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1. OVER GUIANA, CLOUDS
To the north, beyond the three jungle-bound peaks which
give Trinidad its name, the Caribbean lay clear and vividly blue; a schooner, pink sails full in the breeze, rested on the water like a giant piece of coral which had come to the surface. Then, some miles to the south of the island, we were flying above another sea, a viscous, pink sea, the colour of a schooner's muddied sails, a sea in which was suspended the alluvial flow from the rivers of Venezuela, the three Guianas and Amazonia. How could Columbus, when he sailed his caravel across these unlovely waters, have thought that the great rivers from which they came formed the entry to the Earthly Paradise and had their source at the Tree of Life? He spoke then with the voice of a medieval cosmographer, rather than with the observant realism of the High Renaissance. 'No one can reach the Earthly Paradise save by divine will...', he wrote. 'I believe that this water may come from there, even if it be far away . . . and if it does not flow from Paradise the marvel is the greater still, for I do not think there is known in the world a river so big and so deep.'
We could see, through the clouds and the steam haze, the vast panorama of that paradise-flat jungle stretching to a lost horizon, veined by rivers and more or less uninhabited, though once Warrau Indians had lived along this 'Wild Coast' in huts on stilts that had made Amerigo Vespucci name the territory Venezuela, or 'little Venice'. It is a desolate coast, yet once it had filled many minds with thoughts of golden cities and earthly richness. Now we were above the great delta where 'Orinoco, in his pride, rolls to the main a rival sea of roaring war'. This was the river which obsessed Sir Walter Raleigh for so much of his life, the entry to Guiana and the gold of El Dorado. 'Guiana', he wrote in his Discoverie of.... Guiana, is a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, burnt nor wrought. The face of the earth hath not been torn, or the virtue and salt of the soil spent by manurance, the raves have not been opened for gold, the mines not broken
with sledges'.' There is evidence that the story of El Dorado was planted on Raleigh by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, the conquistador, to keep him busy while the Spaniards exploited the truly rich areas of the New World, but it was a deception Raleigh was never aware of; a Guiana gold idol and some ore from the Orinoco were found on his headless body.
Although the figure of Raleigh appears on the stamps of British Guiana he never, in fact, explored any of the territory below the Great Mouths of the Orinoco. For him, as for all his contemporaries, Guiana, the ‘land of waters', was the country enclosed on the east by the Amazon and on the west by the Orinoco, including the courses and deltas of both; to the north it stretched to the Atlantic. When Raleigh set sail in 1595 his aim was to subjugate this mysterious Empire of Guiana as Cortes had subjugated the Mexican Empire. He had dreams of colonial and mercantile wealth to be gained from the subjugation, and the patent exaggerations of his Discoverie suggest that it was in many ways the first of those glowing prospectuses intended to encourage speculative investment in Guiana. At one point he puts forward the arguable thesis that 'no portion of the earth is made in vain or as a fruitless lump' and with less excuse than Columbus, who never saw the mainland, suggests that the country is comparable to Paradise. The passage has great beauty and it is interesting to see that Raleigh describes the land in terms more suitable to the demesne of some Elizabethan manor-house. 'But for the greatest part,' he writes,
'those regions have so many goodly rivers, fountains and little brooks, abundance of high cedars and other stately trees casting shade, so many delicate fruits, ever bearing, and at all times beautified with blossom and fruit, both green and ripe, as it may of all other parts be compared to the paradise of Eden; the boughs and branches are never unclothed or left naked; their sap creepeth not under ground into the root, fearing the injury of the frost; neither doth Pomona at any times despise her withered husband Vertumnus in his winter quarters and old age.'
He talks of the 'perpetual spring' which is like 'the strong, flourishing and beautiful age of man's life'.
Six months after his arrival at the Orinoco, his enterprise
1 The idea was echoed in Paradise Lost:
yet unspoiled Guiana, whose great citie Geryons sous Call El Dorado.
having failed, he was back in England; but his tales of wealth and possible glory filled others with ambitious schemes for colonization.
The aeroplane had flown beyond the mouths of the Orinoco and below us twisted the Amakura, defining the north-west border of British Guiana; next the Barima and the Waini, flowing towards the coast and then, a few miles from the sea, turning suddenly to the left as if at the last moment reluctant to burden the ocean with their refuse. I did not then know that a shell barrier runs along the coast at this point which has resisted the pressure of the rivers. Some minutes later the Pomeroon, one of the many great rivers of the Colony, shone for a moment, and then we were above the Essequibo, where a simple civilization at last began. Canals were cut across its east bank, the lozenge-shaped islands dotting its breadth of fourteen miles were green with rice, and huts spread along the banks. The jungle fringes on the east side soon gave on to what appeared to be luscious savanna, but no cattle were there, no huts, no sign of habitation. There was something unhealthy about the green of the vegetation-it was the metallic green of verdigris; then the clouds parted and the sun shone through to be intensely reflected on the surface below, travelling across the swamp-land as we moved until it vanished, once more, into the forest.
Next came the Demerara, less majestic than the Essequibo, but sinuous and graceful as we circled above it before landing at Atkinson Field. Atkinson Field, twenty miles from Georgetown, was built by the Americans during the last war, on land leased by them, as an air-base on the route to North Africa. In 1949 they re-leased the land for ninety-nine years; the Government now maintains the field as a civil airport by arrangement with the Americans. I drove from the airfield over a fine concrete road, but the pleasure was short-lived; suddenly the luxury of the United States ended at a picket-post and we were on British soil, literally, for, after a mile or two of battered tarmac, the road surface was composed of earth which had been burnt an attractive pink. Mounds of earth lay smoking at the roadside and labourers were filling up the large and frequent pot-holes. Today, I was told, the surface was particularly bad because there had been rain and the burnt earth had been
washed away. 'But,' I said, 'you have a hundred inches of rain a year—it must always be being washed away.' 'Yes, it is,' said my companion, and I sat back to cogitate on this first anomaly of the Colony. It can truthfully be said of British Guiana that if God made the country the Devil made the roads. Although in the Colony there is only this road of twenty miles and a coast road of 240 miles, earth has been poured on to them since they were built—and washed away with the first rains; for decades
money has been cast into the ditches and only desultory attempts have been made to lay properly surfaced roads; yet pitch-blende could come from the lake on Trinidad and there are quarries on the Essequibo which could supply the stone. The answer of the local government is that such improvements would be too expensive. There is one point—on the coastal road-where an attempt has been made to combine efficiency with economy. Two parallel concrete tracks have been built along the road, with earth between and on either side of them; when they were first put down one needed merely to drive carefully, but soon the earth began its inevitable flow into the
ditches, leaving the concrete an inch or two above the rest of the road.
The British Guiana Government is aware that proper surfaces for the few roads the Colony possesses are a vital necessity and, as I write, the sum of £2,500,000 has been agreed in principle for the surfacing of the East Coast road between Georgetown and the Berbice River (sixty-six miles). It is expected that the final sum will be somewhat larger than that envisaged. No source of supply for the stone basis to a bitumen surface has yet been agreed on and thus the Government is pushing ahead during 1956 to make the Atkinson Field road bitumen-surfaced but with a burnt-earth basis. I was assured that when done properly this can withstand the furious onslaughts of the climate. I had expressed doubt on this point after seeing the few miles of the 'Courantyne' road which have been surfaced in this manner and are fast subsiding. Apparently this was the result of bad workmanship and supervision, which permitted a divergence from the specifications. Two feet of burnt earth were laid as a basis instead of four feet. The annual report of the British Guiana Government for 1954 is noticeably laconic in its information about roads, and there are no figures given of expenditure on road making or upkeep -they come under the general heading of "Transport and Communications'. However, the figures under this heading show the trend of public expenditure in this department from 1950 to 1954, and are of some interest: 1950, £162,500; 1951, £831,250; 1952, £530,625; 1953, £438,958; 1954, £416,666.
Apart from its surface the road from Atkinson Field to Georgetown is unbeautiful; on it one sees British Guiana at its worst. The twenty miles are lined with desperate little wooden shacks on stilts that seem about to subside, often huddled together as if it were a privilege to be on the road rather than open and free on the land behind. Beneath the shacks, in the spaces known as the 'bottom house' or 'under-d'-house', children played, old women sat talking and men saw to their dogs. Now and then we would pass a stretch of shacks outside which hung battered white prayer-flags, fluttering on twelve-foot bamboo poles. These were the homes of East Indians, as Indians are called to distinguish them from American Indians or ‘Amerindians'. The nomenclature is complicated. East Indians