Legacies of the Early Colonial Era: The Plantation System and the Export Economy in British Guiana
By Mellissa Ifill
June 6, 2001
British Guiana economy and society experienced persistent, formal and explicit ex-ploitation for over 350 years - primarily from the Nether-lands, 1580-1803, and from Britain 1803-1966. European colonialism dramatically altered the physical, economic, ethnic, social and political landscape of the country during this time. Two important changes, which this article focuses on, and which characterize the Guyana economy until today, were the development of the plantation structure and the export economy. Other transformations, which reinforced and complemented the creation of the plantation culture and the export thrust, included the introduction of various ethnic groups to serve as labourers on the plantation under various conditions and circumstances - the two main groups being Africans and East Indians, and the transference of European economic, social, political and cultural norms and institutions into the society. All these transformations and changes had one main objective, which was to serve the interests of the European colonial masters to the detriment of the remainder of the population. Inevitably, all notable inputs into the domestic colonial economy were directed without exception to the more effectual exploitation of the material and human resources of British Guiana for the advancement of the metropolitan countries.
In the pre-European period, the Guyanese society was characterized by a sparse, widely scattered population, a virtually egalitarian social structure, limited use of land resources, and the nonexistence of a plantation economy. Although conflicts erupted between and among groups within the society, there was the absence of officially sanctioned/endorsed exploitation by one group over others. However, European colonialism swiftly and drastically changed the landscape, culture, social structure and economy in Guyana.
The earliest plantations were established around the mid-17th century, however, it wasn't until around the third quarter of the 18th century that the plantation development and export process really expanded. Prior to the mid 17th century, the Dutch settlers in this territory were more interested in expanding the trade with the indigenous peoples instead of the creation of a plantation economy for export. In the post-1650 period however, the Dutch settlers who exported their first shipment of sugar from Essequibo to the Netherlands in 1661, started sugar cultivation. From this period, commercial agriculture developed at a fairly steady and sometimes rapid pace. While initially, there were a number of small farmers engaged in agricultural pursuits, these small farms were quickly consolidated into plantations, and, monoculture or one-crop specialisation with intensive cultivation for export soon became a distinguishing feature of Guianese and indeed, West Indian agriculture. All other activities and conditions were constructed in such a way to support this narrow agenda. The lands exploited were primarily those that could have accommodated this interest while the overwhelming majority of the population were located in those areas in the coast and immediate hinterland, where there was need for labour to support this export thrust by producing the desired quantity of goods.
As time evolved, the plantation's dominance of the economic landscape in Guyana grew to a level that by the last quarter of the 18th century, the Guyana economy could be categorized as a "pure, plantation economy". Between the 1730s and the early 1800s, the plantation system in Guyana grew substantially with the expansion in Demerara greater than that of Berbice and Essequibo - both in terms of plantation numbers and population sizes. By 1762, Demerara had 93 plantations while Essequibo had 71 and in 1769, Demerara had 206, while Essequibo had 92. Official figures for slave populations also reveal that Demerara had an advantage with 5,967 slaves as against 3,986 in Essequibo. In Essequibo and Demerara, sugar, along with coffee, cocoa and cotton were the main crops.
The Europeans placed their emphasis almost exclusively on those areas of the country and those sectors of the economy that could generate relatively quick and significant profits. Therefore, in those instances where particular riverine or coastal plantations started to produce low yields of export crops, it was decided to abandon them instead of exploring the possibilities of food crops cultivation, or to develop more cost-effective farming methods in order to improve their yields. Inevitably, this brought to naught the years of arduous work in clearing land, digging canals, building dykes etc. Despite the sacrifices made to construct these plantations, the owners took the simplest option available to them - abandoning the old lands and opening up new ones.
Undoubtedly, the Europeans had no interest in employing a rational strategy to promote the development of these colonies. The colonies' sole purpose was to accommodate and benefit the colonial masters and their importance was determined largely by their capacity to augment the wealth and power of the metropolitan countries.
A clear indication of the purpose of colonies was revealed in the number of restrictions that were imposed on the colonies that aimed at protecting the interests of the metropolis - for example, navigation laws. The latter forbade colonists of a specific metropolitan power from engaging in trade with those who did not obtain a licence to conduct the trade. It was determined that in the best interest of the metropolitan states, colonies would export their commodities directly to the "mother" metropolis, in "mother" metropolitan ships, and acquire the produce they required only from the "mother" metropolis. Essentially this translated into colonies being condemned to be producers only of primary products while the metropolis would process the goods and benefit from the value that was added. In essence, the innovative and more sophisticated technology that was invented, was employed in manufacturing activities in Europe which ultimately resulted in the growth and diversification of European economies. On the other hand, the colonies continued to use the same technology thus exacerbating their underdevelopment and fragmentation.
Little effort was made to expand the positive and beneficial linkages between the export economy and the domestic economy. An inordinate amount of attention was paid to the expansion of the former, while the latter was neglected. For instance, to promote the export economy, the requisite infrastructure was developed. On the other hand, the development of the domestic economy was generally unplanned and geared primarily to provide subsistence agriculture for feeding the slaves.
In addition to the disconnection between the domestic and the international community, the linkages between the hinterland and coastal areas in Guiana under the Dutch period were also weak or nonexistent. Most of the goods produced in the hinterland were exported to Europe, and, the majority of the produce consumed was obtained from Europe.
The non-integration of the two areas of production was a consequence of the export thrust of the plantation economy. As a consequence, Guyana depended greatly on food imports from Europe and North America. These food imports included rye, fish, ham, wine, beans oats, beef, butter. The objective of this strategy employed by the European colonists was to discourage and disallow competition between similar goods manufactured in the domestic economy and the metropolis. Ultimately, Guyana, like other colonial territories, was essentially an area of exploitation, in which the European colonists engaged in a narrow range of activities exclusively for the benefit of the master class.