Category Archives: British Guiana

‘The Colthurst Journal’ by John Bowen Colthurst


John Bowen Colthurst (1779-1848) was appointed to  Barbados as a Special Magistrate in 1835, and this is his diary, annotated by W.K. Marshall, Professor of History at the University of the West Indies.

After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, the British government instituted a period of ‘apprenticeship’ when ex-slaves continued to work on their former masters’ plantations for 45 hours a week, in exchange for food, clothing and housing.  They were no longer owned by their master, and he no longer had the power to punish them.  Instead, Special Magistrates were appointed to hear complaints about the apprentices from their masters and vice versa. Much of the time he mediated between them, but he alone had the power to order punishment.  It was intended originally that field (or praedial) slaves would be bound to work for six years as apprentices, while domestic (or non-praedial) slaves would be bound for four, on account of the longer working hours they undertook in the house.   However, the Apprenticeship system was abandoned in 1838, largely because of the unworkability of having some Apprentices freed and others not, and because public agitation in England was ramping up again against continued involvement in slavery or its other manifestations.

John Bowen Colthurst was of a good Anglo-Irish family, with strong network connections. He had had a military career during the Napoleonic Wars (although he didn’t see active service) and had withdrawn on half-pay after the war to his farm in Ireland.  The farm, however, had accrued many debts and so, like many others, he began petitioning the Colonial Office for a position, drawing on the strings of patronage at his disposal.  He had been a JP in Ireland for many years and it was this combination of legal administrative experience and his military training that led to his appointment as a Special Magistrate in Barbados, and later St Vincent.  In this regard he was unusual: many Special Magistrates had the military background but very few had acted as magistrates before.  His family did not accompany him, and his wife and daughter stayed with her cousin. Despite his attempts to retrieve the financial situation for his family, they lost the farm soon after his return to Ireland.

Colthurst proclaimed himself to be an abolitionist, but he was able to reconcile this philosophy with his role as one of the functionaries of the Apprenticeship system. He seems to have seen the Apprenticeship as a temporary measure that needed to work as a preparation for freedom on both sides- both planter and apprentice-  and believed that it would stand as a good example for other nations contemplating the abolition of slavery.  He was certainly critical of many of the plantation managers and their treatment of Apprentices, although this seemed to stem largely from his dislike of ‘low-bred’ creoles (ie. Europeans born in the West Indies). Nonetheless,  he continued to argue that a period of adjustment was beneficial and indeed necessary to induce plantation-owners to relinquish their slave property.

In 1837, agitation against the Apprenticeship system was ramping up in England, and the radical abolitionist Joseph Sturge released a critique of the Apprenticeship system, which received a great deal of publicity amongst abolitionsts in London. Over in the West Indies,  Colthurst found himself springing to the defence of Special Magistrates and their role, and decrying Sturge’s information-gathering techniques and one-sided report.

Colthurst was probably one of the better Special Magistrates.  He was  well-informed about agriculture and police administration, and took an interest in the religious and educational provision of the apprentices.  He was careful not to become too embroiled socially with the planters, preferring to maintain his contacts with the governors instead.  Of course, this shapes his narrative as well.

On his return to Britain, he realized that there was a market for literature about the West Indies – for example, Mrs Carmichael’s work that I reviewed here and the eyewitness reports submitted home by abolitionists and planters as part of the public discourse about abolition.   Through (and despite?) his involvement in the Apprenticeship system at the time, he became increasingly involved in abolition movements on his return, most particularly those agitating against the continuation of American slavery.  He rewrote his memoirs into the form they are found in this book, in five separate volumes and forwarded them to leading abolitionists in the hope that they might be published.  They were, but not as a stand-alone publication, being extracted for newspaper publication instead.  Only four of these volumes exist today in the Boston Public Library, and the fifth volume has been reconstructed by the editor from columns that were republished in abolition newspapers.

Marshall’s introductory chapters to the journal are informative, and his annotations throughout the book are useful and insightful, providing information that Colthurst could not have known at the time, and challenging some of Colthurst’s observations.  Colthurst’s writing is of its time, but he certainly provides a wealth of information about the role of the special magistrate in a short-lived experiment of policy.

British Guiana and the Booker Prize

They don’t exactly intuitively go together, do they?  But the money that lies at the foundation of the Booker Prize arose from Caribbean slavery, and from British Guiana in particular.

John “Jock” Middleton Campbell, Baron Campbell of Eskan was the Chairman of  Booker Bros. McConnell and Co.  His great, great grandfather John Campbell Senior established the Campbell  family fortune through merchandising and provisioning the slave plantations along the coast of Guiana towards the end of the 18th century. As was quite common, the company began acquiring estates through the bankruptcy of their clients. By the 20th century the family owned Las Penitence Wharf on the Demerara River, Georgetown, where they were agents for the Harrison line of shipping. They also owned Ogle Estate, up the East Coast from Demerara, and Albion, further Eastward in the Berbice district. When John Campbell’s grandfather died, he left an estate of 1.5 million pounds, gleaned from the canefields of British Guiana.

Jock Campbell first travelled to British Guiana in 1934 to take control of the family’s sugar estates.  The company, which controlled 80% of the sugar industry,  was so prominent in British Guiana that the country was known as ‘Bookers Guiana’ instead. He was appalled by what he found.  Of course, slavery had been abolished a hundred years earlier, and the place of slaves on the plantation had been taken by East Indian “coolies”. Driven partially by guilt, but also by his Fabian socialist ideals, he declared that

People are more important than ships, shops and sugar estates.

He became in effect a socialist-capitalist and introduced a string of reforms that modernized the sugar industry and trained Guyanese to take over the management of the company.  He improved housing for the sugar workers, introduced pension schemes and sickness benefits, and vastly raised the salaries of workers.  On his return to England, he was made a life peer by Harold Wilson and was active for the Labor Party in the House of Lords.  It was there that he disassociated himself from his ancestors on 5 May 1971, in the House of Lords, arguing that “maximising profits cannot and should not be the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose, of business.”

He had diversified the company into many other interests other than sugar, including taking over the company that owned the copyright on Ian Fleming’s books- a lucrative acquisition as more and more Bond films were produced. It was fitting, then, that the Booker Prize was launched in 1969, after the publishers Jonathan Cape suggested that Booker-McConnell might sponsor a major fiction prize.

I see that on the Man-Booker Page, only Man is listed as the sponsor. But it will always be the Booker Prize to me.

‘The Ventriloquist’s Tale’ by Pauline Melville


1997, 357 p.

All stories are told for revenge or tribute.  Take your pick (p.9)

So says the ventriloquist, the narrator (‘You can call me Chico. It’s my brother’s name but so what‘)  who appears in the opening and closing pages of this book. He is an unsettling, jeering presence who adds nothing to the book as a whole and yet manages to subvert it as well.

Ah, secrecy, camouflage and treachery.  What blessings to us all.  Where I come from, disguise is the only truth and desire the only true measure of time. (p.7)

His tale, sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue, is told in three parts. The first and final parts are the framing story of Chofy McKinnon, an Amerindian married man who embarks on an affair with Rosa Mendelson , a British academic who has travelled to Guyana as part of her research into Evelyn Waugh.  While interviewing an old woman in London who had worked as a governess for the McKinnon family in what was British Guiana at the time, Rosa had been told that Evelyn Waugh had stayed with the McKinnon family, and that she had even cut his hair sixty years earlier.

Poor man.  He was so out of place.  He sat out in the open that first day and that was when I gave him a haircut.  Nobody really knew what the hell he was doing there…. For all that he was looking for material, he missed one story that was under his nose…If you find any of the McKinnon’s they will be able to tell you about Mr Waugh.  The other business had to do with Danny McKinnon and one of his sisters.  Her name was Beatrice…I don’t know why Mr Waugh didn’t write about that.  He certainly knew about it. (p. 49)

And so Rosa travels to Guyana to track down any McKinnon descendants.  There she encounters Chofy, who was estranged from his wife Marietta and son  Bla Bla. His aunt Wilfreda, sister to Danny and Beatrice knows the story too, but she doesn’t want to tell it.

The second and largest part of the story concerns Danny McKinnon and his sister Beatrice sixty years earlier.   Scots-born Alexander  McKinnon had arrived in British Guiana at around the turn of the twentieth century, married two Indian sisters and had several children to both sisters, including Danny and Beatrice.  When Danny and Beatrice fell in love, the villagers accepted it as something that happened occasionally.  A brother-sister love affair was even referenced in the tribal myths and stories about the sun and moon.  The author, Pauline Melville, takes a similar approach in writing about the relationship: sensual and evocative but neither condemnatory nor sensationalist.  The Catholic priest, Father Napier, however, cannot abide the relationship as he pursues the couple to bring God’s punishment on them.  He is not the only one punished.

I heard about this book when it was reviewed by M D Brady at Me, You and Books as part of her Global Women of Colour reading challenge.  A book about Guyana! I’m attracted to reading about Guyana/Guiana because it’s part of my own research into Judge Willis for my thesis.   I’m sure that very few readers of The Ventrioloquist’s Tale thrilled to Melville’s description of Georgetown, but  I certainly did.  Given that I have never seen Georgetown and probably never will, this captured what I have gleaned from my reading and can see in my mind’s eye:

Chofy had not visited Georgetown often.  From his first visit as a young boy, the city had made him uneasy.  It was not just the geometrical grid of the Georgetown streets, the parallels, squares and rectangles which disoriented him after the meandering Indian trails of his own region, but as he walked over the dry brown clumps of grass along the verges, he experienced the unaccountable sense of loss that hung in the spaces between buildings renowned for their symmetry and Dutch orderliness.

From early on in its history, there had been something pale about the city of Stabroek, as Georgetown was known in the eighteenth century.  It was as if the architects and builders had attempted to subdue that part of the coast with a geometry to which it was not suited and which hid something else.  The labours of men had thrown up a city made of Euclidean shapes, obtuse-angled red roofs, square framed houses on evenly spaced stilts, delicately angled Demerara shutters, all constructed around transparency, emptiness and light. (p. 35)


This book is a delight in itself, quite apart from any post-colonial theorizing imposed onto it.  But it is a robust enough text to withstand heavy-duty academic analysis (see, for example here)  and my admiration for the text grew even stronger when I read about the connections between the author’s own family history and the text here and in this Guardian interview with the author.  Melville has not just taken her family’s real-life connection with Waugh but has, I think, taken her revenge, as the ventriloquist suggested, on Waugh’s simplistic and blinkering dismissal of his time in British Guiana and Brazil.

I had borrowed this book out of a desire to read literature set in British Guiana. I was given much, much more. Brilliant.

My rating: A big fat 10.

Sourced from: LaTrobe University Library

Read because: M.D. Brady’s review.  Thank you.

Putting history in its place


Well, well, well- I’m on ITunes U! (and so are some of my fellow LaTrobe-ites who read this blog!) There’s some interesting papers there, and a video of Henry Reynolds on the History of Tasmania.

The full title of my paper is “Global Positioning Systems: Circuits of Empire Large and Small”.  It was delivered at Putting History in Its Place, a conference held at La Trobe University in September 2012.

It’s labelled as “Movement around the Imperial Network” on I-Tunes.  When I played it through I-tunes it seemed to be brutally truncated at the end, but my downloaded version ran through to the end.

‘The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government 1801-1834’ by D. J. Murray

Colonial government comprises particular institutions; it also comprises the relationships between the parts  (p.xi)

Many books on colonial constitutional history focus on the structures of government- The Colonial Office, the Governor, the Executive and Legislative Councils and Legislative Assemblies (if they existed) but  instead of looking at them from a centralized organizational viewpoint, this book looks at these institutions in terms of the relationships between them.  By addressing   the period around the Napoleonic Wars and ending with the abolition of slavery, the empire he describes was expanded by the incorporation of ‘foreign’ colonies previously owned by French, Spanish and Dutch governments which had their own practices and structures of government.  This put the ‘British’ empire into an interesting position.  Although there was an influx of British plantation-owners into these newly-acquired colonies, it suited the local colonists’ purposes that the locus of control should rest in the colony itself rather than in Whitehall, and the old ‘foreign’ system of government was better placed to provide this.  At the same time, following the loss of the American colonies, the British Government steadfastly asserted its right to impose policy (although not taxation) from the centre while repeatedly demonstrating its unwillingness to actually exercise it.  This book explores the nuances of this delicate dance of colonial diplomacy which made good use of the hiatus in communications forced by distance to ensure that, as far as the government of the sugar colonies was concerned, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.  Hence, the British government would pass legislation that required matching colonial legislation in order to come into operation: the colonies would stonewall: the British government would wait, and give another chance for the colonial power-groups to ‘do the right thing’- and round and round it would go, with both sides benefitting from this mutual squeamishness about really pushing the issue.

However,  the rise of the anti-slavery lobby in Britain in the late 18th- early 19th century disrupted this coy and mutually-beneficial relationship.  There had only been slow progress on the ‘amelioration’ of slavery by actions on the ground in the colonies.  From about 1810-1830 there had been a lapse of attention on the question of slavery prompted by a change of personnel in the anti-slavery ranks and the distracting influence of other events like economic depression,  the Test and Corporation Act and Catholic Emancipation.  But by the 1830s attention turned again to West Indian slavery, and by this time the Colonial Office itself had transformed itself, largely through the influence of James Stephen, into a more professional and methodical organization.  However, by this time there were two conflicting opinions at play: first, the belief that colonies should be governed under a representative system; and second and conversely, that  representative government could not be granted to post-emancipation societies because colonial elites would ensure that power remained in their own hands.

Although the book is focussed on the West Indies, its canvas is actually much broader than this, and extends to the 19th century British Empire more generally.  It examines carefully the structural changes in the Colonial Office in terms of its place within the British government and the roles of parliamentarians and civil servants as individuals with their own skills and political imperatives.  It explores the co-existence of James Stephens’ more liberal emphasis on bureaucracy and methods, with his colleague Sir Henry Taylor’s more authoritarian and interventionist approach that led to the imposition of Crown Colony government into all the West India colonies excluding Barbados over the next fifty years .  It concludes that during the mid 1830s, despite impressions to the contrary, the British government relinquished the initiative in colonial government, becoming merely reactive to the decisions made in the colonies by colonial officials and colonists about how government was to be conducted.

As a result, while the system of executing business in the Colonial Office assumed that one form of government should exist in the colonies, the government which was eventually introduced was founded on the contrary principle and assumed that constructive government would be promoted- if at all- from the Colonial Government.  In colonial government as it related to the West India colonies, the Colonial Office and the institutions in the colonies were each to be organized on the assumption that the initiative in colonial government would stem from the other (p.232)

‘The Price of Emancipation’ by Nicholas Draper

Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery, 2010, 278 p. & appendices and notes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if the government is offering money, then people will emerge from the woodwork with their hands out.  It’s true today, and it was true in 1834 when the British government provided compensation to West Indian slave-owners after slavery was abolished in British colonies.  This book is based on the records and correspondence files of the Slave Compensation Commission which was established in London in 1834 to oversee the awarding of 20 million pounds worth of compensation (value approximately  76 billion pounds today) to over 45000 claimants who owned slaves who had now been liberated (albeit after they served an extra six years of ‘apprenticeship’).

Although there was a swell of support for abolition (which, admittedly, varied from year to year) and  some squeamishness about admitting to owning slaves in Britain, this did not stop people applying for compensation.  The records of the Commission show that absentee slave owners resident in Britain received the bulk of the compensation, and that slave-owning was more widespread than previously understood in metropolitan Britain. While not ubiquitous, it did permeate certain sectors of British society where it was “generally routine, unexceptional and unexceptionable” (p. 273).

Slave-owners were not a homogenous group, and Draper has classified them into three main groups.  First, there were the large-scale rentier-owners, often from among the gentry, who had held slaves and plantations in the older sugar colonies and passed them on through the family over several generations.  They had generally hoped that their West Indian plantations and slaves would attain equivalence with landed property in the UK where it would be transferable by inheritance and be considered a form of permanent security.  This never eventuated for a number of reasons: instability in the West Indies; the lack of the conventional structure of landlord/tenant; reliance on overseers and managers at a distance, and quite frankly slave-owning never attained much social cachet.  However, at a time when traditional ideas of property were under threat, with tithes and sinecures being abolished, slave-owners were able to draw on solidarity with other traditional property owners to claim “we’ll all be rooned” and to demand compensation.

A second group comprised small-scale slave owners, both in Britain and in the colonies themselves.  This group came to be symbolized by the humble widow, left a small annuity of slaves by her father or husband as her sole source of income, and indeed many in this group were women.  Their slaves often worked on tropical plantations rather than in the large sugar plantations or were rented out as agricultural labourers or domestic servants by their absentee owners.  Often these slaves were accumulated during a naval or military posting to the West Indies, or by doctors or church men who had spent time there.  Many of these small-scale slave owners were  resident in the colonies themselves.

Finally there were the merchants, bankers and agents, who have previously been considered to be almost inadvertent slave-owners through defaults on loans to plantation owners in the absence of credit institutions in the colonies.  However, Draper finds that although this may have been true in the older sugar colonies, in the ‘new’ colonies of  Trinidad and British Guiana, bankers and merchants were more active in their own right.

There are many tables and figures in this book, but particularly in the chapters dealing with these three categories of slave-owners there are also many small vignettes drawn from the correspondence of people applying for, or contesting, compensation grants.  In many ways the Slavery Compensation Commission exemplified the new approach to bureaucracy of the 1830s where patronage had less (although still some) sway, with an emphasis on process and transparency, and it was generally considered that the Commission acted efficiently.

Of course, the idea of compensation was never intended to extend to the slaves themselves, and indeed individual slaves, or their experiences, are virtually invisible in this wind-up to the end of the slavery system.  In many ways, it was the closing of one era and the opening to another.  The compensation money, which on paper probably represented a loss, was nonetheless invested in other ventures, most particularly railways, where much larger profits were made.  Likewise, other recipients of compensation money turned to the land colonization schemes that were opening up in Australia and Canada, and making their money and reputations there instead- think for instance, of George Fife Angas in South Australia.

In fact, I’m finding myself becoming increasingly sensitized to the West Indian connections among Australian and Canadian settlers.  The connection is often dismissed in less than a phrase – “born in St Kitts” or “branches in the West Indies”, but it is there nonetheless, and is assuming more interest to me.

‘British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834’ by J. R. Ward

1988, 279 p & notes

I have sometimes heard parallels drawn between action on climate change today and the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. There is a limit to how far one can push the analogy because the physical science of climate change has its own inexorable reality, unlike a human-created social and political system like slavery.  But both climate change and abolition policy face/d common challenges: the perceived threat to the whole economic structure of the day, the Parliamentary influence of lobby groups and reference to moral underpinnings that are/were derided by opponents more concerned about the economic impact.  They also have/had in common the argument that accepted that change had to occur up to a point, but that improvement could improve gradually and willingly as long as it is not forced by government or external bodies.

This was the argument mounted by British West Indian plantation owners, both in the West Indies and through their Parliamentary lobby groups in the UK.  The initial prohibition of slave-trading was hoped to improve conditions for slaves because if slave numbers could no longer be replenished by a seemingly never-ending supply from Africa, then slave owners would need to look after the slaves they already had more carefully.  New regulations introduced during the 1820s were intended to increase the  oversight of plantation conditions and to reduce the most egregious examples of cruelty and mistreatment.  Just leave us alone, the planters said, and we will make improvements ourselves.

Slavery might be disagreeable, but its character was steadily improving and would continue to do so if the colonies were spared outside interference.  Eventually the institution would melt away, just as it had done in England (p. 2)

This book examines the planters’ argument that “amelioration”  of slave conditions pre-empted the need for outright abolition.  The author draws on the plantation records of a number of different British slave-owning families, many  of whom were absentee owners whose plantations were managed by overseers who needed to report ‘home’. By drawing on a wide range of records, he is able to trace changes over time from the seventeenth through to nineteenth centuries, and across different slave colonies.  In particular, he distinguishes between the “old” sugar colonies where the soil was often depleted and profits were falling, and the newer colonies like  British Guiana which were able to benefit from technological developments and a different geography.

This is a strongly economic book, replete with statistics and tables, generating a “balance sheet” on the effect of amelioration, and later abolition.  As a more socially- and culturally- attuned historian, I found such an abstract treatment of human beings rather distressing and compromising: as if I was almost complicit in a balance-sheet approach.  I was more attracted to the moments when the human experience broke through- like, for example, the observation that in the 1780s two-and three-year olds were sent out into the fields alone to gather grass, but that increasingly the children were brought to the house for their lunchtime meal so that their health could be observed and to foster feelings of gratitude and respect.  Or, for example, the observation that horsebeans as a source of food gradually reduced during the 18th century, which was a thoroughly good thing. They required a great deal of boiling, and often slaves lacked the time, energy or even sufficient water to do this properly, and so ate them raw.  “Like a negro’s T— that ate horse-beans” was a simile that came naturally to a planter when discussing some poorly made sugar (p.21).  But example and anecdote, for all the richness they provide, can only take you so far.  In the end, just as with climate change debate, you need hard data rather than emotion.

And so, looking at the hard-data, shorn of the babies in the fields and the horse-beans, did amelioration work?  Yes, to a point, Ward argues.  The measured output per head of the population grew as rapidly on the sugar estates as it did among industrial workers in Britain, but not markedly more.  This growth in productive efficiency was accompanied by a marked improvement in the slaves’ material state, which in many ways was no worse than that of industrial labourers in British cities.   However, although death rates among slaves declined, there was not a corresponding rise in the birth rate until the abolition of slavery and the shift away from the plantation sugar economy.

So why did this improvement not come to the notice of the abolitionists in England?

First, it was largely an invisible improvement, gained by degrees and without the shiny, visibly new products of the industrial revolution in Britain.  Second, although there was demographic evidence that pointed to the effectiveness of amelioration, this same evidence could just as easily embarrass the slaveholders because it highlighted that it was sugar production, in and of itself, that prompted the low birth rate.  Third, planters could hardly crow about the improvements in their profitability brought about by amelioration when they were at the same time agitating for a reduction in their tax burden as the price of sugar fell.  Finally, the preponderance of lobbyists for Jamaican plantation owners was not a good look, as Jamaica had a particularly negative death:birth ratio and was a declining sugar industry in any event.

Ward suggests that the abolition of slavery in British colonies was a strong, landmark decision with which to inaugurate the new Parliament, elected under the new conditions of the Reform Bill.

So far as working planters were concerned, amelioration provided a means to reinforce slavery, by making it function more efficiently.  For humanitarians in the mother country, however, amelioration was a step towards a higher social state, undermining basic principles of racial authority and subordination…The nineteenth-century slave, however well maintained and lightly worked by earlier standards, was still a slave, liable to arbitrary punishment, likely to be denied Christian instruction and marriage.  Faced with such abuses, a moral cause could not be satisfied for long merely by further adjustments to the details of plantation life. (p. 276)