THE EARLY BRITISH COLONY AND THE LABOR PROBLEM
Political, economic, and social life in the 1800s was dominated
by a European planter class. Although the smallest group in terms
of numbers, members of the plantocracy had links to British
commercial interests in London and often enjoyed close ties to the
governor, who was appointed by the monarch. The plantocracy also
controlled exports and the working conditions of the majority of
the population. The next social stratum consisted of a small number
of freed slaves, many of mixed African and European heritage, in
addition to some Portuguese merchants. At the lowest level of
society was the majority, the African slaves who lived and worked
in the countryside, where the plantations were located. Unconnected
to colonial life, small groups of Amerindians lived in the
Colonial life was changed radically by the demise of slavery.
Although the international slave trade was abolished in the British
Empire in 1807, slavery itself continued. However, the momentum for
abolition remained, and by 1838 total emancipation had been
effected. The end of slavery had several ramifications. Most
significantly, many former slaves rapidly departed the plantations.
Some ex-slaves moved to towns and villages, feeling that field
labor was degrading and inconsistent with freedom, but others
pooled their resources to purchase the abandoned estates of their
former masters and created village communities. Establishing small
settlements provided the new Afro-Guyanese communities an
opportunity to grow and sell food, an extension of a practice under
which slaves had been allowed to keep the money that came from the
sale of any surplus produce. The emergence of an independent-minded
Afro-Guyanese peasant class, however, threatened the planters'
political power, inasmuch as the planters no longer held a
near-monopoly on the colony's economic activity.
Emancipation also resulted in the introduction of new ethnic
and cultural groups into British Guiana. The departure of the AfroGuyanese from the sugar plantations soon led to labor shortages.
After unsuccessful attempts throughout the 1800s to attract
Portuguese workers from Madeira, the estate owners were again left
with an inadequate supply of labor. The Portuguese had not taken to
plantation work and soon moved into other parts of the economy,
especially retail business, where they became competitors with the
new Afro-Guyanese middle class. Some 14,000 Chinese came to the
colony between 1853 and 1912. Like their Portuguese predecessors,
the Chinese forsook the plantations for the retail trades and soon
became assimilated into Guianese society.
Concerned about the plantations' shrinking labor pool and the
potential decline of the sugar sector, British authorities, like
their counterparts in Dutch Guiana, began to contract for the
services of poorly paid indentured workers from India. The East
Indians, as this group was known locally, signed on for a certain
number of years, after which, in theory, they would return to India
with their savings from working in the sugar fields. The
introduction of indentured East Indian workers alleviated the labor
shortage and added another group to Guyana's ethnic mix.
Data as of January 1992