Our South American Neighbors - G. Southworth

The Guianas

[Map] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth

The northeastern corner of South America, that small division known as Guiana, is the only part of the continent which is still held by European powers. All the rest of South America consists of separate and independent republics.

The three foreign nations which have kept their footing on the southern continent to the present day are the English, the Dutch and the French; for Guiana is divided into three parts—British Guiana, Dutch Guiana and French Guiana.

Like most tropical countries, the Guianas contain but few people and these are more or less backward and lazy, being handicapped by the climate and lack of communication.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


The larger part of the Guianas is an almost impenetrable jungle, much like the tropical forests of Brazil. Though it contains rubber trees and many other trees valuable as timber, this part of the land has been only slightly developed. The jungle is inhabited chiefly by wild, uncivilized Indians and tribes of bush negroes. The bush negroes are a mixed Indian and negro race and are of a very low type of civilization.

There are, however, many civilized negroes in the Guianas descended from the slaves who were imported into the country to work on the sugar plantations.

The cultivated land, where a limited amount of sugar cane, bananas, coffee, cocoa, cotton and a few other tropical products are raised, is a narrow strip near the coast.

British, Dutch and French Guiana were founded by their different parent countries in the first half of the seventeenth century.

The Dutch colony, in particular, prospered in those early days. The other two colonies were merely looked upon as possessions and little was done with them.

British Guiana, the largest of the three divisions, is to-day the most prosperous and most civilized of all. Although of relatively small importance in the great British Empire, British Guiana is nevertheless larger in size than England, the very heart of that empire. The area of England and Wales together is some 58,000 square miles, while that of British Guiana is over 90,000. When it comes to population, however, the case is quite different. British Guiana has only about 299,000 people, an average of less than four to the square mile, while more than 36,000,000 live in little England.

In the cultivated coast region of British Guiana, the chief products grown and exported are sugar and rice. Rum, one of the products of sugar cane, forms another important item of commerce. There are also diamonds and gold exported and several thousand dollars worth of balata. Balata is rubber-milk and is obtained from what are known as bullet trees.

The imports of British Guiana consist of flour, textiles, machinery and oils.

Georgetown, the capital of the colony, is an attractive city with fine avenues of tall, royal palms and many, many gardens full of luxuriant tropical growths.

Lying at the mouth of the Demerara river, the capital city is also the chief port of the country. Its population is about 50,000 and is made up of all kinds of people: negroes, copper-skinned Indians, almond-eyed Chinese with their hair in long braids down their backs, Portuguese and English merchants, and numerous dark Hindus in turbans and strange flowing garments.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


These Hindus are sent as apprentices by England to work on the sugar plantations and in the rice fields of British Guiana. The men are sent for five years. the women for three. They are paid only a few cents per day, but, of course, their living expenses are almost nothing. Nearly all of them stay in the colony after they have served their time. In leaving India they have lost their caste, so they prefer to live as free men in the land where their help is so greatly needed. It is, indeed, well for British Guiana that they do stay, for they furnish the planter with cheap and reliable labor.

Far back in the forest region of British Guiana, on the small Potaro river, are some of the most wonderful falls of the world, the Kaieteur. This vast curtain of sparkling water, matchless in its symmetry and beautiful, tropical setting, is nearly five times as high as Niagara, although not nearly so wide. If the Kaieteur falls were in our own country or in Europe, they would be visited by thousands of tourists each year. But in British Guiana they are so far away from towns or even roads that very few white people have ever seen them.

Dutch Guiana, about half as large as British Guiana and with half as great a population, is very similar to its near neighbor in climate, products and people. In addition to British Guiana's balata, sugar and gold, Dutch Guiana also exports cocoa, coffee and bananas. Her chief imports consist of cotton and linen clothing, rice, bread-stuffs, iron and oils.

Paramaribo, the Dutch colony's capital, is a picturesque Dutch town. The high-gabled houses, with their quaint stoops and doorways, look strangely out of place under the shade of gigantic old mahogany trees and great royal palms. It seems as though Holland were suddenly transplanted to the tropics. The old-time houses of the wealthy Dutch merchants recall the flourishing days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the trade of Dutch Guiana was far more important than it is to-day.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


It is possible to go all the way from New York to Paramaribo in about ten days. But then rapid travel stops. There is only one lone railway in the colony, and except right about Paramaribo there are even no roads. Travel is almost entirely by means of boats. These ply slowly along the rivers, creeks and canals with which the whole country is interlaced.

Owing to the flatness of the land, the tide from the ocean extends for a long way up the larger streams. The rivers are everywhere bordered by impenetrable mangrove swamps, rivaling in density the jungle of British Guiana.

Particularly noticeable in the vegetation of Dutch Guiana are the showy flowers, rather unusual in the tropics. There are golden yellow allamardas, crimson and rose colored passion flowers and a magnificent assortment of other brightly hued blossoms. And here, too, as if to keep the flowers company, are hundreds of brilliant butterflies and many gayly colored birds like parrots and toucans. The eagle, the white heron, the egret and a host of other birds are common throughout the. Guianas.

The story of French Guiana is a story full of misery. Back in the time of the French revolution France began to send her political prisoners to the equatorial, isolated northeastern corner of South America. It proved a convenient way to be rid of them forever, and the little country, the smallest of the Guianas, has ever since been used by France as a penal colony.

Here criminals and convicts of all kinds are exiled from France, and they, like the prisoners of former days, are almost certain never to return. France approves of the system, for it not only lessens the number in her over-crowded prisons at home, but gives her forced labor and colonists for what would otherwise be an almost unworked and uninhabited possession. To the colonists the system means the most severe and hopeless punishment.

Twice a year, in January and July, France opens the ponderous iron gates of her weather-beaten old convict station near her coast and sends out some half thousand wretched men. Each has heard the Court of Assizes pronounce that sentence "Cayenne" which makes the blood chill, the brain whirl and the heart-beat almost stop. Cayenne means French Guiana.

From the French convict station, this string of humanity, clad in coarse woolen clothes and chained in pairs, like a monster brown snake, creeps between glistening bayonets of double-ranked soldiers down the long wharf. From there small boats take them out to a waiting convict steamer. Nearly all know that the closing of the iron gate has shut them out from France forever.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


Once at Cayenne, the capital of the hated land, the convicts are classified, and distributed among the half dozen penitentiary towns, or stations, situated along the coast, or near the river mouths of French Guiana. In these towns they must live without the slightest chance of escape. On the one side they are hemmed in by the boundless ocean, on the other by the impenetrable jungle.

The prisoners are of three classes: those sentenced for life, those sentenced for a given time at hard labor, and those on parole who have a chance—a slight chance—of going back to France.

The life sentence is given to incorrigible criminals of the worst type, and such prisoners are usually kept in solitary confinement. The "hard labor" sentence is given to highwaymen, murderers, and robbers, and is never for less than five years and may be for twenty years. Anyone so sentenced, however, whether it be for five or twenty years, might almost as well receive a life sentence, for prisoners sent to French Guiana for five years or longer are required to serve an additional term of the same length as settlers in the colony. And in this hot climate few, very few, survive.

In the towns in which they are placed, these poor unfortunates dig trenches, carry heavy loads and do all kinds of manual labor. Some are so thin and weak they can hardly stand, yet they must work monotonously on. All are under the eagle eye of a white-helmeted guard. who is never without an ever-ready revolver. And these prison police are, in their turn, supervised by the prison wardens.

The task assigned to a convict depends on the class to which he belongs. Hard labor prisoners usually begin with very strenuous work. Some quarry and break stones, others fell trees or help in building roads. In this work, because of the intense heat, even the strongest men break, and, without exception, the weakest die.

As a reward for good work and good behavior a prisoner may become a mason, a locksmith, a mechanic, a painter, a carpenter, or a gardener.

The lives of the convicts are lives, or rather existences, of the most monotonous routine. A bugle arouses the sleeping camps each day at five o'clock. Coffee is served at six-thirty and then the prisoners, or deportÚs, as they are called, form in squads for their assigned work.

A convict's daily rations consist of one plate of thin soup, one vegetable, one small piece of bread and an equally small bit of meat.

Breakfast is at 10:30 and later in the day, when the heat is most intense, a short rest time is given. But the sun is still glaring high in the heavens when the prisoners start at 1:30 for four more hours of toil. On return from work comes roll call. Then a drum sounds and buckets of meat and soup are dealt out. From that time on the convicts have two hours or so to themselves before the bugle sounds for turning in.

This, then, is the story of French Guiana. The colony, we may readily infer, plays but an insignificant part in the world's great game of commerce, and holds but an insignificant place in the world's great list of civilized people.

A word or two about Cayenne, the capital, completes the pitiable tale. Cayenne is an old, gray-mottled city of low wooden buildings, stiff palm trees and dreary quietness. Its civil population—this means its population outside of the convicts—numbers about 13,000.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


The sights of the city do little to enhance the picture we have already formed of the small country. On the streets, high curbed because of the heavy rains, are French men wearing tropical helmets and light cotton or linen suits, soldiers in attractive uniforms, creoles with many colored head gear, coolies from India and a few other foreigners from Africa and Asia. All add an individual touch of color, usually brilliant color, to the scene.

But there are other sombre little groups of hollow-cheeked, ghastly looking men, yellow with malarial fever. These go about their irksome tasks day after day in the intense, driving heat. Their clothes hang on them loosely, their hats flap limply, their identity is completely lost. But each is checked with a number and such number is strictly accounted for. These dreary, hopeless creatures are the convicts, the unfortunates who have gone wrong in the game of life.

It is no wonder that French Guiana is not a self-supporting country. Indeed, Dutch Guiana, which is far above French Guiana in opportunities, has never been self-supporting either. British Guiana, on the other hand, has been forced by Great Britain's colonial policy to be not only self-supporting but annually to turn her share of revenue into the coffers of the Mother Country.

As far as government is concerned, the management of the three colonies is very similar. Each has a governor appointed by the ruler of the country to which it belongs. Each governor resides in the capital of the colony to which he is assigned, whether it be hustling Georgetown, quaint Paramaribo, or wretched Cayenne.

In leaving these unique colonies of South America one does not wonder that they are backward and undeveloped and suffering from a lack of population. And we are selfishly thankful for one thing, that no Guiana census numbers us among their inhabitants.

Questions for Review and Study

  1. To what three nations do the Guianas belong?
  2. Describe the larger part of the Guianas.
  3. Compare British Guiana with England as to size and population.
  4. What are the products of British Guiana?
  5. Name and describe the capital.
  6. Mention the classes of people in British Guiana's capital.
  7. Describe and name the capital of Dutch Guiana.
  8. Tell of the means of travel in Dutch Guiana and picture the country through which one would pass.
  9. What purpose does French Guiana serve?
  10. Give a picture of a prisoner's life from the time he is sentenced.
  11. Name and describe the capital of French Guiana.
  12. How do the Guianas differ in form of government from the other South American countries.