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11. UP THE DEMERARA
ARLY on a greyish morning I walked up the gangplank on to the Demerara river-steamer, the R. H. Carr, and weaved among the mass of passengers calling their last goodbyes to friends on the stelling, stepping as I did so over birdcages, rolled mattresses, pots and pans and battered cases. I climbed to the upper deck, found a chair and looked across the mile of sun-flecked water to the green rim of the opposite bank. Small vessels with slack, drab sails were slowly moving across the bar from a night's fishing in the distant blue waters beyond the coastal mud; the Grumman amphibian was taking off for the first of its daily flights into the Interior; a ship laden with bauxite was moving down-river towards the open sea.
The hooter sounded, the babble of voices below grew greater and more emotional and the steamer quivered away from the stelling. I settled back in my deck-chair and prepared for the boredom of travel up the estuaries of tropical rivers, where the view beyond the banks is hidden first by the strange forms of mangrove trees, like animals rearing up from the water, and then by the larger forest trees. For this first hour the river-bank was fairly heavily inhabited, and then the clearings cut from the bush became fewer and fewer until, for miles at a time, both banks would form a low wall of trees and vegetation. Here, once, the early settlers had hewn down the trees to plant their indigo and sugar, and the river ran 'over lost stellings where the craft once rode'; names on ancient maps-Good Intent, Old England, Amelia's Ward-now had no meaning, the plantation earth now gave life to large areas of thick secondary growth.
We, the four in the first-class, lunched together in the saloon; a near-white business man going to the bauxite town, Mackenzie, with his coloured assistant, the Lancashire Methodist minister at Mackenzie, and myself. In the inevitable manner of the Colony we did not even wait until we had reached the Nescafé before we were embroiled in a discussion of the shortcomings of the Colony and what should be done to end them.
The business man opened. 'I'll give you an example of stupidness.' he said. 'Diversification of farming, that's what Government is alway crying, so I start a small fruit farm near New Amsterdam. Last year I had a fine crop-pineapple, guavas and grapefruit-and I did well. Then they take my gun away after the P.P.P. business, and what happens? The birds come and eat the fruit and I can't do a thing. The whole crop's ruined and Government doesn't care a fig. How anything ever gets done in the place is a miracle-there's frustration at every turn. Everybody complains of it and everybody frustrates everybody else. The Treasury's the biggest halting block of all; nobody there has any vision, they won't support any new ideas because they can only think of one thing-balancing the budget. Now look at all this wasted land up this river-they could clear it all with a few dozen bulldozers and settle people in decent small farms. I believe the saving of the Colony lies in small farming, not much more than subsistence. But the people must be shown good methods and made to plant the right things. Why don't the newspapers fight for things like this? I'll tell you-they're all in Government's pockets.'
The conversation turned to the growing population and the Methodist minister said that the growth appalled him, that he was frightened of the misery it might bring. The Anglicans as well as the Catholics, he said, preached against any suggestion of birth-control but the Methodists would support efforts to teach the Guianese methods of contraception, though he believed it would have little effect. 'You see,' he said, 'the East Indian has a natural feeling towards a large family and the Negroes are a very—er—physical sort of people. The women love having children, illegitimate or not, and it seems to prove their womanhood. These are simple people, you know, they're only a hundred years or so out of slavery and we've always encouraged their animal instincts. But now things are changing. I've been in two places in the Colony and I know everywhere the people are longing to lift themselves to a better sort of life in every way but they don't know quite how to. They're frustrated, like us all. It's the duty of us English out here to help them to raise themselves. I preach every Sunday to a packed chapel and I tell them every week that illegitimacy is a wicked, evil thing. If we could only cut out illegitimacy we'd cut down
the population enormously. But whatever I say doesn't have any effect at all. Last week I went to see a couple living together with two children in a disgraceful shack at Wismar, opposite Mackenzie. "Why don't you come to chapel and let me marry you?” I said. “Ah, minister,” said the girl, “us come when us have d'money fo' a downright weddin'", and when I asked the man if he wasn't ashamed not to come and be married, he said, "Gaash, minister, we wouldn't come an' disgrace dat fine chapel you has wid me old suit o' clos." "But," I said, “you wear a very decent suit on Sundays." He laughed and said, "Me couldn't wear dat suit, minister, at me own weddin'. Every man and woman in Wismar dey knows dat suit. Fo' me weddin' me gets me a fine new suit outa Georgetown hisself, wid a new fine colour shirt and some smart brown shoes and one o' dem bright American ties. Den me comes to chapel, minister, and me gets married."'
At last, in the noonday heat, our talk dwindled to a close, if not to a conclusion. I returned to laze in my chair, shielded from the rays of the now intense sun by a canvas awning, while the business man, who enjoyed studying the history of the Colony, told me about the three Englishmen, the "Three Friends', who settled in the Mackenzie-Wismar area of the Demerara in the early nineteenth century and became its seigniory. Their names were Spencer, Patterson and Blount, officers of a British frigate which was sent to Demerara during one of the frequent alarms of the time. They gave up their commissions, bought land and made money. Spencer was a heavy drinker, a boastful man, a strict but good slave-master. Patterson was religious, very kind to his slaves, a good business man and an excellent engineer. Blount was cruel to his slaves, a crude, loud-mouthed man who settled further up the river and married a 'Kabukru' girl, a cross between a Negro and an Amerindian. His slaves were always running away and living a miserable, half-animal existence in the bush. (It was these halfmad creatures who gave rise to the myths of 'bush devils' which all Negroes who live in the Interior believe in fanatically; a Negro in a mining camp once gave me a graphic description of a bush-devil who had come to his shelter during the previous night.) Spencer married an Amerindian, an Arawak, and made a fortune out of a timber concession. He built a fine, large house
and lived in some style, importing a cannon which he would fire in salute at the approach of visitors. His wife, however, never gave up the simple life of the tribe and although she had married so well she would go each day with the other Indians to the 'garden places' in the forest to gather cassava for breadmaking and herself scrape the bitter roots and express the acids from them in a basket matapi. She bore her husband frequent children, who found their education in the forests, preferring to hunt for peccary and labba rather than learn to read. Sometimes Spencer would take his squaw and brood to Georgetown. His great punt would be prepared, divans would be placed beneath luxurious awnings, and the ex-naval officer would float off down-river with his dusky family. Spencer, alas, did not end his days in Demerara happily. He was accused of some mysterious form of impropriety with an Amerindian and although the case was not finally brought against him it was made clear that the authorities would prefer him to leave the Colony. He sailed to England with his sons—his wife was now dead. The sons, who had turned into roughnecks, did not find England to their liking and returned to the Demerara to marry Arawak girls.
These stories of the early settlers always fascinated me and I would wonder what happened to their descendants. It was in Henry Kirke's Twenty-five Years in British Guiana (18721897) that I found references to the descendants of the Three Friends. Kirke met Arthur Blount, grandson of the naval officer, when he was post-holder on the Demerara. "The post was in charge of a man named Arthur Blount,' he writes,
‘a quadroon, the offspring of a Scotchman and a mulatto woman. His father had sent him to Glasgow as a boy, where he had received a fair education. He had been a woodcutter on a small scale.... Blount had been thrice married. His first wife was an Arawak Indian, his second a Miss Forsyth, and his third a mulatto girl, who had inherited a buxom figure and a small fortune from her parents. He had children by all his wives, and they formed a strange variety of human types. British Guiana would have afforded an interesting study for Darwin ..as owing to the numerous and distinct races inhabiting the Colony the most curious results of miscegenation are obtained. One of the prettiest girls I ever saw in the Colony was the offspring of a Madras coolie and an Accawaio Indian.'
Blount once startled Kirke by suddenly asking, during a river
trip, 'What is your opinion, sir? Do you think Masséna or Soult was the greatest general?' An entomologist had once given him Napier's Peninsular War and he had read it a score of times. The martial blood of his grandfather was apparently still potent in him.
By mid-afternoon we had reached a populated stretch of the river; trash houses were set among palms on either bank, small craft were carrying passengers and cargoes; a speedboat roared round a bend in the river with a white man water-skiing behind. "That's one of the bauxite men,' said the Methodist minister, 'he spends all the week-end skiing.' The R. H. Carr at last rounded the bend and the Mackenzie reach stretched before us. To the left, neat stilted houses symmetrically arranged, a modernistic church, a cinema, a store and, in the distance, the girders of the bauxite plant soaring into the air, and a white smoke of bauxite dust hazing the sky. All was different on the right bank; the twin villages of Christianburg and Wismar come under Government jurisdiction and the Demerara Bauxite Company is not responsible in any way for them. The contrast is painful. Miserable shacks are scattered over the steeply rising bank in a filthy confusion; the electricity of Mackenzie has not been taken across the water,1 sanitation is absent. Yet the population increase is so great that two or three families share the small, foetid shacks. The fury of housebuilding so noticeable on the coast has not spread this far up the Demerara.
Forty years ago this part of the river was peaceful, populated by a few Negroes and people of mixed blood who worked timber concessions. In 1909 Professor (later Sir) John Harrison,2 the Director of Science and Agriculture, made a casual survey of the land. One day, while out with a companion, he poked his shooting-stick into the reddish clay soil and said, 'Here lies the future of British Guiana-bauxite.' In 1914 a tall, cigarsmoking American Scot, a man in his early seventies, arrived at Wismar in a small canoe paddled by an Amerindian boy. His name, he said, was George Bain Mackenzie, and he had come to buy land to grow oranges. For some time he wandered
1 The Bauxite Company offered the people of Wismar an extension of electricity from across the river, but the offer has not yet been accepted.
2 He was supposedly the original of Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger.