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History This Week No. 18/2006


In honour of Guyana's 40th birthday as an independent nation and aware that the focus of reflection and evaluation would be on the past forty years, I thought it would be pertinent to reflect on the forty years prior to 1966. The end of World War 11 in 1945 was a very significant year in this period and hence the developments - economic, political, social and cultural - would be examined. In the previous article, political and constitutional as well as socio-cultural developments were looked at. In this article, the focus will be on socio-cultural developments and the situation of women.

Socio-cultural development

One of the main justifications for the introduction of the Crown Colony system of the government in 1928, was that the overwhelming majority of the citizens were uneducated and therefore did not have the ability to deal with the intricacies of representative government. However, it was expected that the control over finance, which the new constitutional arrangements would give to the governor and executive, would put them in a position to provide the resources necessary for improvements in education.

Compulsory education and the dual system of education were introduced in 1876. However, by the 1920s both teachers and pupils were dissatisfied with poor standards of teaching especially the system of payment-by-results, the unsuitable curriculum, the inadequate salaries paid to teachers and the many irritants of dual control. It was against this background that the new Commissioner of Education made his report three months after his appointment as Commissioner in 1925. The Bain Gray report was one of the major documents, which guided education policy in British Guiana for several decades. Important changes were recommended regarding the training of teachers, the establishment of government primary schools and one or more technical schools.

To this end, the Teacher's Training College was opened in 1928. In 1931, the cornerstone of St. Stanislaus College was laid by General Rodney on the eve of his departure from the Colony. A Trade Centre for youth was opened in Georgetown in 1931, while in 1932 a gift of $70,000 from the Carnegie Corporation in New York led in 1933 to the provision of a Trade Centre for women also in Georgetown. The Royal Commission of 1939 made an exhaustive inquiry into Education, resulting in, among other things, the appointment of an Educational Advisor to the Comptroller of Development and Welfare. In January 1943, the Bishops High School for girls was taken over from the Anglican Church by government and in 1944 Queen's College celebrated one hundred years of providing secondary education for boys in the Colony. However, the nature and content of the education being provided gave a clear indication that the majority of the citizens were expected to be little more than 'hewers of wood and drawers of water', while a selected few would just qualify to fill the lower ranks of the last decades of the 19th century. By 1916 the British Guiana East Indian Association published its own journal, the Indian Opinion, while in New Amsterdam in the 1920's the newspaper, The People, was published by the Ruhomans.

By 1930, perhaps in an attempt to provide an escape from the grim realities of the appalling socio-economic conditions, many cultural events were staged regularly. For example, regular Indian plays were staged by the British Guiana Dramatic Society for its mainly East Indian membership and also by the Georgetown Dramatic Club which was open to all. Several other clubs included drama as a part of their cultural activity.

However, poetry writing was significant among all groups in the society. In 1931, Norman Cameron edited "An Anthology of Guyanese Poetry", while in 1934 Ramcharitar Lalla edited, "An Anthology of Local Indian verse". In May 1945 Basil Balgobin presented a political play on Indians.

Black consciousness, always latent, watered by the ideas of Marcus Garvey and the establishment of his United Negro Improvement Association began to flower in earnest in the 1930's through the works of the redoubtable Norman E. Cameron and the activities of the League of Coloured People. These activities increased in the 1940's and 1950's with the Art and Sculpture of E.R. Burrowes, the writings of the coloured intelligentsia like A.J. Seymour and later the writings of Edgar Mittleholzer, Jan Carew and Wilson Harris, among others.

Perhaps the cultural energy of the period was best epitomised by the publication of KYK-OVER-AL. In the first volume, December 1945, A.J. Seymour, the editor, stated that cultural life was quickening in many ways and saw KYK-OVER-AL as an "instrument to help forge Guyanese people and to make them conscious of their own intellectual and spiritual possibilities." For decades to come the journal fulfilled its mandate by publishing the works of many Guyanese.

The situation of women

In the first decades of the 20th century while the existence of women could not be denied, their role and contribution to development were barely acknowledged and miserly remunerated.

However, then as now, women and their children represented the most vulnerable group in the society. The economic depression and the resulting underemployment and unemployment added to their vulnerability as often they, either as single heads of the households or with unemployed husbands, became the sole breadwinner of their families. Working-class women had, however, already made their presence felt for they had actively participated in the working-class protests of 1924 and by 1939 represented 30.6% of the total labour force employed on the sugar estates. Because of their significant numbers in the teaching profession many improvements in the field of education had perforce to include them. For example, five women were among the first batch of 30 who completed a two-year course at the Training College which had been opened in 1928 and in July 1935 a group of 12 female students completed a special one-year course.

Several pieces of legislation were passed which specifically benefited women. Ordinance No. 14 of 1923 provided for a Pension Fund for Widows and Orphans of Deceased Public Officers.

In 1924, the nationality laws of the Colony of British Guiana dealt with the national status of married women and infant children. In Ordinance No. 17 of 1929, which imposed a tax on income and regulated its collection, provisions were made for the deduction in respect of life insurance and contribution to a Widows and Orphans Pension Fund. However, few working class women, especially if they were common-law wives, would have benefited from the aforementioned legislation. However, in 1932 a Bill to carry out certain Conventions relating to the employment of women, young persons and children was passed.

Shut out of the process of political participation by legislation, lack of income, literacy and property qualification, women expressed their political activism through their involvement in charitable and welfare organizations. It was, however, the exigencies of World War II, which brought several of these mainly middle class women's organisations together under the banner of the Women's League of Social Services in 1940. This led to the establishment of Women's Institutes in the rural areas. Given the then current perception of the place of women in the political and economic scheme of things, it was not surprising that there were no women in positions of power and decision-making. However, undoubtedly because of their outstanding advisory role in women's organizations three of the 23 members of the 1941 British Guiana

Franchise Commission were women - Mrs. M. Bayley, L. Kawall and M.T. Mansfield, all three of whom were to continue an active role in NGOs or politics. Several women testified as witnesses before and submitted memoranda to the 1939 Royal Commission. Ms B. Paul in her capacity as General Secretary (ag) of the British Guiana Workers' League, Ms. Gertie Wood on behalf of the B.G.L.U and the B.G.T.U.C., Miss E. Sewdin and Miss E. Corbin on behalf of the M.P.C.A. Miss Gertie Wood was the only woman to submit a memorandum. The situation faced by women could be summoned up from the memorandum of Arthur G. King.

"I am not in favour of admitting members of the female sex to the Legislative Council; not that I am of the opinion that some women in the Colony are not as competent to be in the Legislative Council as some of the present members of that Council, but I am of the opinion that it is not the proper place for a woman".

Despite the above, by 1945, British Guianese women had begun to stake a claim to occupancy of the political space once dominated by men. The recommendations of both the Moyne Commission and the Franchise Commission provided them with their tools to make the challenge.