|Guyana Table of Contents
Nineteenth-Century British Guiana
The constitution of the British colony favored the white planters. Planter political power was based in the Court of Policy and the two courts of justice, established in the late 1700s under Dutch rule. The Court of Policy had both legislative and administrative functions and was composed of the governor, three colonial officials, and four colonists, with the governor presiding. The courts of justice resolved judicial matters, such as licensing and civil service appointments, which were brought before them by petition.
The Court of Policy and the courts of justice, controlled by the plantation owners, constituted the center of power in British Guiana. The colonists who sat on the Court of Policy and the courts of justice were appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by two electoral colleges. In turn, the seven members of each College of Electors were elected for life by those planters possessing twenty-five or more slaves. Though their power was restricted to nominating colonists to fill vacancies on the three major governmental councils, these electoral colleges provided a setting for political agitation by the planters.
Raising and disbursing revenue was the responsibility of the Combined Court, which included members of the Court of Policy and six additional financial representatives appointed by the College of Electors. In 1855 the Combined Court also assumed responsibility for setting the salaries of all government officials. This duty made the Combined Court a center of intrigues resulting in periodic clashes between the governor and the planters.
Other Guianese began to demand a more representative political system in the 1800s. By the late 1880s, pressure from the new Afro-Guyanese middle class was building for constitutional reform. In particular, there were calls to convert the Court of Policy into an assembly with ten elected members, to ease voter qualifications, and to abolish the College of Electors. Reforms were resisted by the planters, led by Henry K. Davson, owner of a large plantation. In London the planters had allies in the West India Committee and also in the West India Association of Glasgow, both presided over by proprietors with major interests in British Guiana.
Constitutional revisions in 1891 incorporated some of the changes demanded by the reformers. The planters lost political influence with the abolition of the College of Electors and the relaxation of voter qualification. At the same time, the Court of Policy was enlarged to sixteen members; eight of these were to be elected members whose power would be balanced by that of eight appointed members. The Combined Court also continued, consisting, as previously, of the Court of Policy and six financial representatives who were now elected. To ensure that there would be no shift of power to elected officials, the governor remained the head of the Court of Policy; the executive duties of the Court of Policy were transferred to a new Executive Council, which the governor and planters dominated. The 1891 revisions were a great disappointment to the colony's reformers. As a result of the election of 1892, the membership of the new Combined Court was almost identical to that of the previous one.
The next three decades saw additional, although minor, political changes. In 1897 the secret ballot was introduced. A reform in 1909 expanded the limited British Guiana electorate, and for the first time, Afro-Guyanese constituted a majority of the eligible voters.
Political changes were accompanied by social change and jockeying by various ethnic groups for increased power. The British and Dutch planters refused to accept the Portuguese as equals and sought to maintain their status as aliens with no rights in the colony, especially voting rights. The political tensions led the Portuguese to establish the Reform Association. After the anti-Portuguese riots of 1889, the Portuguese recognized the need to work with other disenfranchised elements of Guianese society, in particular the Afro-Guyanese. By the turn of the century, organizations including the Reform Association and the Reform Club began to demand greater participation in the colony's affairs. These organizations were largely the instruments of a small but articulate emerging middle class. Although the new middle class sympathized with the working class, the middle-class political groups were hardly representative of a national political or social movement. Indeed, working-class grievances were usually expressed in the form of riots.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress