Mary Noel Menezes, R.S.M.
BRITISH POLICY TOWARDS THE AMERINDIANS IN
BRITISH GUIANA, 1803-1873
The origins of the present book can be traced back to 1969 when the author, Mary Noel
Menezes, R.S.M., was conducting research on the Guyana-Venezuela Boundary Dispute.
Briefly jotted down in the margins of her notes, the idea for a study on the British-Amerindian relations grew and developed over the following few years to reach its successful completion in 1977, when the first edition of
British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana, 1803-1873 was published.
When first released, Menezes’s work addressed a significant gap in the historiography of the young South American country, whose scholars had hitherto focused mostly on the history of the sugar industry, slavery and post-abolition immigration. It covered a period of seventy years of British rule commencing with the Dutch handover in 1803 and ending with the administrative reform of 1873 whereby the office of Superintendent of Rivers and Creeks, which had special prerogatives over the Amerindians, was abolished. Menezes’s account of the relationship between the British and the indigenous population of Guyana opens with a brief historical overview of the years prior to 1803. After Raleigh’s dream of El Dorado failed to materialise, the European explorers, especially the Dutch, began to grasp the real potential of the land between the Corentyne and the Orinoco rivers. Unlike their European rivals – the Spaniards – the Dutch were not interested in imposing the Christian faith, with all its social and cultural corollaries. Instead, their relations with the Amerindians were based on mutually beneficial trade in products such as annatto dye, oil of maaran, indigo, raisins,balsams and letterwood. By the end of the seventeenth century, Dutch merchants had established settlements along the Essequibo, Pomeroon and Moruka rivers, which thrived on the strength of their commercial ties with the native people.
However, with the growth of plantation slavery in the colony, the alliance between the Dutch and the Amerindians acquired a new dimension and urgency. With an increasingly disproportionate number of African slaves and hostile Spanish neighbours, west of the Orinoco, the position of the Dutch settlers was growing ever more precarious. Their continuous hold on power could only be maintained through a strategically who could help them suppress any resistance on the part of the plantation workforce whilst keeping the Spanish at bay.
The Amerindians were perfectly suited for both these roles. With their detailed knowledge of the local terrain and superb orientation skills they proved indispensable in tracking down and capturing runaway slaves. Deeply resentful against the Spanish policy of religious and cultural assimilation, they were naturally drawn to the far more noninterventionist approach of the Dutch. It was out of these two preconditions that the Dutch-Amerindian alliance was born, an alliance which the Dutch would make every effort to strengthen and prolong.
They would sign official treaties of friendship with the Amerindian chiefs; bestow gifts such as small objects and foodstuffs to all members of the tribes; and appoint especially designated officials known as uitleggers, or “postholders”, who were stationed at different places in the Interior and were entrusted to maintain close contact with the aboriginals. The postholders were the key players in the implementation of the Dutch policy towards the Amerindian population.Their efforts to attach the Indians to their respective “posts”,i.e. the places to which they were designated, created obvious advantages for further development and expansion of trade. Furthermore, the presence of a sedentary Amerindian population close at hand, served Dutch interests in a sphere very different from commerce. Living in close proximity to the posts, the Indians could be easily summoned and deployed as reinforcement in slave-catching expeditions. They proved themselves trusted allies during the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion as well as during the 1772 Black revolt. For their loyal service in 1772, the Amerindians were granted presents by the colonial authorities and in 1774 the Court of Policy proposed that special staves of office should be presented to the chiefs as tokens of respect.
As the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, the Dutch found themselves increasingly reliant on Amerindian support for capturing runaway slaves, which gave rise to a policy of regular gift distribution among the tribes. When the British took over the colony, in 1803, the Indians were quick to accept their authority and demand the same preferential treatment they had received under the Dutch. The new European rulers deemed it wise to comply. Since they also required Amerindian assistance in policing the borders of plantation society, the British continued their predecessors’ strategy of cajoling and bribery. In 1806, the Court of Policy decreed that “a premium of Two [sic] hundred guilders” be divided among the Indians participating in a slave-hunting expedition “[f]or every Bush Negro who [was to be] taken and secured alive and who [would] have been less than two years in the Bush”( qtd. In Menezes 53). Alternatively the sum of one hundred guilders was to be paid “for the right hand of every runaway Negro that [was to be] killed during the Expedition [sic]” (qtd. in Menezes53). However, although the British took frequent recourse to Amerindian slave hunters, the latter did not always receive the remuneration they had been promised.
The Court of Policy agreed in principle that native allegiance should be rewarded, but it was often tardy and inconsistent in delivering on its word. This in turn bred resentment and mistrust amongst the affected tribes who felt betrayed and withdrew into the Interior. Apart from these early signs of strain, the British-Amerindian relations pretty much eased into the pattern established prior to 1803. As during the Dutch rule, these relations were based upon a regular distribution of presents for services rendered which was carried out by the postholders. The office of the postholder had survived the transition of power between the European metropoles and continued to play a pivotal role in the colonial administration of Guyana. Although the postholders operated under a categorical ban against any form of mistreatment of the Amerindians, it seems the reality of their day-to-day work proved far removed from the official guidelines. In fact, the postholders had an unenviable reputation for mismanagement and abuse. The opinion of a certain Captain J. E. Alexander of the 42nd Highlanders, who visited British Guiana not long before the abolition of slavery, can be seen as representative of the criticism they received.Capt. Alexander describes
the postholders as “altogether unprincipled and worthless, shamelessly neglecting or abusing the charge committed to them. Their sole aim seemed to be to enrich themselves, or to find the means of living a debauched life by inducing the Indians to cut wood for them by presents of rum, therefore demoralizing the people they were intended to protect”(qtd. Menezes 82-83). Menezes’s book gives full consideration to the numerous detractors of the postholder’s position and yet, it attempts tokeep a comprehensive and dispassionate account of the overall role which those officials played in the British colonial establishment. The author dwells on the hardships which the postholder’s occupation entailed, namely, the isolated life; the extreme, often unhealthy, climate; and the paltry financial reward. She also points out instances where the postholders’ actions did indeed benefit the Amerindian population –mostly to protect them against other ethnic groups or to prevent inter-tribal violence (83-84). Yet, despite these concessions, Menezes delivers a negative verdict on the overall impact which the postholders had on the indigenous population of British Guiana. The systematic exploitation and demoralisation to which they subjected the Amerindians ensured that, in her own words, “[t]he balance sheet of their record was not at all in their favour”
However, the postholders were not the only officials to blame for the failures of the British policy towards the Amerindians in the first half of the nineteenth century; Menezes believes the responsibility should be shared equally by their superiors, the Protectors of Indians. The Protector of Indians was an unsalaried post of high prestige, held by certain members of the Court of Policy, within whose remit fell the care for the Amerindian population of a particular district as well as the supervision and control of the local postholder’s activities. Since the Protectors were designated by law as official mediators between the Amerindians and the Government, they were uniquely positioned to influence the official policy towards the indigenous population of the colony. It was they who provided information to the Government on the current situation of the Amerindians of a particular region and suggested measures aimed at resolving outstanding problems. As regards their routine obligations of ensuring friendly relations with the Indians, the Protectors succeeded admirably. They oversaw the construction of accommodation for those of them who congregated at the posts and towns; arranged for the provision of medical care at the posts; addressed their complaints to the legal authorities; and nominated tribal captains and other individuals for special commendation and presents. However, all these activities required a rather superficial engagement with the Amerindian population and were aimed, as Menezes perceptively concludes, at preserving the status quo of inter-ethnic colonial relations.
Like their subordinates, the postholders, the Protectors remained above all distributors of gifts whose interest in the Amerindians did not go beyond what was considered expedient at the time. It is hardly surprising, then, that they too
received accusations of incompetence, indifference and corruption – accusations which, as Menezes asserts, played a role in the 1838 decision of the Court of Policy to replace the Protector’s office with that of the Superintendent of Rivers and Creeks. The postholders, who had shared in the failures of the Protectors, remained unaffected by the 1838 Ordinance, but were merged into the Superintendent’s office in 1843.
Ostensibly, the appointment of Superintendents of Rivers and Creeks opened a new page in the relationship between
the colonial authorities and the Amerindians. And yet, as Menezes puts it, the “new office did not create, in turn, new and model men” (109). There were indeed some improvements on the old Protectorship system. For example, the Superintendents could no longer distribute gratuities to the Amerindians at public expense, nor could they enter into business transactions with them, which closed off many an avenue for abuse.
Also, some of the good practices of the old establishment were carried on further: the Superintendents settled disputes amongst Amerindians as well as between Amerindians and others, provided medical assistance when necessary, and put forth tribal chiefs for special recognition by the Governor.
However, the primary focus of their activity was moving away from the indigenous population and towards the natural assets of the Guyanese Interior. Ordinance No. 14 of 1861 brought Crown Lands under the jurisdiction of the Superintendents to ensure the Government’s control over the growing timber industry. In accordance with this new legislation, Superintendents were expected to oversee that all woodcutters in their area were in possession of official licenses, which were an increasingly important source of revenue for the colony. These essentially law-enforcing powers were further expanded in 1869 and 1871.
Eventually, the Government’s ambition to manage efficiently its timber and land resources led to the replacement of the Superintendents with Crown Surveyors, Commissaries of Taxation and Stipendiary Magistrates in 1873.
Menezes describes the 1873 decision as a pivotal moment in the British policy towards the Amerindians of Guiana as it “stripped away the last mask of the pretext of Indian protection” (126). Although the Ordinance abolishing the Superintendent’s post did uphold the previous legislation pertaining to the indigenous population, this was above all a default action that could not obscure the Government’s lack of interest in Indian affairs.
After the Government had absolved itself from any actual responsibility towards the Amerindians, it was only the different Christian denominations in the colony that remained in close contact with them. Menezes’s book includes a detailed and engaging analysis of the history of Christian proselytising in British Guiana, the beginnings of which can be traced back to the work of Rev. John Armstrong of the Church Missionary Society. In 1831 Rev. Armstrong requested a permission of Governor D’Urban, to set up a mission at the confluence of the Cuyuni, Mazaruni and Essequibo Rivers. The mission, Bartica Grove, was to become the first of a number of Christian outposts on the territory of British Guiana, all of which were established by organisations such as the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts,among others. The missionaries saw their task not simply as converting “heathen souls” to the Christian faith but also as introducing “native minds” to the habits of Western thought. They set out to educate the Indians following the Chapel-School tradition of Day and Sunday schools, whose subjects and timetables were modelled after the established practices in the metropole. Since adult Indians proved far less susceptible to Christian lore than their offspring, the missionaries focused their efforts on the latter. At Bartica, Amerindian children received tuition
in Psalmody, Church history, English history, Writing, Arithmetic, Composition, as well as in Manual labour – more specifically, cleaning, weeding, planting and carpentry. Yet even with regard to the Amerindian children, the “civi-lising” endeavour of the missionaries met with many, often insurmountable, difficulties. Native parents were often reluctant to part with their young ones for long which precluded any possibility for continuous and systematic education. There were also significant cultural differences as to what constituted good parenting: Reverend J. H. Bernau at Bartica thought the Amerindian children were “hopelessly pampered and spoiled”(Menezes 215). But perhaps the most serious problem of the missionary enterprise seems to have been the lack of support and funding on the part of the colonial administration. The attitude of most Governors towards “civilising” the Indians was lukewarm, at best, whereas the Combined Court considered it unjustifiable profligacy. A notable exception to the general disposition was Governor Henry Light, but even he could not induce the Court to consider Amerindian education a worthwhile investment.
After discussing in depth the social and political climate which determined the progress of Christianisation of the Amerindians in British Guiana, Menezes presents the reader with a balanced appraisal of the missionary endeavour as a whole. Instructing the indigenous people in literacy, numeracy and practical skills were certainly positive steps towards their integration into the colonial society, and yet the framework under which this instruction was carried out was highly problematic. As Menezes puts it “the missionary, from the height of his religious, cultural superiority, looked down on the inferior Indian whom he felt obliged to uplift, Christianize, and civilize”(212) – an attitude which the concept of the White Man’s Burden has rendered indistinguishable from imperial conquest. Menezes’s book concludes with a brief summary chapter of the British policy towards the Amerindians during the first seventy years of their rule over Guyana. The author’s recapitulation elicits one key principle which seems to have dominated all aspects of the British intervention in indigenous affairs – the principle of “expediency”
. For there was no other purpose but the purpose at hand that motivated the disparate, inconclusive and outright contradictory actions which the British adopted towards the native population of their South American colony. Menezes describes their policy as “a conglomerate of the policy of liberal and conservative, pro- and anti-humanitarian members of the Colonial Office, of sugarminded and money-grubbing members of the Combined Court, of strong- and weak-willed Governors, of interested and uninterested officials, and of zealous missionaries”(255). Thus, it can be concluded, there was no one British policy towards the Amerindians that characterised the period between 1803 and 1873. Instead, there was a multitude of policies, each reflecting the ethics and politics of its agent.
Dimitar Angelov University of Warwick
Menezes, Mary Noel.
British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana,
1803-1873. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977