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12. THE FORGOTTEN PROVINCE

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PART from flying or a long, arduous overland trek through dull terrain there is no means of getting to the NorthWest District of British Guiana other than by boat. So it was on the little broken-down steamer, the Tarpon, that I travelled all night up the coast of the Colony, with long periods of comparative calm broken by rough passages as we crossed the areas of the sea affected by the outflows of the Essequibo and the Pomeroon.

By mid-morning we were steaming inland along the Waini river to Morawhanna, the capital of the North-West District. For many years this area of the Colony has been known as "The Forgotten Province'; cut off from the rest of the country, and with no land suitable for sugar cultivation it has never received much attention from the central administration. Its capital is worthy of a forgotten province; it is as miserable a collection of broken-down shacks running along the river-bank as I had ever seen in British Guiana, with only a whitewashed clinic and a police-station to relieve the wretchedness of the place. It seems strange that the poor African peoples in the rural West Indies have never managed to produce for themselves a style of dwelling which uses the materials that are to hand. Amerindian huts with manicole palm roofs and wattle daub walls are usually pleasant places to look at and to be in, but the collections of rusty corrugated iron which compose the worst shacks of the Africans have no beauty and must be extremely uncomfortable to live in.

Although Morawhanna is the chief place of the North-West District, the Government Compound, where the District Commissioner, the Forestry Officer and other Government officers live, is five miles away on the other side of the river, on the hill of Mabaruma. Until 1924 the Compound was at Morawhanna, and then it was decided that this low-lying, malarial country was not healthy and should be evacuated. Government decided that Mabaruma should become the 'capital' and Morawhanna abandoned. The hill of Mabaruma was beautifully laid out

with a long avenue of rubber-trees and houses were built with garden spaces and views across the hills towards Venezuela and the Orinoco. It was thought that no one could resist the obvious advantages of Mabaruma, but the Negro' mind is concerned with other matters than the beauty of the view and the coolness of tropic nights. If the people moved up to the hill they would lose the lively squalor of their rum-shops, the river that they had come to count on for so many things and the glorious fortnightly arrival of the Tarpon, with new faces and old friends, letters and supplies from Georgetown. Nothing would make them move and, I must say, I am entirely on their side. For years Government and the officials at Mabaruma were at open war with the people of Morawhanna; no new permanent buildings were allowed; when a Morawhanna trader in fish brought up an icing-plant from Georgetown with the idea of putting his fish on ice and sending it to Georgetown by the Tarpon the authorities would not allow him to put up the plant, and he lost heavily on the transaction. But still no one would move to the hill-top, and gradually Government has realized that no power on earth will ever shift the people of Morawhanna.

The Forgotten Province was not always as unhappy as it is today. Forty or fifty years ago the creeks and rivers of its interior were filled with pork-knockers extracting alluvial gold in large quantities, building themselves villages with names like Millionaire, Golden City, Annie's Creek or Determination. Money flowed in the rum-shops of Morawhanna, and there was free trade down the river with the people of Venezuela, so that fishermen could sell their surplus fish. Now the villages lie in ruins, only a few pork-knockers wash the creeks and fishermen do not put to sea because they cannot sell their fish either to Georgetown or Venezuela. There is still no icing-plant, even though the North-West could supply Georgetown and the coastlands with all the fish they need. The scattered population of the Morawhanna area lives mainly on the production of coffee, citrus fruits and ground provisions, but the soil available is mainly of the type known as pegasse, which loses it fertility after five years of cultivation. It is a spongy, peat-like soil like its name, which derives from the Spanish

1 Many of the people of Morawhanna are of mixed Negro and Amerindian stock.

pegajoso, meaning spongy and slimy. It is the usual soil to be found in the Colony behind the coastal front-land clays. It has a friable black surface layer varying from a few inches to several feet, a surface with a potent organic content. Below this comes a layer of white buttery clay speckled with orange. This layer is acidic and contains chemicals likely to destroy plantlife. Newly cleared pegasse soil is fertile, but without drainage and fertilizers, or flood-fallowing, the fertility decreases rapidly. Liberica coffee can grow in pegasse and it is thought that-if free from Panama disease-bananas would do well in it. I was told by a grower of Liberica coffee that his coffee bushes had done well, but they had grown so high that he was unable to pick the berries off the higher parts. I asked him if he didn't use a ladder to get at them but he shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't have a ladder. There is no doubt that the long years of neglect and declining prosperity have left many of the people of the North-West rather demoralized. The Anglican priest told me hair-raising tales of drunkenness and dissoluteness in Morawhanna. But even hard work is not necessarily rewarded in these parts. I was told of an Englishman who had come there with a little money, bought some land and invested all his capital in coffee bushes that perished in the treacherous pegasse. He went out with his gun one day and shot himself through the head.

The main activity of the interior of the North-West is timber-cutting in the forests, through which wind the twin rivers, the Barima and the Barama, the latter a tributary of the Waini. Amerindians are the woodcutters, and they sell their wood to a few saw-mills on the rivers, or at Morawhanna. There is wood in the forests which is valuable but is not cut because the Amerindians would be unable to transport it. They are only able to cut fairly small trees like crabwood on the land near to the rivers; they cut the trunks roughly into lengths which they can manage to roll to the river, where they lash them together into rafts and float them down-river to the mills. Gradually they are creaming the forest abutting on the river and must continually be working different and more inaccessible areas.

The people of the North-West, like those in the rest of the Colony, live in hope that oil will one day be found. Venezuela,

they say, is so close and there is oil there, only 150 miles across the border. Reports frequently come in of seepages of pitch and oil on the coastal fringe of the district and of issues of gas, an oil-indication. From time to time oil explorations have been made in the Colony, particularly in the North-West, and a survey of the Shell Beach area of the coast was being made during my visit. In 1940-1 Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd., a subsidiary of Central Mining & Investment Corporation Ltd., made a thorough survey of the area between the Demerara and the Courantyne and followed it up by drilling; there was no result and the company gave up its concession. I was told that it is unlikely that oil will be found in the Colony because the greater portion of British Guiana is composed of rock which was formed by extremely high temperatures so that any original organic materials held in these rocks would have been destroyed. During the water well-drilling, at 212 points along the coast, depths of as much as 1,600 feet were reached but in only one of these bore-holes were there any indications of oil; and that was at Morawhanna. Recently (1955) the McBride Oil & Gas Corporation has taken a concession on the coast from the Demerara to the Courantyne, but drilling has not yet commenced. The Geological Survey department does not hold much hope for workable oil in this part of the Colony, but it shares the hope of the North-West that the petroliferous area of the Orinoco delta continues into British Guiana, either on land or out to sea. Mr. G. M. Stockley, Director of the Geological Survey, told me that petroliferous sediments do probably occur offshore and asphalt and oil seeps are often found between the Waini Point and the Pomeroon. He suggests that seismic surveys should first be carried out along the north-west and northern off-shore of the Colony to gauge the depths of the sediments and to assist in finding suitable bore-hole sites.

If oil is found one day the people of the North-West will have a new taste of prosperity, but even if it is not found the future has become a little brighter for them with the discovery of a ridge of manganese about 120 miles up the Barima. The concession has been bought by African Manganese Ltd., a subsidiary of Union Carbide of U.S.A., and it is proposed to build a sixty-mile railway from Matthews' Ridge, where the manganese lies, to a point on the river which is navigable to ocean

going ships. If this is done the whole area should gain considerably in prosperity.

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It was in the North-West District that I made my first contact with Amerindians. In the Morawhanna district, particularly, the original Carib stock has to some extent become miscegenated with other bloods, but the Amerindian character and mode of life have remained dominant. There has been a Roman Catholic mission at Hosororo since 1908, and, further east, the Santa Rosa Catholic mission sees to the spiritual needs of the Amerindians of the Moruka Reservation, most of whom are descendants of Catholic Amerindians who, in the early nineteenth century, came across the border from Venezuela to find sanctuary from religious persecution. Down the years the missions have 'civilized' most of the Amerindians of the District, taught them to brush their teeth and wear European clothes, to sing the 'Ash Grove' or 'Greensleeves' and to forget as far as possible their heathen past. There is one tribe of 'true' Caribs, however, which lives on the upper reaches of the Barama and has remained inaccessible beyond the Towakaima Falls which block the river. Here the old animism of the tribe has not become diluted with Christianity, the tribal customs are unchanged and the squat, sleek, copper-skinned bodies of the men and women are not pointlessly covered with shapeless cotton prints from Manchester or cheap, tattered shirts.

In 1949 the Government of British Guiana officially came to the view that the Amerindians of the Colony should no longer be treated as museum pieces and segregated, but be taught to adapt themselves to Western standards of civilization and take their place on equal footing beside the other citizens of the Colony. The Dutch settlers had used the Amerindians in all manner of ways, trading with them at first and later, after the importation of African slaves, employing them to recapture maroons, or runaway slaves. Until the abolition of slavery the Amerindians, except those in the remote areas, were thus a protected and more-or-less privileged people, but once Abolition had ended their usefulness the Colonists lost interest in

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1 It has been found that the bar at the mouth of the Waini River will not allow the entry of large enough ships, so the ships will have to come to the mouth of the Orinoco, on Venezuelan territory.

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