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6. BERBICE TO COURANTYNE
ON the day I arrived at Plantation Blairmont, on the
estuary of the River Berbice, heavy blue clouds had darkened the sky for days and it had rained with tropic fury during a season which should have been dry. The rain had damaged the rice crop and flooded the front-lands. Beyond the desolate frontlands I saw a celebrated area of wasteland between two flourishing areas of cane; it is celebrated because the P.P.P. point it out as an example of Sugar having land which is not 'beneficially occupied'. I was puzzled by the fact that it was situated in the middle of land which was beneficially occupied, but on inquiry I found that it was a reef of bad soil, no good to anyone. It is difficult to discover the entire truth about this vexed question of unused land on the estates and the sugar industry is itself undertaking a survey of all the estates to determine the amount of land which is not, but could be, put into agricultural use. When I flew at a low altitude over the land between the Demerara and the Berbice it seemed to me that surprisingly little land ‘aback' was not in use.
The railway from Georgetown ends at a river stelling1 on Plantation Rosignol, from which one takes the ferry-steamer across the estuary to New Amsterdam, a fifteen-minute journey. In the middle of the estuary stands Crab Island, and on the mainland opposite the site of Fort St. Andries, once a fortified bastion protecting the Dutch riverain possessions. As on the Demerara the Dutch originally settled some fifty miles up the Berbice and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that they moved down to the river-mouth and began to build New Amsterdam; it was a precisely parallel move to that on the Demerara. But New Amsterdam was planned in a different style. A long strip of the river-shore was divided into lots of a quarter-acre each, and trenches were cut between the lots, so that each house stood on its own little island. At high tide the trenches were filled with water and when the water
1 Stelling is the Dutch word for wharf, and is used throughout the Colony.
returned to the river at low tide it would take all filth and refuse with it. This rudimentary sanitation seemed to be successful, for the death-rate in the town was for many years considerably lower than that of Georgetown. This was partly so because the area between the Berbice and the Courantyne was less malarial. With this advantage of health, and the fact that the land is more fertile here than between the Demerara and the Berbice, it seems a paradox that Georgetown and Demerara should have become the focal point of the Colony. New Amsterdam, however, was unable to keep pace with Georgetown because its harbour has even more disadvantages than that of the capital. The bar at the mouth of the Demerara will allow small ocean vessels to enter the harbour, but only coastal vessels can enter the Berbice. Anchorage at New Amsterdam is ten to thirteen feet compared with twenty-four feet at Georgetown. Thus New Amsterdam has no direct trade with the outside world; all its imported goods come by rail or coastal vessel from Georgetown. Its tradesmen complain about this dependence on the capital, and in general the townspeople have no great love for Georgetown.
It is a charming little sleepy hollow of a town with long straight streets-less well-kept than those of Georgetownwhich will occasionally end in a delicate church in Dutch colonial style. The small Lutheran church in the Strand is an architectural gem, the finest building in the Colony. Unlike Georgetown, New Amsterdam has no large, modern shops, but at Wreford's general stores there is a fine display of everything from gum-boots to caviare. Recently the finding of bauxite upriver has brought a slight increase in prosperity to the town, and a handsome factory now stands nearby on the river-bank. Unfortunately the factory is not a heavy employer of labour, and even at the Kwakwani mines the labour needs are small, so that the discovery of bauxite in this area brought small immediate benefit to the people. It has, however, meant that oil depôts have been built on the river-bank, and this convenience has led the Town Council to plan a new electricity works, using oil-power.1 The fuel used now, in the ramshackle construction of rusty corrugated iron, is wood-probably the only wood
1 I understand that the Consulting Engineer recommended a thermal generating station using either wood or oil. A final decision on this has not yet been made.
burning power-station in the world. It may be old-fashioned and supply inefficient power to its 1,600 consumers1 but it does at least conform to one common-sense requirement of an underdeveloped country, that it should use its own products where possible. The supply of wood keeps a number of people in regular employment. Oil will be imported at high cost.
I spent my first evening in New Amsterdam with the Anglican priest, Father Heal, who had spent the last five years in the Colony. He was a very amusing talker and a remarkable raiser of money. As his raffles had brought about a prompt ordinance from Government prohibiting them he was now at work on a scheme entailing a competition demanding a legal minimum of skill by which he hoped to raise money for school improvements and remain within the law. He showed me one of the results of his last raffle-a figure of the Virgin Mary which stood in the corner of his sitting-room and would, the following week, be unveiled in the new Lady Chapel to his church. He, like most Anglican priests in the Colony, is 'High'. The tradition of ultra-montanism in the Colony goes back to the early days of the Colony when the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Wesleyan churches were given equal state endowment in order to prevent holy squabbles. I heard it said that the Negroes were attracted both by the panoply of the Catholics and the rousing heartiness of the low Churches, while the Anglican version of Christianity was dull in comparison with both. So the Anglicans set about enlivening their services, aspiring Higher and Higher.
Evensong, that night in New Amsterdam, had the qualities of High and Low. It was like a style of service more usual in the Brompton Oratory being performed in a Baptist mission hall. Outside, the church was a charming steepled building in white-painted wood, but the interior had little architectural distinction, a lack which Father Heal's Lady Chapel did something to lessen. The congregation was large, entirely African and resplendent in Sunday pink and blue dresses, stiff white collars, fruit-laden straw hats and white gloves. The choir gave full and excellent voice from behind the high altar, dressed in scarlet surplices. Incense scented the air as Father Heal addressed the congregation with immense fluency from the
1 The population of New Amsterdam was 13,700 in 1955.
pulpit. Here again High and Low seemed to have mixed; the simple theology of the sermon was High, but the manner had something of the breezy exhortation of 'chapel'. The congregation responded uninhibitedly to the little jokes and clearly enjoyed being called 'my dears'. They were not always spoken to so endearingly by Father Heal, who told me that he had a reputation in the town for using four-letter words on its inhabitants. He wanted, he said, more than anything to breed initiative and self-reliance among his flock, and whenever he got angry with someone for laziness or thoughtlessness, he would bawl them out and use any appropriate word which offered itself. Benediction came, the choir stood in a semi-circle round the apron of the altar, singing "The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended', while a server tinkled the bell and another swung the censer. Father Heal appeared from the sacristy in biretta and bright embroidered vestments, stood before the altar, intoning while he placed the host in the monstrance. He leant over to open the tabernacle where the host and monstrance would remain till next communion, but the doors of the tabernacle would not move. He stepped down from the altar and went back into the sacristy, returning in a moment to say, through the singing of the choir, 'What a to-do, my dears, I forgot the key.' It was at this point that I felt most completely the strange and pleasant union of Christian styles of worship which has grown up in British Guiana.
After the service various members of the congregation came to Father Heal's house and, over some beer, we talked. There were, among others, Mr. Niall, first bass in the choir and the Postmaster, Sergeant Mackinnon of the police, and Jimmy Chapman, the large and cheerful cook at the General Hospital. When I told Sergeant Mackinnon that I would be visiting Plantation Port Mourant, the birthplace of Cheddi Jagan, he told me not to miss going to the 'Rock Diamond' rum-parlour, where I would see some life. It was, he said, the place where the trouble-makers of the plantation met, and when the police wanted information they would send a man to eavesdrop at the Rock Diamond. They were expecting trouble now, he added, since Bookers had just decided to close down the sugar-factory there, and the workers had got the idea that they had been punished for their support of the P.P.P. I asked Sergeant