November 18, 2008

The beginnings of rice cultivation in Guyana (Part 1/3)

Posted in Economics, Education, Environment, Guyana, History tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 2:47 am by randallbutisingh

The beginnings of rice cultivation in Guyana (Part 1/3)

By:Winston McGowan

This article has been prompted by a recent Government Information Agency (GINA) press release which stated that next month (November 2008), a Rice Festival will be hosted at the Guyana National Stadium at Providence. This festival, which will showcase how the rice industry became one of the pillars of the Guyanese economy, is designed partly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the export of rice from the country.

In recognition of this anniversary a logo and motto competition has been launched by the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB). Furthermore, an International Rice Conference, in which the GRDB and the University of Guyana will be involved, will be held shortly at the International Conference Centre at Liliendaal.

Guyana, then named British Guiana, began exporting rice in 1903 when five tons were sent abroad. Since then the rice industry has increased considerably in importance with about 30, 000 tons being exported annually in recent times. It is estimated that about 30 per cent of the current Guyanese population is employed in the rice industry.

The success of the rice industry is one of the major contributions of Indians to the Guyanese economy. Rice cultivation, however, was first practised in Guyana by Africans who were brought here as slaves by Europeans across the Atlantic from their homes in West Africa in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of these captive Africans, who were transported then to the Dutch colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara, came from areas of the Upper and Lower Guinea Coast where locally grown rice was a major staple of their diet.

Enslaved Africans initiated rice cultivation in Guyana in at least three kinds of circumstances. Firstly, some of them who worked on plantations, used a part of their free time to plant rice to supplement their meagre food allowance and to sell to other slaves. This practice continued until the end of slavery. Thus in 1826 the managers of the estates of Wolfert Katz, the leading plantation proprietor in Berbice, reported that “where a Bush, or uncultivated piece of land, is contiguous to the Estate they reside on, some of them [slaves] will clear away a space which they plant in Rice, and in the space of 3 Months one Negro has reaped 100 Bundles, which they sell at 2 Bitts each, making 50 Guilders in 3 Months by that Article alone”

Secondly, enslaved Africans were required to cultivate rice by a small number of planters who used a part of their land for that purpose no doubt to provide food for their slaves. This was a rare occurrence for almost invariably planters used their land exclusively to produce crops for export, especially sugar, coffee and cotton. It is known, for example, that rice was introduced on some Essequibo or Berbice plantations from South Carolina early in the eighteenth century and on at least one plantation in about 1782 from the French colony of Louisiana at a time when the French had taken possession of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara.

It was not unusual for planters to give slaves rice as part of their food allowances especially when there was a shortage of plantains, the main staple of the diet of enslaved Africans. As a Commission of Inquiry into slavery in Berbice reported in January 1826, “by the Colonial Ordinance, Adult Slaves…are allowed two bunches of good plantains weekly…When plantains are not to be had, Slaves are fed on Rice, Corn Meal or Flour of which from 7 to 9 pounds are issued to adults & working Creoles weekly.”

This rice was mostly imported from Europe and North America, and was not grown locally. In 1813, when supplies of rice from the United States of America were stopped because of an Anglo-American war, it was suggested that Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice should grow larger quantities of rice, but nothing seems to have resulted from this proposal.

The third situation in which the captive Africans initiated rice cultivation in Guyana was in the settlements of runaway slaves, who escaped from the plantations and established communities often in the forested hinterland. The colonial authorities who sent expeditions to recapture these fugitives and destroy their settlements were often amazed by the quantity of rice which was discovered there.

For example, in 1810 Charles Edmonstone, a Demerara militia captain who led an expedition to the Abary-Mahaicony area, reported:  “The quantity of Rice the Bush Negroes have just rising out of the ground is very considerable, independent of Yams, Tanias, Plantains, Tobacco etc…Fourteen houses filled with Rice and several fields in cultivations (were) totally destroyed…On a moderate calculation the quantity of Rice that has been destroyed…would have been equal to the support of seven hundred Negroes for twelve months.”

The role of enslaved Africans in pioneering rice cultivation in Guyana is largely forgotten today. The end of slavery in 1838 resulted in a decline in African participation in rice cultivation for most of the ex-slaves opted to focus principally on the cultivation of ground provisions. An official report in 1848, however, does mention that rice was being planted in Berbice by Temnes.

There was at that time a growing demand for rice in the colony to provide the staple diet of the increasing number of East Indian contracted labourers from India who since 1838 were being recruited to take the place of the ex-slaves, many of whom abandoned the plantations when full freedom was granted. Most of the rice required was imported from India. The quantity imported grew considerably in the 1850s and 1860s when Indian immigration experienced an unprecedented regularity and volume.

This situation prompted new efforts at rice cultivation in the colony. In 1853, for example, a company was formed in Georgetown for the cultivation of 150 acres of rice at Plantation Vive La Force on the West Bank of the Demerara River, but this venture was not successful.

In 1853 also another effort was made by A.V. Colvin, an Englishman who had migrated to Florida where he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and was involved in rice cultivation. Colvin came to Demerara to plant rice with seed brought from Georgia. His experiment is said to have been successful, but he was forced to abandon it owing to a lack of capital. A few years later, in April 1856, Colvin, in his new capacity of U.S. Consul in British Guiana, wrote the American Secretary of State recommending that American capital investment in rice cultivation in the colony would be “a valuable investment.”

Rice cultivation got a fillip in the early 1860s when it seems Indians began to plant the crop in the colony for the first time. This important development appears to have been initiated in the Leonora area of the West Coast of Demerara where about sixteen acres were cultivated for immediate subsistence with very successful results.

The area under rice cultivation was extended yearly in various parts of the colony until about 1870 when for reasons which are not clear it was reduced. By 1872 only a small amount of cultivation of the crop was being conducted, notably in the Abary, Mahaicony and Canje districts.

The situation changed from 1873 when the practice of reindenture (i.e. contracting Indian labourers for a second five-year period of service) was discontinued. As a result a growing number of Indians began to leave the sugar plantations and to establish themselves on small holdings which they leased or purchased especially to plant rice. By 1880 the Essequibo Coast had become arguably the most important rice-producing area in the colony. Anna Regina was a main centre as well as Better Success where 300-400 free Indians were reported to be working 1500 acres of land.

In spite of these developments, until the early 1880s rice cultivation in Guyana can be described as haphazard and very limited. Most of the demand for rice was still being met by importation especially from India. The entire production of the colony was being used for local consumption, none for export. It was not possible yet to speak about a Guianese rice industry.

The very limited state of rice cultivation in British Guiana in the early 1880s was due to several factors, some historical, others more contemporary. Firstly, rice had not been a principal staple of the diet of Africans resident on the plantations during slavery. Secondly, after full emancipation in 1838, it was ground provisions, not rice, which were by far the preferred crops and food of the overwhelming majority of Africans in the colony.

Thirdly, few Whites during or after slavery were willing to invest capital in rice production. Fourthly, there were ecological, climatic and technical obstacles to rice cultivation. For example, it was easier to transfer sugar land to plant ground provisions than rice. Furthermore, several efforts to plant rice especially in the 1850s and 1860s failed due to the lack of knowledge and water. Production was also hindered by the fact that it was being done by hand, with cutlasses, hoes, grass knives and pestles being the only implements employed.

Finally, rice production was hindered by the opposition of most sugar planters who used their political and other influence to ensure that land, labour and capital were not diverted in any significant measure from the dominant sugar industry to rice cultivation or any other economic enterprise. As a result, sugar and its by-products, rum and molasses, continued every year to provide about 90 per cent of the value of the colony’s exports. This lack of diversification of the colonial economy ended in 1884 when the sugar industry experienced an unprecedented and prolonged crisis which gave a major impetus to rice cultivation.

The second instalment of this article will examine rice cultivation in the period after 1884 when the real foundations of the modern rice industry may be said to have been established.

-Published in Stabroek News- History This Week- October 30, 2008.

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