an impact in their efforts to educate the slave population. It was the Anglican church which established the St George's Free School in 1824 and five years later this body followed up with the opening of the All Saints School in New Amsterdam. All the same one ought to concede that the overall situation was such that there was the existence of a "mere embryonic structure of elementary or primary education" in the immediate pre-Emancipation era. It was only after 1833 that a formal system of elementary education emerged in the colony of British Guiana.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834 and under the apprenticeship scheme which ensued, all children of ex-slaves under the age of six years were regarded as free persons and this had serious implications. It led to the establishment of infant schools with the overall objective of providing day-care for children of the labouring class. Furthermore, the British government endorsed a plan for a state-subsidised religious and moral education. Towards this end it allocated the annual sum of 25,000 pounds as a Parliamentary Grant for Negro Education in the British West Indies. Of this figure British Guiana received a mere 1,430 pounds. In any event the underlying motive for providing education to children at this particular juncture was seemingly to groom them to become good servants and not so much as making them fit to live in society.

The immediate impact of the Education Grant in the colony was a marked increase in the number of schools established by various religious bodies. Most of these schools that emerged had their classes in church buildings and of significance was the fact that teachers were either clergymen or they were closely associated with the Church.

At this early stage the quality of education provided was grossly unsatisfactory due largely to inadequate numbers of qualified teachers. As a result the monitorial system dominated with monitors being used to teach the less academically gifted students under the supervision of the schoolmaster. Moreover, there was a high degree of absenteeism by children. In any case education, instead of affording the masses the opportunity of improving their lot, was subtly geared "towards the production of a servile, neo-citizenry who could remain a permanent labour force for the plantation system."

It was not altogether surprising that from around 1845 several of the denominational schools ended in closures. Adequate finance was a major problem. In this regard a serious blow was dealt by the Colonial Office itself. It implemented a phased withdrawal of the annual Education Grant. Con-sequently, the onus was left on local legislatures to shoulder the responsibility of financing education. This task was made even more difficult since various state-aided immigration schemes were given preference during this crucial stage of 'crisis, change and experimentation' and colonial British Guiana was no exception.

The Court of Policy, the colony's highest decision making body at the time, was prepared to offer only a pittance in terms of budgetary allocation towards education. Besides, the quality of education provided must have had a rebounding effect. It contributed to an attitude of nonchalance on the part of both parents and children towards the whole business of education. Of added significance also was the fact that ex-slaves were moving off the plantations. With a mobile population resulting from both exodus and immigration, it was rather unsettling for parents and children to view education seriously.

The depressing situation was further exacerbated by the Civil List crisis of 1848-1849. The consequential stoppage of supplies led to a withdrawal of service of several headmasters because of the uncertainty of receiving salaries and education grants. School attendance was also badly affected. It fell from an average of 3,026 in 1848 to that of 1,686 the following year.

In 1844 Queen's College was established. Initially this development was primarily intended to provide for those whites who could ill-afford to send their children to Europe for a classical education. Non-whites had to be "extra-ordinarily gifted" to find themselves at this institution and by 1848 only two Negro boys were attending the school in addition to white students.

Mr John Mc Swiney was appointed the first Inspector of Schools in 1849 and the following year a Board of Education was formed. Following his assumption of duty, Mc Swiney visited schools country-wide and submitted a detailed report for the general improvement of the education system. Among his recommendations were local governmental control of education, compulsory attendance at schools, better record keeping and more qualified teachers. Despite these calls there was very little encouragement from the highly influential and powerful plantocracy and his proposals were not implemented.

In 1850 a Commission was appointed by Governor Henry Barkly to outline plans for the introduction of popular education in the colony. It proposed, among other things, the creation of local district boards, religious instruction to be made optional, the continued usage of Church facilities and expertise and the cost of education to be partially financed by an assessment tax on the parents of recipients and partly by a colonial grant. These recommendations met with strong protest from religious bodies. Added to this were government's financial considerations and the intensification of various immigration schemes by the mid-nineteenth century.

In the end the plan was shelved and nothing was done in terms of restructuring and education reforms. Renewed efforts in that direction were to come under Governor Wodehouse's Education Bill of 1855.

This article is a continuation of Part 1 of the topic "The Evolution of an Education System in Nineteenth-Century Colonial British Guiana", which appeared in last Thursday's issue of the Stabroek News.

Some progress in the development of an education system in colonial British Guiana was made during the administration of Governor Philip Wodehouse in the 1850s. His Education Bill of 1855 placed executive control over education. Among its main aspects were a formal system of dual control of schools by Church and State, a specified period for religious instruction, the remuneration of teachers on merit and the payment of school fees as sine qua non for the entitlement to government grants.

In spite of these changes, problems continued to be experienced in the education sector. Attendance of children was extremely poor. The payment of school fees was undoubtedly having the effect of preventing many children from attending school.

It was also the tendency of parents to encourage their children to work on the plantations in order to supplement family income. Inadequate teacher training, a lack of standardisation of content and problems of language and religion experienced by children of East Indian immigrants were also contributory factors.

In an attempt to improve the quality of teachers without entailing much expenditure, the pupil teacher system was introduced in 1857. Further, by the early 1860s there were repeated calls for compulsory education in order to stem the tide of absenteeism. Around this time some estate schools had been established in Demerara and Berbice to cater for children of East Indian immigrants and one Reverend Bhose in particular worked actively among them. Bhose was of the view that the system of education was doomed to fail unless attendance was enforced and parents were compelled to send their children to school. He paid visits to the three counties of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice in order to ascertain what programme should be adopted. In the main he concentrated his efforts on the East Coast of Demerara through the "school - chapel combination and general evangelistic" activities.

In the ensuing years Governor Francis Hincks instituted a system of payment by examination results in an attempt to make teachers more proficient, but instead of achieving this desired quality, it led to "cramming and gross dishonesty". Under this scheme teachers' remuneration was based on the examination of children who had made a certain number of attendances during the school year. Hence, preparation for examinations involved much cramming on the part of students and even the forging of registers to ensure as many children as possible were eligible to be examined.

By the 1870s there was very little improvement in the education system. More school age children were still out of school when compared with the number making attendances. It was not strange therefore that several local newspapers joined the calls on whether it should be a completely secular or a compulsory denominational system. Supporters of the former argued that the denominational education would lead to very little training and the concentration of too many schools in one locality due to intense rivalry among the various denominational bodies. On the other hand, those who supported the latter countered by predicting an increase in immorality and crime in society under the secular system.

In 1874 the Governor, Mr. J. R. Longden, appointed a Commission of Inquiry to examine the system of education with a view to identifying and removing its deficiencies. Its recommendations included a single training institution for teachers, the writing of the Teacher's Certificate Examination by unqualified teachers and 'Certificate Pay' under which there was a fixed salary to teachers according to their levels of certification. This was closely followed by the 1876 Bill, which introduced Compulsory Education in the colony of British Guiana to be effective from January, 1877.

Under this Education bill the labouring class was compelled to send their children to schools. The schools fell under two types: 'Aided School' which was under the management of religious bodies and 'Colonial School' which was directly under government supervision. It was suggested that religious instruction be provided in both types but that there should be no catechism in the government ones. The anticipation was that the 1876 Education Ordinance would help to eliminate the deficiencies that existed in the primary schools. Its main focus was on the education of the lower classes in society. Despite that, it was seemingly clear that the compulsory Ordinance of 1876 was motivated by a need to protect the society status of the powerful plantocracy more than anything else. After all the social problems of the 1870s had severely threatened the plantation society at that critical juncture of Guyana's history.