Georgetown through the eyes of Richard Schomburgk
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
March 16, 2006
In 1840, Richard Schomburgk journeyed to the shores of Guyana, Britain's lone possession in South America, as part of an exploration team headed by his brother, Sir Robert Schomburgk, a German explorer, who was contracted by the British Government to survey the boundaries of British Guiana. This was based on his recommendation to 'Governor Henry Light that the boundary between Brazil, Venezuela and the British Colony should be fixed'.
As the dark murky waters of the Demerara River parted the rich blue of the Atlantic Ocean to greet their vessel, the Cleopatra, Richard provides an intriguing description of the young city of Georgetown:
"The dense tropical vegetation, with which Georgetown or Demerara was regularly veiled, prevented us from satisfying our inquisitive gaze. We could only see the majestic lighthouse with its proud summit and the huge locking chimneys of the sugar plantations."
Shortly after the crew and the Schomburgk brothers docked at Fort William Frederick (where Transport and Harbours Department is currently located) alongside numerous merchant vessels under 'English and North American flags whose sailors had crowded together on the decks to watch the incoming Cleopatra with a Hurrah.'
Richard noted that there was a great bustle and hustle as his vessel docked as "innumerable boats laden with produce from the estates were rowing with and against the stream from the west bank and from farms situate further inland, towards the capital to supply it for the incoming day with plantains, maize, vegetables, oranges, poultry and fish… while the anchorage was gradually being filled with noisy and squalling Negro women who were waiting to buy the cargoes of the incoming boats."
Soon after his arrival Robert Schomburgk visited the Governor, Sir Henry Light, at the Public Buildings (Parliament Buildings) where all official and administrative offices were located. Governor Light was described as "an extremely loveable man whose white hair only too plainly showed that many a year had crossed his path." At the time of Schomburgk's visit the Governor's wife and family were still residing in England.
Whilst Robert visited Governor Light, Richard and several members of their crew used the time to discover Georgetown and its picturesque environment of structures neatly enveloped between tropical foliage. Their first stop led them to the lighthouse.
After climbing 140 stairs leading to the gallery of this impressive brick structure, Richard documents with great enthusiasm the landscape:
"Dumb with surprise and delight, the eye swept over the heaving and billowy seas as far as the distant horizon where Heaven and Earth met: light fishing-boats pitched and tossed upon the ruffled waves, to disappear a moment later. Spreading itself before my delighted gaze was the city with its nice wooden gaudily painted houses, its overtopping churches and public buildings; its thousands upon thousands of slender palms, its broad busy streets and its many canals that ran through it like so many veins. It was enclosed by more or less distant sugar estates with many a smoking chimney striving after heaven."
The streets of Georgetown were described as broad and intersecting, defined by picturesque timber structures on large lots, a characteristic of the urban setting inherited from the Dutch as the "older buildings are in alignment, so that the streets collectively cross at right angles. The latter are generally wide and divided down their centre by canals, which communicate with one another and the Demerara River: the two sides of the street thus separated are joined up with a number of bridges."
Wooden houses were rarely more than two storeys high, often elevated off the ground three to four feet by sturdy hardwood posts as a result of the extraordinary moisture of the atmosphere of the alluvial soils of the coast.
The houses, according to Richard, "were shaded by a row of palms: with few exceptions a garden enclosed each one, which was divided by a canal or a ditch." The rich tropical flora abundant in Demerara and the appearance of numerous ditches each intersecting a canal, which was employed by the Dutch to drain the excess water off the flat coastal city which lies below sea level, would have had the appearance of a series of floating garden plots of oleanders, jasmine, roses and others.
The setting of Georgetown, then with a population of 23,000, would have been a most fascinating cosmopolitan of cultures, tongues and activities as people bustled from port to store to market and back gazing curiously at the newcomers.
Robert noted with particular interest Water Street which was "occupied primarily by merchants whose storehouses with its display windows and wharves extended into the brown water of the Demerara River stocked and offered for sale almost any item that a European accustomed to luxury and high living can possibly wish for.
"Each store is not a single shop, but a nest of shops. It is a combination of different departments; the hardware the small ware, and the furnishing of the boot and the shoe, all under one roof."
He further noted that flour, potatoes, salt fish, salted and smoked beef and pork, peas, biscuits, cheese, butter, dried apples and pears, leather and ice were imported from North America. Ice, during that period, was a most precious commodity in Guiana. China ware, cotton, linen and other fabrics along with household furnishings and medical supplies were imported from England, while fine wines, beers and other delicacies were imported from Spain, France and Portugal.
Though the city of Georgetown was still in a state of infancy, Richard vividly documents the military characteristic of Kingston, a trait which has for the most part been retained in modern Georgetown.
East of the Lighthouse, the "beautiful but unoccupied Camp House, the residence of former governors, who in those days were also troop commanders, peeps clandestinely through the thick foliage of giant trees: the lovely, large and roomy Eve Leary Barracks are attached to it and the two military hospitals border the immense parade ground.
"The barracks could boldly measure swords with all the institutions of that nature that I have had the opportunity of seeing at home and abroad and be certain of victory besides. The soldiers sleep on mattresses in large airy quarters. Each of the hospitals with their clean and neat kitchens, and their beautiful tanks is estimated for several hundred patients."
During his visit the military regiment within Guiana consisted of the 52nd regiment of the line and a few companies of the first West India Regiment. Of significance was the inclusion of African regiments within Guiana. Schomburgk appears to have been mildly amused when he witnessed this component of the regiment filing past him.
"I could hardly refrain from laughing when for the first time I saw filing past me these black figures in red uniforms with their misshapen extremities stuck into white pantaloons."
The news of the colony during the period of Schomburgk's visit was disseminated via three newspapers: the governments' newspapers, The Royal Gazette, and two private entities, the Guiana Herald and the Guiana Times.
Social life, Richard noted, existed in two different circles: the white and the coloureds. The first was characterised by numerous fancy dress and mask balls, dinners, soirees, luncheons and the theatre which was then operated by a group of Dutchmen.
The ladies, of the upper crust of society, were described as always being elegantly attired, always careful to avoid the rays of the sun. "The kitchen," Richard noted with some amusement, "only knows the lady of the house and her daughters by name, and the remaining cares of a housewife are just as much unknown to the former as the latter…. They usually spend their time reading; and now and again, though only to break the tiresome monotony, in light feminine tasks."
Males, on the other hand, Richard emphatically stated, usually indulged in recreational activities at specially formed clubs. Among the elites they were two groups, "the Governor must always lead the party formed of the officials and certain wealthier estate owners, while the planters dissatisfied with the administration, merchants and others form the recruits for the other: the Brigade."
The bonds of married life, in Georgetown were believed by Richard to be "tied more loosely here than they can possibly be in any other colony.
"The least wealthy officers, yet to be sure, rich, planters, the merchants, even government officers, inspectors, estate managers and their servants are married, but usually live in concubinage with coloured people, negro or Indian women. The race produced from the mixture of a European and mulatto woman undoubtedly constitutes one of the most beautiful stamps of human beings."
Cockfighting was a major social event for the coloured population. Though it was publicly banned, it was still practised with special dates being set and locations chosen in forested areas.
Indeed, Richard wrote that it was "not unusual to see the police after a frantic search return to Georgetown accompanied by Negroes dripping with blood."
Fancy masquerade balls were also well attended by the coloured population of Georgetown. The Negro women were described by Richard as being adorned in 'French capers' similar to that worn by white females. In addition they were often adorned in large and heavy golden earrings and chains.
In attending the numerous galas the "gentlemen are the faithfully reflected images of the ladies. A black or blue frock coat covers the faultless shoulders: a red, yellow, or sky blue vest worked in with gold - this is enclosed with a huge watch-chain and heavy pendant, from which in most cases tell the time in vain - covers up the powerful chest: the white dancing pumps neatly laced up to the knees, the silk stockings and red or yellow shoes."
Open air dances accompanied by loud music made from drums and the tambourine filled the stillness of the night as the Africans indulged in traditional dances, often until daybreak. This was another aspect of the social activities of the coloured population.
The description provided by Richard Schomburgk in 1840 serves as an important record in the chapter of the city's development. For the most part Georgetown's colonial heritage is still showcased in the numerous historic sites and structures in Georgetown's conservation zone.
It is against this unique background that this section of the city may qualify for inscription to the prestigious World Heritage List.
However, for this to be achieved all stakeholders need to commit not only the necessary finances but more importantly to review heritage protection legislation and ensure that it is properly enforced by the powers that be. This will ensure that the city's landscape is not thwarted and disfigured by concrete monstrosities without any architectural merit.