By: Radhay P. Misra, IAC Executive Member
Research done by Tyran Ramnarine, D Phil (Sussex) and presented in his unpublished doctoral thesis of 1977 titled “ The Growth of the East Indian Community in British Guiana 1880-1920” and by Clem Seecharan PhD (Warwick) in his unpublished thesis of 1990 titled “ Indians in British Guiana 1919-1929: A Study in Effort and Achievement” provide the following facts:
(1) Guyana has always enjoyed ideal natural conditions for the cultivation of rice and as early as 1750, Laurens Storm Van Gravesande (1705-1775), Dutch Commander of Demerara and Essequibo (1738-1772) reported the successful cultivation of rice in Essequibo;
(2) The favorable conditions of soil and climate permitted the crop to mature in five months compared to twelve months in South Carolina, which was the source of the rice planted in Essequibo. South Carolina, at the time, was a separate British colony with its own government;
(3) Rice was apparently first planted in Demerara around 1782 during the French occupation and some of it was used as food for slaves;
(4) Henry Bolingbroke, an English traveller, in “A Voyage to Demerary” published in 1807 reported rice cultivation along the banks of the Demerara River and echoed Van Gravesande’s observation that the colony, now under British rule, could rival South Carolina, which was now a part of the United States of America (USA);
(5) Although rice was cultivated to some extent as food for the slaves most of the rice consumed in the former Dutch colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice was imported from the USA;
(6) When rice supplies from the USA stopped in 1813 as a result of the of the War of 1812 between Britain and the USA, it was suggested that an indigenous rice industry be established;
(7) This suggestion caused great consternation among the sugar planters who had persuaded the colonial administration a few years earlier to brutally suppress rice cultivation since it sustained communities of runaway slaves, known as Bush Negroes or Maroons, who commonly grew rice in the neighbourhood of their hiding places. Maroon settlements were in existence by the end of the eighteenth century.
(8) Slaves had to be conserved on sugar plantations after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and since the supply of slave labour now depended almost solely upon natural increase Maroon settlements had to be destroyed and concomitantly, rice cultivation had to be suppressed.
In a 2002 publication titled “A Documentary History of Slavery in Berbice 1796-1834” by Alvin O. Thompson PhD (UWI), documents were presented illustrating the fact that runaway slaves cultivated rice as well as ground provisions on a large scale near their places of refuge and by 1809 had such an immerse area under cultivation in the backlands of Mahaicony and Abary that a special expedition was dispatched to destroy it.
In December 1809, Governor H.W. Bentinck of Demerara, Captain Charles Edmonstone of the Demerara Militia and Lt. Colonel van den Broek, Commander of the Berbice Burgher Militia met at Plantation Trafalgar (West Coast Berbice) to plan the campaign against the Maroons.
This plan envisaged the complete destruction of these Maroon settlements including, and especially, all cultivated ground.
After a successful four-week campaign employing a combined force of Europeans, Amerindians and African slaves, Captain Edmonstone in a dispatch to Governor Bentick enclosed in Minutes of the Court of Policy of Demerara and Essequibo dated January 18th 1810, that “the expedition destroyed all the provision that could be met with….fourteen houses filled with rice and several fields in cultivation being by their exertions 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.”
Edmonstone further stated that “ the quantity of rice the Bush Negroes have just rising out of the ground is very considerable, independent of yams, tanias, plantains, tobacco etc, and as it will be three months before the rice is fit to gather in, I would recommend at that period, another expedition be sent in and destroy the same.”
From this evidence provided by Dr. Ramnarine, Dr. Seecharan and Dr. Thompson, all foreign-based Guyanese historians, it is obvious that runaway slaves/ Maroons/ Bush Negroes had mastered the art of rice cultivation at the beginning of the nineteenth century before it was crushed by the military power of the colonial administration in support of the plantocracy.
King Sugar then reigned supreme over other crops and sustained rice cultivation was absent for about seventy years until the late 1870’s when time-expired East Indians (i.e. those who had completed their period of indentureship) established settlements outside the sugar plantations.
During this 70-year hiatus, sporadic efforts were made to cultivate rice. In 1848 William Russell, popularly known as the “Sugar King” in later years, observed a large area in Berbice under rice by the Timini people, Africans who appear to have been brought from Nassau, Bahamas by a colonial firm. They were probably rescued by the Royal Navy from a slaveship bound for the New World.
Walter Rodney PhD (London) in his book titled “A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905,” published posthumously (1981) after his brutal assassination (1980) during the dark days of dictatorship in Guyana, pointed out that “it is significant that the ‘Timinis’ were cited as the rice growers of the early nineteenth century in Berbice, because the Timne of Sierra Leone and Liberia were one of the principal ethnic groups in the ‘rice belt’ of West Africa.”
In 1853, K. Colvin of Vive la Force on the Demerara River (West Bank)made an organized but fruitless attempt to grow rice using African labour after introducing some paddy from Georgia, USA.
The first recorded involvement of East Indians in the cultivation of rice, according to Ramnarine, was in 1865 when William Russell granted the request of “a couple of hill coolies” to cultivate sixteen acres on the front lands of Edinburgh estate on the West Coast of Demerara.
In 1865, also, an East Indian, according to Ramnarine, cultivated twenty acres of rice on the front lands of Plantation Leonora.
The modern rice industry began in the late 1870’s. Ramnarine pointed out that “in 1879 on the Essequibo coast at Better Success between three and four thousand of them (small-scale farmers) had about 15,000 acres of rice land and were able to sell 1080 bags of rice after securing amounts for home consumption and seeds.
In “Tiger in the Stars, Dr. Clem Seecharran wrote that the area under rice was between 2,500 to 3,000 acres in the 1880’s and 1890’s – much of this was land used by Indians on the sugar estates. According to Seecharran, between 1896 and 1903 the rice acreage rose from 3,000 to 17,500 following the liberalization of the Crown lands regulations in 1898 and 1903; by 1908 a total of 29,764 acres were under rice; by 1914 a total of 47,037 acres, climbing to 60,432 acres by 1918 and 73,647 acres by 1931.
Rice production in the 1920’s suffered tremendously because of the repercussions of the rice policy of Governor Sir Wilfred Collett: this is explained in detail in “Tiger in the Stars.” According to Seecharran, the “Indian rice growers singlehandedly retrieved the industry from under the boot of the Government. Edgar Beckett, an agricultural expert, wrote in 1926 that the “real development of the (rice) industry is due entirely to the indomitable pluck and energy of the East Indian.”
Area under rice cultivation was 82, 906 acres in 1941; 100,250 acres in 1951; 226,304 acres in 1961; and 278,484 acres in 1964. Rice production in the 1970s and 1980s stagnated to such an extent that between 1967 and 1991, rice exports exceeded 100,000 tonnes only once in 1978. Since 1993, rice exports have gone under 200,000 tonnes twice only, in 1993 and 1994. Between 1970, when Guyana achieved republican status and 1992, rice production topped 200,000 tonnes only once, in 1977. Since 1993, rice production has exceeded 200,000 tonnes twenty two times (1993-2014); exceeded 300,000 tonnes sixteen times; exceeded 400,000 tonnes four times; exceeded 500,000 tonnes twice and exceeded 600,000 tonnes once. Rice production record landmarks are as follows: 233,111 tonnes (1994); 315,301 tonnes (1995); 332,542 tonnes (1996); 340,911 tonnes (1997); 365,469 tonnes (1999); 402,479 tonnes (2011); 422,058 tonnes (2012); 535,555 tonnes (2013) and 635,238 tonnes (2014).
This progress is extremely significant, especially in light of the fact that the vast majority of rice farmers and rice millers are of Indo- Guyanese origin.