– MASSIVE LOSS OF JOBS UNDOCUMENTED IN CONTEXT
I have written about them as a historic form of employment that modernisation erased. But there is more. They represented a social and cultural period that must be contextualised for the record of acknowledging the realisation of change as a precedent, heralding that the horseman of change shall time again visit us. Whether we are ready or not, in the impersonal gallop of the progress we often long for but resent when it is upon us unfeeling and impersonal. Thus the Stevedore, now an artefact of memory, mostly to a passing generation. Thus we must revisit and add narrative to its impact on the human world that had become accustomed to what this gateway of employment offered as a way of life, that enabled sustenance, dependency and birthed champions, like Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, a profound and time changing national hero of modern Guyana.
Stabroek was more so founded as a necessary port town following the invitation in the 1740s by Governor Laurens Storm Van’s Gravesande to British and Dutch plantation interests to occupy the colony of Demerara and convert it into plantations, with the river Demerara as most suitable to facilitate a commercial harbour, but the coast of Demerara was then unsuitable and had to be tamed or as some historians noted, to be civilised. To this end the strength and skill of the enslaved African were applied to this task, which was calculated to mean that the enslaved moved some 100 million tons of heavy waterlogged clay with shovel and cutlass while enduring perpetual mud and water- see Walter Rodney’s ‘A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905’ & Dr Winston Mc Gowan’s ‘A SURVEY OF GUYANESE HISTORY’: the Dutch capital before Stabroek was the island of Borselen up the Demerara River. This was replaced by the location named after the President of the West India Company Nicholas Gelvink, lord of Castricum, Backum and Stabroek. This site was bordered by a collection of plantations.
The first record of wharf activities known to this writer to date that pertains to the descendants of modern Guyanese is from the biographer Henry Bolingbroke-1799-1806. “The banks of which, when the tide is up, appear like so many wharves, completely strewed with English manufactured goods, in bales, casts, trunks, or boxes. Here the spirit of business is perceptible: the negroes, clad in blue throwers and checked shirts, moving to and fro with alacrity, performing those offices which a white man, here and there distributed, dressed in nankeen pantaloons and a fine calico shirt directs from under an umbrella.” These descriptions obviously are not stevedores but a cadre of custom brokers alive and well in 1799. Without a doubt, the budding nature of a commercial township created on the bloodline of slavery and commerce.
The living records of the Stevedores would emerge in graphic description- in the post-emancipation period that brought home the dependence of the mostly Afro Georgetown residents on the waterfront jobs for survival, in an overpopulated town where meagre wages and the racial struggle to marginalise the ambitions of the manumitted Afro-population into a dependent low wage earner.
Critchlow was 21 at the time of the profound 1905 protest-riots that emerged from the waterfront workers struggle to raise their measly pay and absence of worker rights to a more realistic existence. This riot extended beyond Georgetown and British Guiana and took the British navy to quell its anger. It was this event that launched the platform for the grassroots British Guiana Labour Union in 1919 and later the template followed by the first political parties that echoed the deep causes of the Stevedore BGLU into the pre and post Independence era. Thus the numerous Unions that followed, the political parties, all owe their era to the Stevedores and their courage that tore open with strength and blood, the movement for a better social existence.
Contrary to popular social folklore there were no exclusive “Good old days”. British Guiana –Guyana was always a country that demanded struggle for change. Jobs were always a problem. For many a youth, to learn to read and write was enough, then they were thrown into the labour force, and with Georgetown and most likely New Amsterdam, the waterfront was a legal means to an end as a non-card stevedore, ‘boy-wuk’, or in or out pick-on labour. Three or four days of employment could put food on the table. The waterfront in Georgetown stretched from Ruimveldt to Kingston and employed thousands daily, including lunch women etc. The myths are that all who worked on the waterfront benefitted from numerous illegal perks are not true. Not everyone was in the ship’s hatch or even paid attention to such options. A more steady earning capacity was more valuable than the hustle and its risks. The characters, around which such legends were reasonably created, were ‘Lizard’ Hubbard, Bellise, Lemon, Auger man, and Fowler, among others.
At the Rice Board, there were always ready businesses eager to buy nice clean export graded sacks of rice, some nearby food businesses hardly purchased rice and beef products, the Abattoir was also linked to the waterfront. Then there were the boatmen who snuck under wharves and boreholes to extract into their waiting bags, rice, nuts and other imported grains. The waterfront also had its P-50 hustlers who targeted boxed merchandise, relieving them from especially the old three-wheel vehicles, the saying captured the gist of the hustle that “Any box is a Dollar” in defiance of the underpaid port police, managed by the defiant Sergeant Barker. However, with this latter group, none of them were waterfront employees.
Then suddenly the waterfront of that age was no more, modernisations in merchant shipping, arson at Rice Board, a world that spanned over a century vanished. Some turned to crime. I know a few that suffered to nervous breakdowns, an income comfort zone disappeared and it had sad consequences. When I pass Lombard Street and glance at the old call-on-centre, through my mind’s eye the ghosts of another age do linger.