The Magnificent Essequibo River – by MG Joe G Singh

FASCINATING RIVERS OF GUYANA

The Magnificent Essequibo River

by  Major General (retd) Joseph G Singh

Guyana, Land of Many Waters, owes its name to the abundance of rivers, tributaries, creeks, and wetlands. These along with the man-made canals have made and will continue to make an enormous   impact on the development of Guyana and its people.

Rivers are natural arteries for movement and the establishment of early human settlements thousands of years ago on their banks and tributaries, provided the First Peoples of Guyana – the Amerindians, with the food security and means of communicating among themselves for trade and socialisation.          

As stated by AFR Webber in his ‘Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana’ (1931) –pp 5-6: “The real history of British Guiana seems to date from 1581 and rivers provided the European traders with convenient landmarks and boundaries. The merchants of Zeeland, one of the provinces of The Netherlands, dispatched a convoy of ships to visit the Amazon and cruised the coast of South America westwards to the Pomeroon where the first post was established, followed by one on the Abary and a third on the west coast of the Essequibo. These were targeted by the Spanish and Indians, who succeeded in driving off the Dutch, who were so intent on developing trade that instead of taking to their ships struck further inland to an island up the Essequibo River and established a fort on the island of Kyk-over-al by 1596”.

The Dutch West India Company was issued a charter by the Netherlands and its attempts at real settlement had mixed results. It was not until the arrival of Laurens Storm Van’s Gravesande in 1738 that the fortunes of Essequibo took a positive turn as Gravesande was able to convince the Directors of the Company of the merits of throwing open of the colony to settlers of all nations, with freedom from taxation for ten years. According to Webber, one of the first grants was on the island of Wakenaam to an English clergyman and a fellow colonist from Antigua. Thereafter, the West Indian planters literally flocked to the Essequibo. Gravesande sent out expeditions in search of gold and other precious metals. He established a trading post at Arinda in the Rupununi in 1748 and during his 34 years as Chief Administrator, guided the destinies of the colony of Essequibo, in which the river played a prominent role. Then came the fall of Napoleon and the coming into being of the unified colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice under British rule from 1814 and a renewed interest in exploring the hinterland. On 21 September 1835, Robert Hermann Schomburgk set out from Georgetown on the first of his memorable voyages to the interior of the colony, commencing the serious ascent of the Essequibo River on 1 October 1835. It was during this expedition on 3 November 1838 that it was realized that streams flowing off Mount Roraima – the mother of all rivers, drain themselves into the river systems of the Amazon, the Essequibo and the Orinoco.  In 1867, the first Geological mission arrived in the colony led by James S Sawkins and Charles Barrington Brown. Brown followed Schomburgk’s route up the Essequibo to Wai Wai country and to the headwaters of the Essequibo River at its source tributary- the Sipu. These expeditions created much excitement because of the treasure trove of botanical specimens, the lure of gold and precious minerals, the beauty and power of the rapids, cataracts and waterfalls that became known to the outside world from the reports of the explorers, who were in fact guided by the Amerindians in their travels in the remote areas.

Exploitation of gold in the Essequibo and contiguous areas, harvesting of balata and timber from the species rich forests and the operations of stone quarries, catalysed the development of Bartica so that it was declared a township in April 1887. Then on 25 Feb 1897, the Demerara-Parika single track metre gauge Railway, 17 miles long, was commissioned. This was a Milestone in the progress of interior development, and provided an all steam route – by rail and river steamer between Georgetown and Bartica – the threshold of one of the richest gold areas in the colony. In 1906 the Guiana Gold Company commenced dredging operations in the Konawaruk River   and this coincided with a boom period in rubber and balata.  All of these enterprises and activities would not have been possible had it not been for the hardy boatmen and river captains who mastered the techniques of boat building and navigating treacherous currents and rocks, while displaying the toughness and sense of humour of true pioneers. Many of the national songs of Guyana have their origins in the ditties sung by such boat crews as they portaged their boats and precious cargo around rapids or hauled their boats up the cataracts by sheer human power. The river was unforgiving in challenging these explorers, miners, balata bleeders and their support crews. Boats were wrecked, lives were lost but the rewards instilled a determination that motivated and inspired successive generations to develop the techniques and apply the technology and skills that have now resulted in significant economic activities in a multiplicity of disciplines along the artery of the Essequibo River.

A journey by boat up the Essequibo River will be an unforgettable experience. Commencing at its estuary, which spans a distance of ten miles across, are the islands of the river, Leguan, Wakenaam, Hogg Island and many others. Remnants of mills bear testimony to the attempts by the Dutch to establish sugar and rubber plantations and the layout of drainage and irrigation channels has been improved by modern rice, coconut and cattle farmers. Throughout the day one can see the movement of people, goods and services by public and private vessels plying the routes between Parika and Adventure, Fort Island, Supenaam, Boeraserie- Bonasika, Saxacalli, Buck Hall, Groete Creek, Makouria, Baganara and  Skull Point. One can marvel at the mushrooming nature resorts with their lodges strategically positioned between the sandy river frontage and the backdrop of pristine vegetation. Here and there are visiting yachts riding at anchor and in the distance the township of Bartica, sandwiched between the dark brown waters at the confluence of the Essequibo, Cuyuni and Mazaruni rivers and the green clad rising hills to the south with the sky and clouds providing a picture perfect image to complement the wonderful experiences of Guyanese hospitality, ingenuity, resilience,   adventurous, pioneering spirit and infectious good humour.

Along the river from Bartica to Parika, the  lower Essequibo River provides access routes for tugs and pontoons hauling stone from the quarries at Teperu, Baracara and St Mary’s and timber from Skull Point, Kaow Island and Makouria. Now, more frequently, outboard and inboard powered craft move hundreds of passengers to and from the settlements along the banks of the river. Upstream of Bartica and Baganara – the island resort, and Agatash – a former citrus plantation, is the crossing at Sherima with a motorized pontoon service taking truckers and passengers to Bartica, Teperu, the Bartica-Potaro Trail, Issano and across the Mazaruni River to Itaballi, thence to Puruni and other destinations, mainly mining camps and landings (commercial centres and R&R locations) in the mining districts of the Cuyuni, Mazaruni and Potaro. Prominent landmarks along this stretch of the  Essequibo River  would be  the high ground at Wineperu on the left bank – a former thriving logging centre, and Rockstone on the right bank, the former terminus of a railway from McKenzie (now Linden) servicing the bauxite industry and the hinterland. From here were launched many of the epic journeys – the Boundary Commission of 1934-1938, and the expeditions to the Rupununi, and it provided connectivity with the logistic lines of communications for the gold, timber and balata enterprises in the hinterland.

Visualise a scene at the Rockstone landing  in the 1930s, of six to ten  round bottom, wooden river boats  (better suited to ‘ride’ the cataracts), crewed by experienced captains and oarsmen with huge steering paddles lashed to the stern and bow to navigate treacherous stretches of the Essequibo River, en route to the Potaro, Konawaruk, Apoteri, Karanambu and Yupukari, with cargo of food, utensils, equipment,  passengers and mail  and  these boats returning weeks later with balata, collectors’  specimens, craft and other bartered items  destined for markets on the coast. Here too, tourists travelling overland to Kaieteur had the options of either going by boat up the Essequibo River  to the Potaro River, its tributary and disembarking  at  Tumatumari and or proceeding   to Kangaruma, the terminus of the ‘bush buses’ plying the Bartica-Potaro trail. From Kangaruma Landing and via two portages at Amatuk and Waratuk Falls to Tukeit Landing, one hikes up the escarpment to the Kaieteur Plateau and is rewarded with the spectacular sight of the Kaieteur Falls.

Further upstream from  Rockstone – now being  developed as a tourism destination for catch and release fishing and angling competitions, past the logging station at Anarika, are the alluvial gold dredges operating in the Essequibo River and they come in different  capacities from the 6 inches diver-directed suction dredges, to the unmanned, hydraulic boom-fitted dredges, to the state of the art double-decker ‘Dragger’ dredges with a 75 ft boom to siphon off alluvials from the river bed and beneath it, for processing and separation on board until the black sand is precipitated and gold recovered with the use of mercury.  Mining enterprises require  major investments and in their desire to ensure a quick return on investment, the miners with the collaboration of the  regulatory agencies, have to ensure that the river, its channel, its biodiversity and its ecosystems, are not degraded as a consequence of irresponsible practices.

Above the motorized pontoon crossing on the Essequibo River at Mango Landing, the numerous cataracts and rock strewn channels are a disincentive to river movement and at this crossing, roads and trails lead to the gold mining areas at Tumatumari, Mahdia, Kaburi, Konawaruk and North Fork. Further up the Essequibo River, the motorized pontoon crossing at Kurupukari is contiguous with the Iwokrama Forest Reserve and the access road to Lethem. Here the river  is relatively pristine, However, the attraction for gold mining in the Siparuni River  and  the demand for bush meat to supply the mining camps and the coastal bush meat markets, have resulted in  a proliferation of such activities that challenge the regulatory agencies .

Above Kurupukari Crossing, the Essequibo River is pristine and except for settlements at Apoteri – formerly a balata collection station at the confluence of the Essequibo River and its tributary the Rupununi River, the river banks have few settlements until the confluence of the Essequibo with its tributary the Kassikaityu – River of the Dead, just above which are located the Wai Wai farms and their settlements at Akotopono and Masakenari. The Wai Wai community has ownership of 1.5 million acres of pristine forests that encompass the headwaters of the Essequibo and its uppermost tributaries, the Onoro, Chodikar and Sipu.

The Acarai Mountains, the highest points of which mark the boundary between Guyana and Brazil, provide the conduit for the runoff from the tropical thunderstorms and convectional rainfall that recharge the watershed and the tributaries that merge into this mighty Essequibo River flowing 360 miles to its estuary. The ecosystems and biodiversity along its route are varied and unique – the swamp forests of the watershed, the rainforest, the high forests of the Iwokrama Mountains, the  savannahs and the secondary and tertiary vegetation in the lower reaches of the Essequibo River,  resulting from anthropogenic activities. The wonderful variety of flora and fauna thrive on the interconnectivity of the river, the vegetation, the climate and the responsible stewardship of the human settlements that are interspersed along the banks of the Essequibo River. Terrestrial species include the jaguars, ocelots, tapirs and giant ant eaters; the avifauna range from the Harpy Eagle to over 800 species of birds; bats; numerous insects and ants; and the river species include the caimans, alligators, anacondas, giant otters, piranhas, sting rays, electric eels, arapaima and game fish such as the lukanani or peacock bass, as well as aquarium–type species.

The enormous contribution of the Essequibo River to the development of Guyana can be seen in the diversity of economic activities undertaken by the hinterland communities, the establishment of enterprises based on the responsible management of natural resources, the development of nature, cultural, and sports tourism utilizing the attractiveness of the Essequibo’s spectacular riverscapes and biodiversity, and the uniqueness of its settled Amerindian communities with their traditions and knowledge.

In the context of the importance of water management, climate change mitigation, renewable energy sources provided by hydro electricity generation, and the importance of carbon sinks, carbon sequestration and the conservation and sustainable utilisation of forests, savannahs and wetlands, there will continue to be tremendous challenges in balancing wealth and job creation with responsible management of natural capital and development of Guyana’s human capital. Achieving such a balance will promote unlimited opportunities for creative use of the natural resources of Guyana of which this magnificent Essequibo River is such a major component.

Major General (retd) Joseph Singh is a former Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force and has nearly five decades of experience working and travelling in the hinterland of Guyana.  

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Comments

  • jacklow2  On December 26, 2012 at 7:32 am

    I am so happy to read about my Country Guyana.I am from the County of Essequibo, Pomeroon River. Thanks Mr Joe Singh for letting the people out there know what a lovely tropical country , especially the country side of my Native Land Guyana is:********
    Yvonne

    • Stella  On January 16, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      I am also from Guyana and am happy to see fellow Guyenese still have good things to say about Guyana. I am from Dartmouth Village, Essequibo Coast, the last name was Camacho. My mom still lives there, God bless her, she is 97 years old.

  • Towa towa  On December 27, 2012 at 2:24 am

    Great writer, good reading a job well done. It’s Me.OK. . Thanks JOE.

  • Dmitri Allicock  On December 27, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    “Access up the mighty Essequibo River was a different matter. Navigation was very dangerous due to the many rapids and waterfalls. Many people drowned as they tried to navigate the torrent Essequibo and boats capsized more often than not….
    All the three great rivers, which center at Bartica, are sown with rapids, whose rocks, like the dragon of the Hesperides are ready to tear into pieces the rash intruder who attempts the golden fruit. In these dangerous passes many a life has fallen victim to the lust for gold….
    Bartica called the “Gateway of the interior” and named after the red earth common in the area, is a prime location where three great rivers, the Mazaruni, Cuyuni and Essequibo converge. The vast flood of the united waters of the three is borne on the bosom of the Essequibo, past her hundred isles, into the great basin of the Atlantic….”
    An excellent article of Guyana’s natural and cultural history. Thank you Mr Joe Singh for a wonderful job. I thoroughly enjoyed reading its history and educational components also. Bless you Sir.

  • Dmitri Allicock  On December 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Essequibo River – YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com/channel/HCp6iXARXVkHA
    Beautiful Essequibo River welcomeguyana 6,902 views 4 years ago http://www.welcomeguyana.com guyana travel caribbean tourism guyanese vacation gt …

  • jacklow2  On December 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    Bless you Dmitri,’
    indeed It is wonderful to read such great articles about our rivers.
    My river:-) the Pomeroon river is also great, and can be deadly. Just recently
    there was a tragic accidents that took the lives of two families. Apart from that.
    On a nice warm afternoon, when the tide is high, the river is smooth, i can remember, as a teen, me and my cousins would have a branch of cut mangroove, place it in our boat, have a music player, and took a sail up river.
    Such fun.Wonderful memories.. Now it is just a passing memories. I left my pomeroon river 43 yrs ago:-(
    Yvonne

  • Dmitri Allicock  On December 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks Yvonne you are so right. The Rivers brought and also took life. These natural highways of the ages will continue their flow into the future, leaving behind our influences and disappearing history.
    Take care Yvonne and have a bright and healthy 2013

  • Deen  On December 28, 2012 at 3:13 am

    Obviously, Mr. Joseph Singh is a very knowledgeable man and knows a lot about Guyana and especially the Essequibo River, its geography, history, commerce and ecosystem. I enjoyed reading this article which Mr. Singh descriptively wrote detailing the unfamiliar names of many places and communities. It was very informative. I appreciate Mr. Singh’s sensitivity and concern about the environment and destruction of the ecosystem. Mr. Joseph Singh seems to be a man who has the credentials to play a major role (forgive the pun) in the development of Guyana. Thanks Mr. Singh for your well-penned piece.

  • Cyril balkaran  On December 29, 2012 at 9:07 am

    If seventy percent of Guyana’s lands remain uninhabited and unpopulated and if 70% of its population remain dwelling on the Coastal plains, then how will we ever see the hinterlands. The Amerindians are being taken from their natural habitat and brought to Georgetown as a resettlement plan and as a New way of life for these Indeginous population, but why not at the same time place Coastal Dwellers into the Interior also for short periods. This is the reason that many of us who live in North and wherever else can only claim that we were born in Guyana. We never saw the Hinterlands and do not know the names of places as retired Chief of Staff, Major Joe Singh has spelt them out for us. We can argue that its a personal decision and a choice for us to live and travel in USA or Canada and not to live in any settlements in the Essequibo. Brazilians and Venezuealans are
    entering into the Mineral Rich areas of Guyana and are having a field’s day. Unless we become more enthusiastic and love travelling into the interior of Guyana, We would have lost the challenges associated with the rediscovery of what is truly Guyanese!

  • Ron. Persaud  On December 29, 2012 at 10:00 am

    I still remember the thrill I felt when I read this line from a poem.
    “…Along the banks of the mighty Essequibo where eternal summer reigns…”
    It was the first time I was to see something about British Guiana in print in a book!
    The book might have a “Royal Reader” and the poem might have been titled “Triumph of the English Language”
    At this site: http://archive.org/stream/comprehensiveen00unkngoog/comprehensiveen00unkngoog_djvu.txt

    I read the following:

    “It spreads where winter piles deep snows.
    On bleak Canadian plains.
    And, where on Essequibo’s banks
    Eternal summer reigns :
    It glads Acadia’s misty coasts,
    Jamaica’s glowing isle.
    And ‘bides where gay with early flowers
    Green Texan prairies smile.”

    Oh, how time and age plays hide & seek with memory!

  • jacklow2  On December 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    I totally agree with Mr Balkaran. Guyana indeed is a beautiful Country,
    Especially the hinterlands. I do have relatives living, In the Rupununi regions
    Santa Rosa Mourica. The Ameriandians, are loosing ther coulture, and for
    getting ther roots…My dad;s father was from Madera, but my mom was Scottish
    Indian, and arewak. my dad 1/4 Carib. I am proug of my country, and my coultre and roots. I wish the Ameriandians stand up for their rights, and be proud
    of who they are, and live their lives according to their traditions., because of certain circumstances i had to leave my beloved Country:-(
    Yvonne

  • terrytaxes  On January 5, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Nostalgic. Guyana’s interior has so much history. My father worked at Peters Mine in his youth and told me about the amazing life of the porknockers and boat travel over the rapids. I plan to relive that someday soon.

  • Barbie Gibson  On January 25, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Beautiful article. Thanks for providing same.

  • gigi  On July 12, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    One can feel the love and admiration that Mr Singh feels for his home and country in this article. And alas, it has left me feeling melancholy…home is where the heart is, and my heart is in Guyana. Thank you Mr Singh and Mr Bryan for such wonderful reading and for keeping us close to our roots.

    I spent 2 years living on Hogg Island, several years living in Essequibo, and several years living in G/T and working for a tourism company before leaving Guyana 20+ years ago. I’ve seen many of Guyana’s beautiful country and it hard not to miss and yearn for what one has seen and left behind.

  • Duke  On December 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    This is good work Joe Singh. I am from Pomeroon ,and I have had the joy of touring and working in Akawini creek.

  • walter  On December 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    The value of the mighty Essequibo River will soon be brought to the notice of the caribbean ..Recent reports have shown, imminent water shortages to hit our “friends” in the caribbean, soon, starting with Trinidad. The Arab countries have already starting water barging from up north, the caribbean can easily do this from our mighty Essequibo, reverse pumping to their supply, or emergency large overhead tanking. Not wanting to turn to their savior(GUYANA) some are spending millions in desalting. As far as I can remember, there was a deep water channel in the Essequibo, hope it is not silted. I can remember a trip to Rockstone,as a young man, some tributary,cant remember which,we lost a propeller, the water was deep, clear, and warm. There is no need to worry, some of our brightest minds were brought up on river water. Come on down guys,it’s good and plentiful

  • walter  On April 17, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    St Vincent is now drying up.Come on guys forget your pride.We have the water you need,lets start water barging today.

  • Chris Prashad  On February 20, 2016 at 1:38 am

    Part of Guyana’s history in a nut shell. Great job Joe. Confirms the stories my dad used to tell us as kids growing up in the Pomeroon. He worked for one of the Balata companies in the 1940’s before he bought a farm next to Charity in the Pomeroon River. Stories of Mermaids too were part of his story telling entertainment.

    With some liquor flowing through his veins he entertained us singing the pork-knockers’ songs while playing his ukulele banjo. He even taught me to play the banjo and later I learnt to play the guitar too. May he rest in peace.

    Like some of you I also grew up in the Pomeroon and taught for many years at the Charity Primary School (formerly St Francis Xavier Primary), Covent Garden Primary on the East Bank of Demerara, then back to Charity and finally at Siriki Primary.

    I am happy that there are people like Joe who can remind us of our history less we forget.

  • merchanttraveller  On July 10, 2016 at 7:02 am

    Reblogged this on MERCHANTTRAVELLER and commented:
    Enjoyed this read one of the most detailed ones i have found.

  • Joe Jardine  On July 30, 2018 at 11:29 pm

    Fantastic history of my native Guyana, born and grew up in the west Demerara area left there 44 years ago. Still have fond memories growing up on the west bank as a child.
    Thanks to Mr Joe Singh
    Regards
    Joe Jardine

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