< Last Photo   << Last Chapter                Notes on the Geography of Places: Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge         Next Chapter >>   Next Photo > 
 

Notes on the Geography of Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge

Two of the three dinky old colonial Guianas are now independent countries. Guyana, formerly British Guiana, is slightly larger than the other two (you remember French Guiana and Dutch Guiana, now Suriname), but it's still dinky--or looks so on a map of South America. Maps can mislead, however, and "dinky" Guyana is half again as big as New York State or Pennsylvania. Maybe it's not so dinky. It's also home to fewer than a million people, almost all of whom cling to the swampy coast and hope that the ocean stays where it belongs.

Face-saving hint: the first syllable of the name Guyana is pronounced to rhyme with "why," not "he."

Make default image size larger

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 1

Who ever heard of the Essequibo River? Answer: almost nobody without some connection to Guyana. But, then, who's heard of Guyana? Some think it's in Africa; others remember only Jim Jones and his cult. Here, through an airplane glass darkly, is the Essequibo near its mouth, busy with islands partly reclaimed from forest and cultivated.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 2

Rainforest blankets most of Guyana. That's super, but put us down on the ground with just the clothes on our back, and that attitude would change fast.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 3

And here is the mouth of the Essequibo's much smaller neighbor, the Demerara. We're in Georgetown, on the river's eastern bank. Mighty wide for a river that's only about 200 miles long? Yes, but average rainfall approaches 100 inches annually.

(Americans are likely to think of Guyana's coast as extending north and south of Georgetown, but locals see it as west and east, which makes sense if you look only at the orientation of the country's coast and forget about the continent's overall shape.)

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 4

In case you're curious, that closer ship was built in 2014 and is listed as a research/survey vessel operated by Vestland Offshore, a Norwegian company. Why here? Guyana in 2020 was on the edge of a tsunami of money from offshore oil fields. The Stabroek Block, about a hundred miles offshore, was estimated by lucky Exxon to hold eight billion barrels of recoverable oil.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 5

The ship's neighbor was a dredger built in 1983. What's to dredge? The Demerara is navigable for 60 miles or more, at least to Linden, a bauxite-mining town, but a bar accumulates at the mouth, reducing the depth to eight feet. Until dredging came along, ships unloaded onto lighters.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 6

We're about 10 miles north of the mouth of the Demerara; you can see a building there in the distance. Not exactly the best photo to encourage tourists? True, but the coast of Guyana is subject to flooding at high tides, which is why nearly the entire coast is rimmed with a sea wall.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 7

The same spot, but looking landward. Those houses would be in trouble without the wall.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 8

The sea wall also blocks the scores (or more likely, hundreds) of ditches or sluices built by the Dutch (or, more exactly, their slaves) to drain the sugarcane fields lined up along the coast. Those ditches had always been equipped with so-called "kokers," gates raised at low tide so the cane fields could drain at low tide. Here's a koker built in the sea wall itself.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 9

Same place as last photo but looking upstream to include other kokers.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 10

Homeowners wisely build on stilts as a little extra insurance. Sometimes the ground floor is walled and made into storage space that can be emptied when floods threaten.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 11

Construction of the sea wall began in the 1850s with convict labor placing blocks of granite floated down from quarries on the Mazaruni, a tributary of the Essequibo. Here's an even earlier bit of wall, part of the battery built by the Dutch for Fort William Frederick, at the mouth of the Demerara. Almost nothing else survives of that fort.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 12

Here, a couple of hundred meters down the coast from the old battery, is another section of the wall. The blocks in the foreground and distance house memorial plaques. The shelter between them is a reminder that the wall and beach used to be regarded as amenities. Not so much today. Godfrey Chin writes that "during the banlon years of the seventies, choke and rob raised its ugly head in our once peaceful society, and the Sea Wall become less popular as a local oasis." (See https://www.stabroeknews.com/2011/07/17/features/the-romance-of-the-sea-wall/) Chin makes Guyana seem like a once-idyllic place, and other authors have suggested the same--among them, Anthony Trollope in his The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859). On the other hand, and thinking largely of yellow fever, the historian and botanist James Rodway (1848-1926) wrote that "so bad was the name of Demerara that sailors absolutely refused on any terms to ship for the port. Some whom the Doctor met said they had been deceived by statements that the vessels were bound elsewhere" (The Story of Georgetown, p. 63).

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 13

The nearer and earlier monument. The British took over in 1815 and left in 1966. Their interest in the place? Chiefly sugar, including that fine variety of coarse brown sugar called Demerara. The name comes from the river but also from the Dutch colony of that name. The British combined that colony with two neighbors to form British Guiana in 1831.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 14

"Under the administration of his excellency, Lieut. Governor W. A. G. Young, CMG, the last part of this sea wall was completed April 1882." The wall was subsequently extended much farther, both north and south of the river.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 15

Here's the inland view from the same point. Much of the fill for this stretch of wall was excavated from a pond on the site of the cylindrical building, the Pegasus Hotel, which opened in the 1970s as the Le Meridien Pegasus, the city's first international and probably its first air-conditioned hotel.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 16

With the oil boom, the owners of the Pegasus are building this adjoining office and apartment building.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 17

Here's the competition, the government-owned but money-losing Marriott, which opened in 2014 on a site formerly occupied by a public swimming pool. It's also adjacent to the long-gone Fort William Frederick, just beyond the view here.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 18

Let's work our way up the river.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 19

A landmark from 1830.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 20

A weed-eater clears the ground around a koker.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 21

Time to raise the gate.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 22

Same gate a moment earlier.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 23

Much but not all of the waterfront is derelict. Here's the John Fernandes Port, begun by a Portuguese maker and seller of firewood and charcoal. During World War II, Fernandes became a lumber exporter.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 24

Until a pontoon bridge opened in 1978 a few miles upstream, a ferry carried vehicles across the river. The bridge destroyed the ferry business, but nobody's destroyed the old dock.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 25

Watch your step.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 26

Maybe we should just go around.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 27

For foot-passengers, small ferries are much quicker than going upstream to the bridge, not even visible here.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 28

In case their faith proves insufficient, passengers are required to wear life vests.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 29

Is there a dock on the other or western side? Of course. Welcome to Vreed-en-Hoop, "Peace and Hope," the name of a plantation established by an indentured laborer who got lucky in a land auction.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 30

The dock is now a parking lot with a lineup of boutiques.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 31

There's lots of foot traffic, a messy business when rain makes the stairs slippery. A handrail would be nice.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 32

No need to wonder any longer why the river's so muddy.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 33

Foot passengers used the stairs; vehicles, the ramp.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 34

The blue hulk of the Marriott marks the river's mouth. The pyramidal tower at the right center is the Stabroek Market, which is the location of the the stellung or landing place on the other side.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 35

Here's that floating bridge, built 40 years ago and intended to last ten.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 36

Part rotates to allow large ships to pass; another part is humped for smaller vessels.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 37

A good view of the pontoons.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 38

Since we're over here, we'll look a bit more at the coastal fringe. Of course it has kokers.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 39

And ditches or sluices leading to them, along with rough tracks to the back of the holding, usually about a kilometer from the coast.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 40

Same sluice, with bridge and homestead.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 41

Plantation economics were rocky, as suggested by some of the plantation names, in this case "despite everthing" and "more worries."

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 42

Labor came from African slaves, then from emancipated slaves, then from indentured workers imported from India. Small barges pulled by donkeys were handy for moving labor gangs as well as harvested cane.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 43

The plantations were privatized shorly after independence, so this old private factory, once run by the Booker Group, is now run by the Guyana Sugar Corporation. Acreage hasn't changed much: British Guiana had about 80,000 acres of cane in 1900, and Guyana had a bit over 90,000 in 2017.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 44

Here's some managers' housing on the same estate, which despite changes in ownership still carries its original name, the cryptic Uitvlugt or "out quickly."

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 45

Until about 1900, the staple food of workers here was plantains, but that shifted after 1900 to rice, perhaps inevitably as African labor was replaced by Indian. Rice acreage rose to 134,000 acres in 1952, roughly half again as much as the cane acreage, and it has continued to rise to about 425,000 acres in 2017. So you guess that the mill in the background does sugar? Guess again.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 46

Indian-immigrant success story.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 47

The large white bags are filled with consumer-sized packets of white rice.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 48

Across the road, housing presumably for workers.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 49

And presumably for the mill owner.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 50

This unusual monument to Hanuman suggests that the village is home not only to an Indian community but a Hindu rather than Muslim one.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 51

How many of these houses are occupied, and how many were paid for with money sent home from other countries? Good questions, not answered here, unfortunately.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 52

There's an investment opportunity in these villages.

Guyana: Guyana: the Water's Edge picture 53

A freedom for a bit of trademark infringement.



* Argentina * Australia * Austria * Bangladesh * Belgium * Botswana * Brazil * Burma / Myanmar * Cambodia (Angkor) * Canada (B.C.) * China * The Czech Republic * Egypt * Fiji * France * Germany * Ghana * Greece * Guyana * Hungary * India: Themes * Northern India * Peninsular India * Indonesia * Israel * Italy * Japan * Jerusalem * Jordan * Kenya * Laos * Kosovo * Malawi * Malaysia * Mauritius * Mexico * Micronesia (Pohnpei) * Morocco * Mozambique * Namibia * The Netherlands * New Zealand * Nigeria * Norway * Oman * Pakistan * Peru * The Philippines * Poland * Portugal * Romania (Transylvania) * Senegal * Singapore * South Africa * South Korea * Spain * Sri Lanka * Sudan * Syria (Aleppo) * Tanzania * Thailand * Trinidad * Turkey (Istanbul) * Uganda * The U.A.E. (Dubai) * The United Kingdom * The Eastern United States * The Western United States * Oklahoma * Uruguay * Uzbekistan * Vietnam * The West Bank * Yemen * Zambia * Zimbabwe *
go back to previous picture go to next chapter go to next picture go to previous chapter page