British Guiana was the name of a British colony on the northern coast of South America, since 1966 known as the independent nation of Guyana. The present-day country is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Brazil to the south and southwest, Suriname to the east and Venezuela to the west. With 83,000 square miles (215,000 square kilometers), Guyana is the fourth-smallest country on mainland South America after Uruguay, Suriname and French Guiana. The region known as “the Guianas” consists of the large shield landmass north of the Amazon River and east of the Orinoco River. The capital was, and is, Georgetown.
The first people to reach the region made their way from Asia, perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago. These first inhabitants were nomads who slowly spread south into Central America and South America. Although great civilizations later arose in the Americas, the structure of Amerindian society in the Guianas remained relatively simple. At the time of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, the area’s inhabitants were divided into two groups, the Arawak along the coast and the Carib in the interior. One of the legacies of the indigenous peoples was the word Guiana, often used to describe the region encompassing modern Guyana as well as Suriname (former Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana. The word, which means “land of many waters”, is appropriate considering the area’s multitude of rivers and streams.
Historians speculate that the Arawak and Carib originated in the South American hinterland and migrated northward, first to the present-day Guianas and then to the Caribbean islands. The Arawak, mainly cultivators, hunters, and fishermen, migrated to the Caribbean islands before the Carib and settled throughout the region. The tranquility of Arawak society was disrupted by the arrival of the bellicose Carib from the South American interior. Carib warlike behavior and violent movement north made an impact still discussed today.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the Carib had displaced the Arawak throughout the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The Carib settlement of the Lesser Antilles also affected Guyana’s future development. The Spanish explorers and settlers who came after Columbus found that the Arawak proved easier to conquer than the Carib, who fought hard to maintain their independence. This fierce resistance, along with a lack of gold in the Lesser Antilles, contributed to the Spanish emphasis on conquest and settlement of the Greater Antilles and the mainland. Only a weak Spanish effort was made at consolidating Spain’s authority in the Lesser Antilles (with the arguable exception of Trinidad) and the Guianas.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle the Guineas. The Netherlands had obtained independence from Spain in the late sixteenth century and by the early seventeenth century had emerged as a major commercial power, trading with the fledgling English and French colonies in the Lesser Antilles. In 1616, the Dutch established the first European settlement in the area, a trading post twenty-five kilometers upstream from the mouth of the Essequibo River. Other settlements followed, usually a few miles inland on the larger rivers. The initial purpose of the Dutch settlements was trade with the indigenous people. The Dutch aim soon changed to acquisition of territory as other European powers gained colonies elsewhere in the Caribbean. Although the region was claimed by the Spanish, who sent periodic patrols through the region, the Dutch gained control over the region early in the seventeenth century. Dutch sovereignty was officially recognized with the signing of the Treaty of Munster in 1648.
In 1621, the government of the Netherlands gave the newly formed Dutch West India Company complete control over the trading post on the Essequibo. This Dutch commercial concern administered the colony, known as Essequibo, for more than 170 years. The company established a second colony, on the Berbice River southeast of Essequibo, in 1627. Although under the general jurisdiction of this private group, the settlement, named Berbice, was governed separately. Demerara, situated between Essequibo and Berbice, was settled in 1741 and emerged in 1773 as a separate colony under direct control of the Dutch West India Company.
Although the Dutch colonizers initially were motivated by the prospect of trade in the Caribbean, their possessions became significant producers of crops. The growing importance of agriculture was indicated by the export of 15,000 kilograms of tobacco from Essequibo in 1623. But as the agricultural productivity of the Dutch colonies increased, a labor shortage emerged. The indigenous populations were poorly adapted for work on plantations, and many people died from diseases introduced by the Europeans. The Dutch West India Company turned to the importation of enslaved Africans, who rapidly became a key element in the colonial economy. By the 1660s, the enslaved population numbered about 2,500; the number of indigenous people was estimated at 50,000, most of whom had retreated into the vast hinterland. Although enslaved Africans were considered an essential element of the colonial economy, their working conditions were brutal. The mortality rate was high, and the dismal conditions led to more than half a dozen rebellions led by the enslaved Africans.
The most famous uprising of the enslaved Africans, the Berbice Slave Uprising, began in February 1763. On two plantations on the Canje River in Berbice, the enslaved Africans rebelled, taking control of the region. As plantation after plantation fell to the enslaved Africans, the European population fled; eventually only half of the whites who had lived in the colony remained. Led by Cuffy (now the national hero of Guyana), the escaped enslaved Africans came to number about 3,000 and threatened European control over the Guianas. The rebels were defeated with the assistance of troops from neighboring European colonies.
Eager to attract more settlers, in 1746 the Dutch authorities opened the area near the Demerara River to British immigrants. British plantation owners in the Lesser Antilles had been plagued by poor soil and erosion, and many were lured to the Dutch colonies by richer soils and the promise of landownership. The influx of British citizens was so great that by 1760 the English constituted a majority of the European population of Demerara. By 1786, the internal affairs of this Dutch colony were effectively under British control, though two-thirds of the plantation owners were still Dutch.
As economic growth accelerated in Demerara and Essequibo, strains began to appear in the relations between the planters and the Dutch West India Company. Administrative reforms during the early 1770s had greatly increased the cost of government. The company periodically sought to raise taxes to cover these expenditures and thereby provoked the resistance of the planters. In 1781, a war broke out between the Netherlands and Britain, which resulted in the British occupation of Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara. Some months later, France, allied with the Netherlands, seized control of the colonies. The French governed for two years, during which they constructed a new town, Longchamps, at the mouth of the Demerara River. When the Dutch regained power in 1784, they moved their colonial capital to Longchamps, which they renamed Stabroeck. The capital was in 1812 renamed Georgetown by the British.
The return of Dutch rule reignited conflict between the planters of Essequibo and Demerara and the Dutch West India Company. Disturbed by plans for an increase in the slave tax and a reduction in their representation on the colony’s judicial and policy councils, the colonists petitioned the Dutch government to consider their grievances. In response, a special committee was appointed, which proceeded to draw up a report called the Concept Plan of Redress. This document called for far-reaching constitutional reforms and later became the basis of the British governmental structure. The plan proposed a decision-making body to be known as the Court of Policy. The judiciary was to consist of two courts of justice, one serving Demerara and the other Essequibo. The membership of the Court of Policy and of the courts of justice would consist of company officials and planters who owned more than twenty-five slaves. The Dutch commission that was assigned the responsibility of implementing this new system of government returned to the Netherlands with extremely unfavorable reports concerning the Dutch West India Company’s administration. The company’s charter therefore was allowed to expire in 1792 and the Concept Plan of Redress was put into effect in Demerara and Essequibo. Renamed the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo, the area then came under the direct control of the Dutch government. Berbice maintained its status as a separate colony.
The catalyst for formal British takeover was the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars. In 1795 the French occupied the Netherlands. The British declared war on France and in 1796 launched an expeditionary force from Barbados to occupy the Dutch colonies. The British takeover was bloodless, and local Dutch administration of the colony was left relatively uninterrupted under the constitution provided by the Concept Plan of Redress.
Both Berbice and the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo were under British control from 1796 to 1802. By means of the Treaty of Amiens, both were returned to Dutch control. Peace was short-lived, however. War between Britain and France resumed in less than a year, and in 1803 the United Colony and Berbice were seized once more by British troops. At the London Convention of 1814, both colonies were formally ceded to Britain. In 1831, Berbice and the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo were unified as British Guiana. The colony would remain under British control until independence in 1966.
A privately run packet service for mail existed in Demerara from 1796 and in Berbice somewhat later. A local boat met the Falmouth packet at Barbados. Datestamps are known from soon after. From 1842 the service changed to steam and British Guiana shared the services of the West Indies packet until World War I.
When Britain gained formal control over the region in 1814, it also became involved in one of Latin America’s most persistent border disputes. At the London Convention of 1814, the Dutch surrendered the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo and Berbice to the British, a colony which had the Essequibo river as its west border with the Spanish colony of Venezuela. Although Spain still claimed the region, the Spanish did not contest the treaty because they were preoccupied with their own colonies’ struggles for independence.
In 1835 the British government asked German explorer Robert Hermann Schomburgk to map British Guiana and mark its boundaries. As ordered by the British authorities, Schomburgk began British Guiana’s western boundary with Venezuela at the mouth of the Orinoco River, although all the Venezuelan maps showed the Essequibo river as the east border of the country. A map of the British colony was published in 1840. Venezuela protested, claiming the entire area west of the Essequibo River. Negotiations between Britain and Venezuela over the boundary began, but the two nations could reach no compromise. In 1850 both agreed not to occupy the disputed zone.
The discovery of gold in the contested area in the late 1850s reignited the dispute. British settlers moved into the region and the British Guiana Mining Company was formed to mine the deposits. Over the years, Venezuela made repeated protests and proposed arbitration, but the British government was uninterested. Venezuela finally broke diplomatic relations with Britain in 1887 and appealed to the United States for help. The British at first rebuffed the United States government’s suggestion of arbitration, but when President Grover Cleveland threatened to intervene according to the Monroe Doctrine, Britain agreed to let an international tribunal arbitrate the boundary in 1897.
For two years, the tribunal consisting of two Britons, two Americans, and a Russian studied the case. Their three-to-two decision, handed down in 1899, awarded 94 percent of the disputed territory to British Guiana. Venezuela received only the mouth of the Orinoco River and a short stretch of the Atlantic coastline just to the east. Although Venezuela was unhappy with the decision, a commission surveyed a new border in accordance with the award, and both sides accepted the boundary in 1905. The issue was considered settled for the next half-century.
British colonists built the first railway system in South America in British Guiana, 61 miles of standard gauge, from Georgetown to Rosignol, and 19 miles of 3’6″ line between Vreeden Hoop and Parika; it opened in 1848. Several narrow-gauge lines were built to serve the sugar industry and others were built to serve the later mines. In 1948, when the railway in Bermuda was closed down, the locomotives, rolling stock, track, sleepers and virtually all the associated paraphernalia of a railway were shipped to British Guiana to renovate the aged system. The lines ceased to operate in 1972, but the large Central Station is still standing in Georgetown. Some of the inland mines still operate narrow-gauge lines.
An inland post office was established by London on July 1, 1850. The postmaster in Georgetown went to the local newspaper, the Royal Gazette, where he had them print imperforate stamps in the form of an outline circle, with BRITISH GUIANA inside the rim, and a denomination, from 2 cents to 12 cents in the middle (Scott #1-5). The printing was in black, on different colors of paper depending on the denomination. These became known as the “Cottonreels” because of their circular shape, like the labels on spools of cotton, and are quite rare. These stamps were initialed before use by the Deputy Postmaster General or by one of the clerks of the post office at Georgetown. The following initials are found: E.T.E. D(alton), E.D. W(ight), G.B. S(mith), H.A. K(illitelley), and W.H. L(ortimer). As the “Cottonreels” were type-set, there are several varieties of each denomination. It has been suggested that the setting contained one horizontal row of four slightly different impressions.
The first issue from London — printed in lithography by Waterlow & Company — was released in 1852 (Scott #6-7). It was a very simple typeset design depicting a sailing ship and the colony’s motto (misspelled) DAMUS PATIMUS QUE VICISSIM (“we give and expect in return”). These are quite rare. Better stamps from London showed up in 1853, engraved and correctly inscribed, using PETIMUS instead (Scott #8-12).
The numbers were apparently insufficient, and in 1856 the postmaster had new 1 cent and 4 cent issues printed locally, crudely typeset and imitating the design of the London stamps, motto and all (Scott #13-16). These are among the rarest of all stamps. The British Guiana 1 cent magenta is considered to be the rarest, as only one copy is known to exist. Having been in the DuPont collection since 1980, this stamp was sold in June 2014 during a New York auction to an anonymous bidder for $9.5 million (£5.6 million).
In 1856. a crowned circle PAID mark was supplied. Prepayment of letters to Britain was made compulsory in 1858. In 1860, the colony took control of the post office. Another shipment of stamps showed up in 1860, but difficulties were not over yet: locally printed stamps were needed again in 1862 and 1882. After that, stamps were reliably available. Difficult terrain and broad rivers with rapids impeded communications until regular airmails started in 1944. In 1880, there were 49 post offices and even by 1938 only 73.
Even though World War I was fought far beyond the borders of British Guiana, the war altered Guyanese society. The Afro-Guyanese who joined the British military became the nucleus of an elite Afro-Guyanese community upon their return. World War I also led to the end of East Indian indentured service. British concerns over political stability in India and criticism by Indian nationalists that the program was a form of human bondage caused the British government to outlaw indentured labor in 1917.
In 1928, the British Government abolished the Dutch-influenced constitution and replaced it with a crown colony constitution that would make British Guiana a crown colony under tight control of a governor appointed by the Colonial Office. The Combined Court and the Court of Policy were replaced by a Legislative Council with a majority of appointed members, and the administrative powers of the Governor were strengthened. To middle-class and working-class political activists, this new constitution represented a step backward and a victory for the planters. Influence over the governor, rather than the promotion of a particular public policy, became the most important issue in any political campaign.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought economic hardship to all segments of Guyanese society. All of the colony’s major exports—sugar, rice and bauxite—were affected by low prices, and unemployment soared. As in the past, the working class found itself lacking a political voice during a time of worsening economic conditions. By the mid-1930s, British Guiana and the whole British Caribbean were marked by labor unrest and violent demonstrations.
With the fighting far away, the period of World War II in British Guiana was marked by continuing political reform and improvements to the national infrastructure. The governor, Sir Gordon Lethem, created the country’s first Ten-Year Development Plan, reduced property qualifications for office holding and voting, and made elective members a majority on the Legislative Council in 1943. Under the aegis of the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, a modern air base (now Timehri Airport) was constructed by United States troops. By the end of World War II, British Guiana’s political system had been widened to encompass more elements of society and the economy’s foundations had been strengthened by increased demand for bauxite.
At the end of World War II, political awareness and demands for independence grew in all segments of society. The immediate postwar period witnessed the founding of Guyana’s major political parties. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was founded on January 1, 1950. Internal conflicts developed in the PPP, and in 1957 the People’s National Congress (PNC) was created as a split-off. A British commission in 1950 recommended universal adult suffrage and the adoption of a ministerial system for British Guiana. The commission also recommended that power be concentrated in the executive branch, that is, the office of the governor. These reforms presented British Guiana’s parties with an opportunity to participate in national elections and form a government, but maintained power in the hands of the British-appointed chief executive. This arrangement rankled the PPP, which saw it as an attempt to curtail the party’s political power.
The PPP’s introduction of the Labour Relations Act provoked a confrontation with the British. This law ostensibly was aimed at reducing intraunion rivalries, but would have favored the Guiana Industrial Workers’ Union (GIWU), which was closely aligned with the ruling party. The opposition charged that the PPP was seeking to gain control over the colony’s economic and social life and was moving to stifle the opposition. The day the act was introduced to the legislature, the GIWU went on strike in support of the proposed law. The British government interpreted this intermingling of party politics and labor unionism as a direct challenge to the constitution and the authority of the governor. The day after the act was passed, on October 9, 1953, London suspended the colony’s constitution and, under pretext of quelling disturbances, sent in troops.
Following the suspension of the constitution, British Guiana was governed by an interim administration consisting of small group of conservative politicians, businessmen, and civil servants that lasted until 1957. The 1957 elections held under a new constitution demonstrated the extent of the growing ethnic division within the Guyanese electorate. The revised constitution provided limited self-government, primarily through the Legislative Council. In the early 1960s, the colony applied a renewed flow of Western aid to development of its infrastructure. Relations with Venezuela were not so placid, however. In 1962, Venezuela had announced that it was rejecting the 1899 boundary and would renew its claim to all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River.
In 1965, A constitutional conference was held in London; the conference set May 26, 1966, as the date for the colony’s independence. On that date, it became a Commonwealth realm by the Guyana Independence Act of 1966 which transformed the British Crown Colony of British Guiana into the independent sovereign constitutional monarchy of Guyana with the British monarch as head of state. Guyana shared the sovereign with the other Commonwealth realms, and the monarch’s constitutional roles were mostly delegated to the Governor-General of Guyana. The royal succession was governed by the English Act of Settlement of 1701. By the time independence was achieved, the country was enjoying economic growth and relative domestic peace. However, later that year, Venezuela seized the Guyanese half of Ankoko Island, in the Cuyuni River, and two years later claimed a strip of sea along Guyana’s western coast.
The Commonwealth realm of Guyana, officially known as “Guyana”, became a republic within the Commonwealth on February 23, 1970, and is today officially called the Co-operative Republic of Guyana,
Scott #215, 12 cents orange, was released on October 1, 1934, as part of a set of 13 stamps recess printed by Waterlow & Company of London on multi-script CA watermarked paper and perforated 12½. The stamp portrays Stabroek Market. In 1842, the Georgetown Town Council designated the current location of the market on Water Street, officially recognizing it as a market despite the fact that it had served such a capacity for quite some time. The market was designed and constructed by the Edgemoor Iron Company of Delaware, USA, over the period 1880-1881. Construction of the iron and steel structure was completed in 1881 and may be the oldest structure still in use in the city. Designed by an American engineer Nathaniel McKay, this market houses a wide variety of items for sale and covers an area of about 80,000 square feet (7,000 square meters). Though the architectural style is elusive, the iron structure and the prominent clock tower is reminiscent of the Victorian era of Great Britain. Located in the middle of what Guyanese people call “Town”, it serves as a central hub for taxis and minibuses as well as for ferries that transport people and goods from all towns and villages along the Demerara River. Today, Stabroek Market is a high crime area, with robberies occurring on a daily basis. In 2011, a grenade attack here killed one person and injured several others.