The evolution of an education system in 19th Century colonial British Guiana
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Historian, Tota Mangar
Historian, Tota Mangar

BASED on available evidence, it is quite reasonable to conclude that very little was done during the long years of Dutch settlement and colonisation towards educating the enslaved population in their former colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice. Such a situation was not entirely surprising as these earliest colonisers focused almost exclusively on trading and agricultural development. Dutch planters were more obviously interested in the acquisition of large scale unskilled labour force for their estates, and, hence, they saw nothing advantageous to themselves and their associates in attaching any semblance to education. Whatever little opportunity availed itself to the enslaved came from the Church, and in particular the Dutch Reform Church, in the mode of evangelisation and with the emphasis on qualities of spiritual and moral goodness.

The immediate post cession years of British rule witnessed a general reluctance and even discouragement on the part of planters to educate the enslaved. Indeed, education was far from being a governmental policy and planters were highly suspicious of missionary activities. Planters were, to a great extent, fearful that missionary work would go beyond the stage of proselytising and that their teaching might eventually incite the enslaved to rebel. With such an attitude around, the work of early missionaries was considerably hindered or even stymied from time to time.

For example, John Hawkshaw, a Methodist clergyman, was promptly expelled in 1805 when he attempted to provide religious instruction to the enslaved. In 1823  Reverend John Smith , a prominent member of the London Missionary Society (LMS)   was blamed and made to suffer for the East Coast Slave Insurrection. In the first place planters were concerned with their personal safety and also the economic stability and viability of their plantations. Coupled with this was their obvious fear and concern that “the notions of freedom and equality inherent in Christianity would lead to a disruption of slavery.

Despite tremendous odds the London Missionary Society, in particular, did reach out to some of the enslaved during the early stages of British rule. It was obvious that from the 1820s onwards some missionaries were making an impact in their efforts to educate the enslaved population. It was the Anglican Church which established the St George’s Free School in 1824 and five years later this body followed up with the opening of the All Saints School in New Amsterdam. All the same one ought to concede that the overall situation was such that there was the existence of a “mere embryonic structure of elementary or primary education” in the immediate pre-emancipation era. It was only after 1834 that a formal system of elementary education emerged in the colony of British Guiana.

Following emancipation and under the apprenticeship system, all children of ex-slaves under the age of six years were regarded as free persons and this in itself had serious implications. It led to the establishment of infant schools with the overall objective of providing day-care for children of the labouring class. Furthermore, the British Government endorsed a plan for state subsidised religious and moral education. Towards this end it allotted the annual sum of twenty-five thousand pounds Parliamentary Grant for Negro Education in the British West Indies. Of this figure the then British Guiana received a mere one thousand four hundred and thirty pounds. In any event the underlying motive for providing education to children at this particular juncture was seemingly to groom them to become good servants and not so much as making them fit to live in society.

The immediate impact of the Education Grant was a marked increase in the number of schools by various religious bodies. Most of these schools which emerged had their classes in church buildings and of significance was the fact that teachers were either clergymen or they were closely associated with the Church.

At this early stage the quality of education provided was grossly unsatisfactory due largely to inadequate numbers of qualified teachers. As a result the monitorial system dominated as monitors were used to teach the less academically gifted under the supervision of the schoolmaster. Moreover, there was a high degree of absenteeism by children. In any case, education, instead of affording the masses the opportunity of improving their lot, was subtly geared “towards the production of a servile, neo-citizenry who could remain a permanent labour force for the plantation system.”

It was not entirely surprising that from around 1845 several of the denominational schools ended in closures. Adequate finance was a major problem. In this regard, a serious blow was dealt by the Colonial Office itself when it implemented a phased withdrawal of the annual Education Grant. Consequently, the onus was left on the local legislatures to shoulder the responsibility of financing education. This task was made even more difficult since various state-aided immigration schemes were given preference during this crucial stage of ‘crisis, change and experimentation’ and colonial British Guiana was no exception.

The Court of Policy, the colony’s highest decision- making body at the time, was prepared to offer only a pittance in terms of budgetary allocation towards education. Besides, the quality of education provided must have had a rebounding effect. It contributed to an attitude of nonchalance on the part of both parents and children towards the whole business of education. Of added significance was the fact that the ex-slaves were moving off the plantations. With a mobile population resulting from both exodus and immigration, it was rather unsettling for parents and children to view education seriously.

The depressing situation was further exacerbated by the Civil List crisis of 1848-1849. The consequential stoppage of supplies led to a withdrawal of service of several headmasters because of the uncertainty of receiving salaries and education grants. School attendance was badly affected. Attendance fell from an average of 3,026 in 1848 to that of 1,686 the following year.

In 1848 Queen’s College was established and initially this development was primarily intended to provide for those whites who could ill-afford to send their children to Europe for a classical education. As a matter of fact non-whites had to be “extra-ordinarily gifted ” to find themselves at this institution and in 1848 only two Negro boys were attending the school in addition to white students.

Mr John Mc Swiney was appointed the first Inspector of Schools in 1849 and the following year a Board of Education was formed. Following his assumption of duty, Mc Swiney visited schools countrywide and he forwarded a detailed report for the general improvement of the education system.  Among his recommendations were local governmental control of education, compulsory attendance at schools, better record keeping and more qualified teachers. Despite the calls there was very little encouragement from the highly influential and powerful plantocracy and the Inspector of Schools proposals never really got off the ground.

In 1850 a Commission was appointed by the then Governor, Henry Barkly, to outline plans for the introduction of popular education in the colony. It proposed among other things, the creation of local district boards, religious instruction to be made optional, the continued usage of Church facilities and expertise and the cost of education to be partially financed by an assessment tax on parents of recipients and partly by a colonial grant. These recommendations met with strong protest from religious bodies.   Added to this were the government’s financial considerations and the intensification of various immigration schemes by the mid-19th century. In the end, the plan was shelved and nothing tangible was done in terms of restructuring and education reforms.

Renewed efforts in that direction were to come under Governor Wodehouse’s Education Bill of 1855 which placed executive control over education. Among its main aspects were a formal system of dual control of schools, by Church and State, a specified period for religious instruction, the remuneration of teachers on merit and the payment of school fees as sine qua non for the entitlement to government grants.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge that the month of September is designated Education Month with its theme “Education for All: Innovative Teaching and Learning in a Global Pandemic”.  It also coincides with Amerindian Heritage Month. A rewarding Education and Amerindian Heritage Month to one and all.

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