James Rodway, The Story of Georgetown, “The Argosy” Company, Ltd., Printers, Demerara, 1920, pp.256
A review by Frank Birbalsingh
James Rodway’s The Story of Georgetown is the reprint of a series of articles by the author which first appeared in “The Argosy” newspaper in Guyana (British Guiana), in 1903.
Revised and printed in book form by “The Argosy” Company Ltd. in 1920, the articles in Georgetown cover events from 1774 when the colony’s chief town was moved from the Essequibo island of Borsselen to Stabroek, at the mouth of the Demerara river. At the time, the colony was still in Dutch hands, but when the British took over in 1782, Stabroek- the chief town - was re-named “Georgetown;” and only in 1843 when the Parish Church of St George became a Cathedral Church and Bishop’s See, was Georgetown raised to the rank of a city.
Rodway was born in England in 1848, but from 1870 to his death in 1926 lived in British Guiana where he made valuable contributions to the colony’s history, literature and culture. Apart from Georgetown and his major work A History of British Guiana from 1668 To The Present Time which appeared in two parts - Volume One in 1891, and Volume Two in 1893, he produced other writings including studies of Guyana’s hinterland in In the Guiana Forest: Studies in Nature in Relation to the Struggle for Life (1894), and the novel In Guiana Wilds: A study of Two Women (1899).
Rodway also helped to establish Guyanese cultural institutions such as the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of which he was Assistant Secretary from 1886-1888, and the British Guiana Museum of which he was the curator in 1894-1899. In addition, he edited the influential journal – Timehri.
Georgetown offers an historical survey of specific local conditions and physical features that gave rise to what is today the city of Georgetown. Unusually lengthy “Contents” pages of Rodway’s volume indicate some of these features, for example, “The Beginning of a new Town” – the first chapter - which reveals that the site of the new town was a “brandwagt,” Dutch for “a fire watch” or guard house, sentry station or small wooden fort that was selected by Colonel Robert Kingston whose surname still survives as the name of one of Georgetown’s more affluent districts. Other features include the construction of Water street, one of the town’s most important business streets which was built out of débris from fires on land reclaimed from the Demerara river; a market started by “negroes” (Africans) selling plantains; the emergence of a newspaper; issues of sanitation and epidemics, for instance, yellow fever and small pox; and because of Georgetown’s climatic and geographical features, below sea level, fundamental concern over continuous water supply and drainage and irrigation.
Guyanese readers will also recognise the names of familiar districts in Georgetown – La Penitence, Werk-en-Rust, Albert Town - which, in Rodway’s time, were independent plantations; and Rodway mentions individuals like John Croal, Joseph Bourda, Thomas Cuming and George Lacy whose names still survive, like Kingston’s, in Georgetown’s streets and districts. .
One of the more interesting aspects of Georgetown is its portrait of slavery before and after emancipation in 1834 when the British government offered compensation to slave owners: “A great impetus was given to Georgetown through the Compensation Money on about 7,000 slaves belonging to the inhabitants.” At fifty pounds per slave, many residents received: “handsome amounts of ready cash” which they used to improve their homes.
This illustrates Rodway’s penchant for reporting information from the point of view of white Guyanese colonists who are clearly more privileged than the slaves they owned. Not that he ignores the plight of slaves before 1834 when they were allowed out on streets or dams after 8.00 pm only if they were accompanied by their master or carried a written pass from him, and had a lantern. Runaway slaves, meanwhile, if caught, were tortured with red hot pincers. But it is not the brutal inhumanity of slavery that excites Rodway as much as the inconvenience caused to ordinary white residents by emancipation: “The slave emancipation was the greatest event of the Nineteenth Century...From 1834 to 1840 everything was topsy turvy. All the old laws had to be abolished.” Again, although he does not ignore: “a shocking series of executions with the East Coast Insurrection [in 1823]” or the horror of: “a row of grizly heads were fixed on poles, and here and there along the public roads, corpses hung in chains” he also captures the fear and panic of Whites: “At the first alarm there was a rush for the vessels in the river: ladies jumped from the stelling into the boats at the risk of their limbs if not their lives, and altogether there was a decided panic.”
Toward the end of Georgetown, in considering churches that seem attracted by evangelical or anti-slavery attitudes, Rodway is also meticulous in recording arguments used by local Planters and Merchants in opposing the Anti-Slavery movement.
The best sections of Georgetown record Rodway’s practical efforts in advancing human habitation or enterprise in virgin space. His enthusiasm and energy for empire-building projects are boundless, and his contribution to foundational services and institutions in Guyana is inestimable. Like Walter and Vincent Roth - fellow English empire builders who were his contemporaries in British Guiana - Rodway founded institutions on which others could build, for instance, the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society, the Library, and especially the British Guiana Museum.
By his own candid assessment, the articles in Georgetown: “did not permit our dealing with every institution in anything like a comprehensive way. The main object has been to find out their beginnings.” In the process, however, Rodway sheds important historical light on the internal dynamics of a typical British Caribbean colony, in which white colonists square off against a black (African) under class, both slave and free, while the Governor, who controls ultimate power through the military, hypocritically acts as referee although his loyalty lies inevitably with the colonists.