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History This Week No.19/2006


A month from today we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of our country's political independence. We shall be reflecting on, depending on your perspective, the many areas in which we have achieved much or failed to achieve anything. We shall analyse the reasons for our blatant successes and equally blatant failures and hopefully from the lessons learned chart a way forward for future generations. But the past forty years were but a continuum not only of the forty years before but also the many decades beyond that. And so before we become too self absorbed in our recent past, let's spend a while reflecting on the forty or so years before 1966.

The focus of this first article will be the political, constitutional and economic development to the end of World War II.

Political and



In 1928 British Guiana began to be administered under the Crown Colony system of Government when many of Britain's Caribbean possessions had already been under this system of administration. Prior to that, political and constitutional developments were influenced by the vagaries of its Dutch inherited political institutions - College of Electors, the Court of Policy and the Combined Court. However after decades of protest from the fledgling mainly black and coloured middle class, bolstered by the complaints of the planter class, the governor and the Colonial Office, there was some fiddling with the constitution in 1891 which ultimately satisfied none of the stakeholders.

Deteriorating socio economic conditions in the Caribbean have always acted as a stimulus for protest and demand for change in the existing political institutions. By 1922 the brief fillip to the economy which World War I had inspired had worn off, a sugar slump in the late 1920s and worsening industrial conditions led to strike action. The new consciousness among black and coloured nationalists stemming from the experience of returned war veterans and teachings of Marcus Garvey led to the demand by West Indians nationals for some measure of representative government. As a consequence, Major General E. Wood was dispatched to British Guiana, at the height of depression caused by the sugar slump, to assess the constitutional situation. However, in his report he did not feel there was any justification for making any substantive constitutional changes as long as the colony could balance its budget. The ferocity with which the October 1926 General Election was fought and the animosity which followed the victory of the Popular Party and led to almost every seat in the Legislature being challenged, further underscored the total dissatisfaction of all the stakeholders with the 1891 constitution.

It is against this background that the Parliamentary commission of November 1926 was appointed to examine the economic conditions of the colony. One of the main recommendations of the Snell - Wilson report was that there should be changes to the constitution which would make the "authorities finally responsible for the government of the Colony power in the last resort to carry into effect measures which they consider essential for its well being." Despite the vigorous objection of the elected members, the British Guiana, (Constitution) Order-in-Council of July 13, 1928 abolished the Court of Policy and the Combined Court and substituted a Legislative Council with 3 ex-officio members including the Governor, 8 nominated official members, 5 nominated unofficial members and 14 elected members. The members of the Executive had to be chosen from the Legislative Council. Although article 54 of the new constitution gave the governor the power "to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the country," Crown Colony government failed to deliver on its promise, though in the case of British Guiana it came into operation barely months before the 1929 crash which plunged the world into economic depression. Again the deteriorating economic conditions led to a series of strikes and riots in the entire Caribbean. This belied the contention that the governor's discretionary powers would be used "on behalf of the unrepresented classes." While the 1938 Royal Commission's main terms of reference were an investigation of the social and economic conditions of the Colony, it also took within the scope of its enquiry, constitutional and other aspects of government of the colonies.

Though the report was ready by December 1939 the exigencies of World War II delayed its official publication until mid 1945. However, its essential provisions were published in Parliament in early 1940. One of its main recommendations was the widening of the franchise. Indeed one of the main focuses of attack by Caribbean nationalists during the disturbances was the necessity of widening the franchise to wit universal adult suffrage. On May 1941 a local franchise Commission was appointed in accordance with the Moyne recommendations. The majority of the members of the franchise commission were against the introduction of universal adult suffrage but favoured a reduction in the property qualification for voters and for candidates for election to the Legislative Council. The recommendations were implemented by legislation in 1945 but new elections were not held until 1947.

Economic Developments

The above discussion helps to illustrate the extent to which British Guiana was indeed a political economy, which continued to dance or wail depending on the tune played by sugar. A good point of departure is the appointment of the 1926 Parliamentary Commission to report on the economic position of the colony in respect of the causes, which had retarded and measures which could be taken to promote its development.

The commissioners felt that the constitution should be changed so that the government and not the elected majority of the Combined Court had the last word in taxation and expenditure. More importantly, it was suggested that the future of sugar would be assured if British preference was retained to help insulate the industry from subsidised and protected world competition. As it had done in the 19th century, the sugar interests of British Guiana were able to convince the representatives of the Colonial Government that the continued existence of the colony was tied to the survival of sugar, if necessary, at the expense of other crops or industries. The industry had been given a boost when on July 6, 1925 a new Reciprocity agreement was signed with Ottawa, which, among other things, granted a preference of $1 per 100 tons, on 96% of sugar. Additionally, in 1926 the problem of labour for the sugar and rice industries seemed to be addressed with the publication of the Nunan scheme for immigration from India to British Guiana. As in the days of slavery and indentureship, sugar remained the dominant economic activity and the survival of every other form of economic activity depended on whether it complemented the sugar industry or competed with it for scarce financial and human resources. The rice industry managed to survive and prosper because it fell into the former category. On the other hand, the development of economic activity in the interior especially the gold and diamond industry, tended to receive support from the planter dominated political community only during periods of acute unemployment in the industry. However, once the sugar industry revived and the immediate threat of economic collapse of the colony was temporarily eliminated, the need to pour resources into any other facet of economic activity - such as road construction and road maintenance in the interior or on the coast was vigorously opposed.

Some other economic activity during the period was the establishment of the Department of Forestry in 1926. Also in 1926, the two principal diamond producing industries were united to create the United Diamond Fields of British Guiana with a capital of $350,000. The period of most intense dissatisfaction with economic conditions of the colony coincided with a period of record population growth between 1931 and 1946 at a time when the country, region and the world was facing a severe economic crisis. In fact, the rate of population increase in British Guiana was one of the highest in the world.

The worsening economic crisis accelerated the establishment of Trade Unions. The British Guiana Labour Union had been established in 1919. It was not until 1931 that the second Trade Union, the British Guiana Workers League was established. Between 1937 and 1938 in the midst of the riots and strikes, seven trade unions were registered and in 1939 alone another five were registered. Among the most important of these unions was the registration of the MPCA on November 5, 1937 for the purpose of organizing sugar workers especially field workers. This union was to play a significant role in trade union development and in the sugar workers' struggle for better working conditions.

The Royal Commission visited British Guiana in January and February 1939 and took evidence and memoranda from different stakeholders in the colony. Its recommendations had far reaching effects on the economic, social and political life of the colony.

In the next article, socio cultural developments and the situation of women in the period to the end of World War II will be examined