Sunday, May 2, 2010


In April, 1840, Buxton Village on the East Coast of Demerara, Guyana was established by an enterprising group of 128 Africans who had been freed from chattel slavery on August 1st, 1838. The Africans pooled their money and bought the 500-acre plantation New Orange Nassau from its owner James Archibald Holmes, for $50,000. They named the village Buxton in honour of abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was also a British Member of Parliament. Buxton was the second village established by Africans in what was then British Guiana. Victoria Village, also on the east coast of Demerara was purchased in November 1839, by a group of 83 formerly enslaved Africans.

This was an extraordinary achievement because Africans had been enslaved in Guyana for centuries (first by Dutch and then British colonizers) prior to the emancipation on Augusts 1st 1834. Although chattel slavery ended on Augusts 1st 1834, a system of "apprenticeship" was instituted for another four years (until August 1st, 1838) in an attempt to continue the system of slavery under another name and guise. The white slave holders and plantation owners were compensated for the loss of their property (by the British crown and government) while the Africans were forced to continue working on the plantations where they had been enslaved. The period of apprenticeship compelled the Africans to work without pay for 40 hours a week and then they were grudgingly paid a pittance for any work they did over the forty hours. The Africans were compelled to pay rent for the very inadequate housing they were allotted on the plantation grounds, so it is surprising that out of this situation people were able to save enough money to purchase their own land.

Realising that the Africans would not continue working for a pittance after their freedom from chattel slavery, the British put in place a system to undercut the Africans’ access to fair compensation for their labour by importing labour from Asia and Europe. In late 1834, a small group of Portuguese recruited from the Portuguese-owned island of Madeira arrived in British Guiana to work on a sugar plantation in Demerara. On May 3, 1835, 40 more indentured labourers arrived from Madeira on the ship "Louisa Baillie" on a two to four year indentureship contract and by the end of 1835, 553 other Madeirans had arrived in British Guiana as indentured labourers contracted to work on various sugar plantations. These labourers were recruited using public money (gained from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans) made available by the British Government and was used to pay the planters for each immigrant transported to then British Guiana.

Not satisfied with exploiting the labour of the Africans for centuries before August 1st, 1838, the British decided to further marginalize the Africans by importing labourers from Europe to increase the population of white people in Guyana. In 1835, small groups of English and German farmers were recruited. In 1836, 44 Irish and 47 English labourers immigrated to Guyana and in 1837, 43 Scottish labourers arrived from Glasgow. In 1839, 209 Maltese and 121 Germans were added to the population. This population of European labourers apparently did not survive working in the tropical climate.

The British then turned to Asia as an alternative source for labour and on May 5, 1838 a group of 396 labourers arrived in British Guiana from the Indian subcontinent aboard the Whitby and the Hesperus. The Indian labourers were encouraged to exchange their return passage to India after their 5 year contracts had expired, for a plot of land and a cow. The indentured labourers from Indian were encouraged to retain their language and culture unlike the Africans who had been prevented under pain of death from speaking their language, retaining their names or practicing their culture. In 1853 three ships (the Glentanner, the Lord Elgin and the Samuel Boddington) left Amoy in the Fujian Province of China with 1,549 labourers bound for British Guiana. The Chinese did not remain on the plantations after they served the five year term of indentureship. Like the Portuguese, many of the Chinese who left the plantations as soon as their indenture contracts were fulfilled entered the retail trade. Some of them, however, emigrated again to Trinidad, Jamaica, or Suriname with very few of them returning to China. Those who remained left the sugar plantations because they were dissatisfied with the low wages and poor living conditions there. Some claimed that they had been tricked when they were recruited since instead of “garden work”, they had to work laboriously in the cane fields. By 1931, many had settled in Georgetown and other large centres of population where the work was easier and the profits greater and became shopkeepers since it was then easy to obtain credit from merchants there, they were able to break the monopoly in the retail trade held until then by the Portuguese.

Although the British discontinued immigration from Europe, Portuguese from the Azores, Brazil, Cape Verde and Madeira continued to immigrate until 1882 when the last group of 182 arrived in British Guiana. The Portuguese became a buffer class between the British and the non-White population although they were regarded by the British planters and civil servants as belonging to a lower social status and were classified as a different ethnic group from that of "Europeans." The Portuguese labourers did not remain on the sugar plantations after they completed their period of indenture. As soon as their two- to four-year period of indentureship ended, they moved off the plantations and on to small plots of land as well as into the huckster and retail trade.

The British merchants in Georgetown employed many of them as agents to sell retail imported goods in the rural areas. They quickly monopolised these positions which they wrested from the Africans who worked in this area. They established retail shops and supplied basic supplies to the plantation workers who were, by this time, mainly Indian indentured labourers. By 1851, in Georgetown, 173 out of the 296 shops belonged to Portuguese. In New Amsterdam, they owned 28 of the 52 registered shops while in the villages they had 283 of the 432 shops. By the end of the nineteenth century, large Portuguese firms were beginning to appear on Water Street in Georgetown.

It is under these conditions that villages were bought, owned and administrated by Africans in various parts of Guyana. It is a testament to the perseverance under very oppressive conditions that these villages survived and even managed to flourish, educating and nurturing many generations of high achievers in various fields. I recently interviewed Dr. David Hinds who was born in Buxton and is a professor at Arizona State University about the history of Buxton.

In 1841, another group of 168 formerly enslaved Africans pooled their money and purchased Friendship, a 500-acre plantation east of Buxton for $80,000 and the two communities merged to form Buxton-Friendship village. The founders laid out housing lots at the front of the village and corresponding farm lands at the back. The villagers built roads, dug drainage trenches and established farms. They also created an administrative body, the Buxton-Friendship Village Council to manage maintenance of the village’s infrastructure and collect property taxes. Buxtonians will commemorate their village's 170th year of existence with a celebration from July 24-August 1, 2010.

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