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British Guiana

British Guiana Collection

History Archive - British Guiana Collection

British Guiana was the name of the British colony, part of the British West Indies (Caribbean), on the northern coast of South America, now known as the independent nation of Guyana (since 1966). The first European to discover Guiana was Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer. The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle there, starting in the early 17th century, when they founded the colonies of Essequibo and Berbice, adding Demerara in the mid-18th century.

In 1796, Great Britain took over these three colonies during hostilities with the French, who had occupied the Netherlands. Britain returned control to the Batavian Republic in 1802 but captured the colonies a year later during the Napoleonic Wars. The colonies were officially ceded to the United Kingdom in 1814 and consolidated into a single colony in 1831. The colony's capital was at Georgetown (known as Stabroek prior to 1812).

As the British developed the colony for sugarcane plantations, they imported many Africans as slave labour.[citation needed] The economy has become more diversified since the late 19th century but has relied on resource exploitation. Guyana became independent of the United Kingdom on 26 May 1966.

The English made at least two unsuccessful attempts in the 17th century to colonise the lands that would later be known as British Guiana, at which time the Dutch had established two colonies in the area: Essequibo, administered by the Dutch West India Company, and Berbice, administered by the Berbice Association. The Dutch West India Company founded a third colony, Demerara, in the mid-18th century. During the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century, when the Netherlands were occupied by the French, and Great Britain and France were at war, Britain took over the colony in 1796. A British expeditionary force was dispatched from its colony of Barbados to seize the colonies from the French-dominated Batavian Republic. The colonies surrendered without a struggle. Initially very little changed, as the British agreed to allow the long-established laws of the colonies to remain in force.

In 1802 Britain returned the colonies to the Batavian Republic under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens. But, after resuming hostilities with France in the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, Britain seized the colonies again less than a year later. The three colonies were officially ceded to the United Kingdom in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. The UK continued separate administration of the individual colonies until 1822 when the administration of Essequibo and Demerara was combined. In 1831, the administration Essequibo-Demerara and Berbice was combined, and the united colony became known as British Guiana.


The economy of British Guiana was completely based on sugarcane production until the 1880s, when falling cane sugar prices stimulated a shift toward rice farming, mining and forestry. However, sugarcane remained a significant part of the economy (in 1959 sugar still accounted for nearly 50% of exports). Under the Dutch, settlement and economic activity was concentrated around sugarcane plantations lying inland from the coast. Under the British, cane planting expanded to richer coastal lands, with greater coastline protection. Until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, sugar planters depended almost exclusively on slave labour to produce sugar. Georgetown was the site of a significant slave rebellion in 1823.

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In the 1880s gold and diamond deposits were discovered in British Guiana, but they did not produce significant revenue. Bauxite deposits proved more promising and would remain an important part of the economy. The colony did not develop any significant manufacturing industry, other than sugar factories, rice mills, sawmills, and certain small-scale industries (including a brewery, a soap factory, a biscuit factory and an oxygen-acetylene plant, among others).

The London-based Booker Group of companies (Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co., Ltd) dominated the economy of British Guiana. The Bookers had owned sugar plantations in the colony since the early 19th century; by the end of the century they owned a majority of them; and by 1950 owned all but three. With the increasing success and wealth of the Booker Group, they expanded internationally and diversified by investing in rum, pharmaceuticals, publishing, advertising, retail stores, timber, and petroleum, among other industries. The Booker Group became the largest employer in the colony, leading some to refer to it as "Booker's Guiana".

Boundary Disputes

In 1840, the British Government assigned Robert Hermann Schomburgk to survey and mark out the western boundary of British Guiana with newly independent Venezuela. Venezuela did not accept the Schomburgk Line, which placed the entire Cuyuni River basin within the colony. Venezuela claimed all lands west of the Essequibo River as its territory.

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The dispute continued on and off for half a century, culminating in the Venezuela Crisis of 1895, in which Venezuela sought to use the United States' Monroe Doctrine to win support for its position. US President Grover Cleveland used diplomatic pressure to get the British to agree to arbitration of the issue, ultimately agreeing terms for the arbitration that suited Britain. An arbitration tribunal convened in Paris in 1898, and issued its award in 1899. The tribunal awarded about 94% of the disputed territory to British Guiana. A commission surveyed a new border according to the award, and the parties accepted the boundary in 1905.

There the matter rested until 1962, when Venezuela renewed its 19th-century claim, alleging that the arbitral award was invalid. After his death, Severo Mallet-Prevost, legal counsel for Venezuela and a named partner in the New York law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle published a letter alleging that the judges on the tribunal acted improperly as a result of a back-room deal between Russia and Great Britain. The British Government rejected this claim, asserting the validity of the 1899 award. The British Guiana Government, then under the leadership of the PPP, also strongly rejected this claim. Efforts by all parties to resolve the matter on the eve of Guyana's independence in 1966 failed; as of today, the dispute remains unresolved.

Robert Schomburgk's 1840 commission also included a survey of the colony's eastern boundary with the Dutch colony of Suriname, now the independent nation of Suriname. The 1899 arbitration award settling the British Guiana—Venezuela border made reference to the border with Suriname as continuing to the source of the Courantyne River, which it named as the Kutari River. The Netherlands raised a diplomatic protest, claiming that the New River, and not the Kutari, was to be regarded as the source of the Courantyne and the boundary. The British government in 1900 replied that the issue was already settled by the longstanding acceptance of the Kutari as the boundary.

In 1962, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, on behalf of Suriname, which had become a constituent country of the Kingdom, finally made formal claim to the "New River Triangle", the triangular-shaped region between the New and Kutari rivers that was in dispute. The Surinamese colonial government and, after 1975, the independent Surinamese government, maintained the Dutch position; while the British Guiana Government, and later the independent Guyanese government, maintained the British position.

Georgetown (British Guiana)

Georgetown is the capital of British Guiana , and the seat of the colonial government, situated on the left bank of the Demerara river at its mouth, in 6° 29' 24? N. and 58° 11' 30? W. It was known during the Dutch occupation as Stabroek, and was established as the seat of government of the combined colonies of Essequibo and Demerara (now with Berbice forming the three counties of British Guiana) in 1784, its name being changed to Georgetown in 1812.

It is one of the finest towns in this part of the world, the streets being wide and straight, intersecting each other at right angles, several having double roadways with lily-covered canals in the centre, the grass banks on either side carrying rows of handsome shade trees. In Main Street, the finest street in Georgetown, the canal has been filled in to form a broad walk, an obvious precedent for the treatment of the other canals, which (however beautiful) are useless and merely act as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The principal residences, standing in their own gardens surrounded by foliage and flowers, are scattered over the town, as are also the slums, almost the worst of which abut on the best residential quarters. Water Street, the business centre, runs parallel to the river for about 2½ m. and contains the stores of the wholesale and retail merchants, their wharves running out into the river to allow steamers to come alongside.

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Most of the houses and public buildings are constructed of wood, the former generally raised on brick pillars some 4 ft. to 10 ft. from the ground, the bright colouring of the wooden walls, jalousies and roofs adding to the beauty of the best streets. The large structure known as the Public Buildings in the centre of the city, containing the offices of the executive government and the hall of the court of policy, was erected between 1829 and 1834. It is a handsome, E-shaped, brick-plastered building of considerable size, with deep porticos and marble-paved galleries carried on cast-iron columns. The law courts, built in the 'eighties, have a ground floor of concrete and iron, the upper storey being of hardwood. Among other public buildings are the town hall, the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals, several handsome churches, the local banks and insurance offices, and the almshouse.

The public hospital consists of several large blocks. The Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society has a large reading-room and lending library. The assembly rooms, above and owned by the Georgetown club, has a good stage and is admirably adapted to dramatic and musical entertainments. A museum (free), belonging to the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society, is chiefly devoted to the fauna of British Guiana, but also contains an instructive collection of local economic, mineralogical and botanical exhibits, a miscellaneous collection of foreign birds and mammals, and an interesting series of views of the colony.

The botanical gardens to the east of the city are of considerable extent and admirably laid out. The nurseries cover a large area and are devoted chiefly to the raising of plants of economic importance which can be purchased at nominal rates. The collections of ferns and orchids are very fine. In the gardens are also located the fields of the board of agriculture, where experimental work in the growth of sugar-cane, rice, cotton and all tropical plants of economic importance is carried on. Other popular resorts are the sea wall and the promenade gardens in the centre of the city.

The local government of Georgetown is vested in a mayor and town council elected under a very restricted franchise. The city is divided into fourteen wards each with one representative. A councillor must possess, either personally or through his wife, premises within the city of the appraised value of at least $1500. A voter must either own house property of the appraised value of $250 or occupy premises of an annual rental of $240. There are indeed only 297 municipal voters in a population of nearly 50,000. The revenue, just over £50,000 annually, is mainly derived from a direct rate on house property.

The colonial government pays rates on its property and also gives a grant-in-aid towards the upkeep of the streets. The expenditure is principally on sanitation, fire brigade, streets, water-supply, street lighting and drainage. Street lighting is carried out under contract by the Demerara Electric Company, which has a monopoly of private lighting and works an excellent tram service. Water for public and domestic purposes is taken from the conservancy of the east coast and is delivered by pumping throughout the city, but drinking-water is collected in tanks attached to the dwellings from the rain falling on the roofs.

The fire brigade is a branch of the police force, half the cost being borne by the rates and half by the general revenue. There is an excellent service of telephones, a branch of the post office, and halfpenny postage within the city boundaries. There are in Georgetown two well-equipped foundries, a dry dock, and factories for the manufacture of rice, cigars, soap, boots, chocolate, candles, aerated waters and ice. Georgetown is connected by rail and ferry with New Amsterdam, by ferry and rail with the west coast of Demerara, and by steamer with all the country districts along the coast and up the navigable reaches of the principal rivers.


Archibald Graeme Bell, 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 11. pgs. 749-750.

Available Books


Image Name
Caribi Encampment on the Upper Pomeroon
Esmeralda on the Orinoco
Snake Catcher
Roraima, a Remarkable Range of Sandstone Mountains
Landing Place Above Demerara Falls
Ataraipu, or Devil's Rock
Itabru and Christmas Cataracts on the River Berbice
Arecuna Indians
Mission Chapel, Pomeroon, 1843
Map of Guiana
Pirara and Lake Amucu, the Site of El Dorado
Watu Ticaba, A Wapistana Village
Maquarri Dance
The Cokorito Palm
Timehri Rocks
Junction of the Kundanama with the Paramu
Cougar Seizing Child
Comuti, or Water-Jar Rock
Assembly of Indians at Waramuri, 1866
Vase of Agate superbly mounted in Gold and Enamel, and richly ornamented with Precious Stones
Title Page
The Comuti or Taquiari Rock
Human Remains
Indian Sorcerer
Brazilian Fort St. Gabriel on the Rio Negro
Waramuri (1846)
Unbroken Stone Axe Head found in the bed of a Stream
Speciments of Broken Stone Implements found in the Mounds
Caribi Village Anai Near the River Rupununi
Assembly of Arawaks at Mahaiconi, 1844
Demerara Falls
Purumama, the Great Fall of the River Parima
Pure Piapa, a Remarkable Basaltic Column
Ataraipu, the Devil's Rock
Illustrated Title Page
Indian Mission at Pomeroon, 1846


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