EDUCATION: The Growth of Education in British Guiana (Guyana) -1800-1876 – By Dr. Odeen Ishmael


The Guyana Story – By Dr. Odeen Ishmael

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century there were not many people in Guyana who could read and write, and these included almost all the African slaves. Those who had some form of education included planters, merchants, government officials and some free persons of African descent.

During the period of Dutch colonisation, small schools were established by the planters to educate their young children, who, when they grew older, were sent away to Europe to continue their education.

From the early days of colonisation, the planters objected to the education of the slaves. Even attempts to expose them to Christian teachings faced the wrath of the planters.       

By 1800 there existed a few small private schools which catered for the children of the White planters and the government officials. One such school was established in 1808 by Hermanus Post, the Dutch owner of Plantation Resouvenir, in one of his buildings in Georgetown. He hired the first teachers of this school which was attended, not only by children of the planters and government officials, but also by the children of soldiers, free Africans and “Government slaves”. In many cases, the free Africans were mulatto children of plantation owners. As the school attendance grew, Post appealed to the London Missionary Society for assistance and the Rev. John Davies arrived in January 1809 to run the school which by that time had about 40 pupils. They were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and Christian knowledge daily.

The school building was also used as a church which drew a congregation of over 300, including many slaves. Rev. Davies preached to this gathering three times a week and also taught some of its members to read parts of the Bible.

On Plantation La Ressouvenir, Rev. John Wray had arrived in 1808 to preach to slaves at a chapel Hermanus Post built. He also taught some slaves to read parts of the Bible and to write. The slaves who learned to read then taught their companions to do so.

Mrs. Wray was also involved in the educating the children of the “upper class” in Demerara, and later in Berbice, after her husband was transferred there. She received payments from the planters and was able to send her two daughters to England to boarding school. Later they returned to Guyana to take charge of Mrs. Wray’s school.

While stationed in Berbice, Rev. Wray established a school in New Amsterdam. This school had between 40 to 50 pupils, most of whom were free coloured children who approached their studies seriously. However, Rev. Wray faced difficulties caused by a group of Whites who opposed the attendance of non-Whites at the school. Nevertheless, he carried on his work and by 1813, this school had 80 pupils, including children of slaves.

Meanwhile, the churches organised by the London Missionary Society were teaching some adult slaves to read the Bible, and by 1814 five deacons from among the slave population were ordained.

After the East Coast Demerara slave insurrection (in 1823) which saw the condemnation of Rev. John Smith allegedly for supporting the slaves, the White plantation owners of Essequibo-Demerara called for the banning of missionaries from the Colony. Rev. Smith had taught some slaves to read and write during the period he served as a missionary. He faced strong opposition even from Governor Murray who had threatened to expel him from the Colony if he attempted to teach Africans to read.

The London Missionary Society reported in 1836 that a free African, Thomas Lewis, who was educated in England, was keeping a school at Union Chapel in New Amsterdam. Lewis was formerly a Muslim known as Toby who could read the Arabic text of the Koran.

In February 1837, an institution known as “The Berbice School” was set up in New Amsterdam. It was run by Mr. and Mrs. Parish who came from London. Mr. Parish died within five months of this arrival, but the school continued for some time.

In the same year the Anglican Church established a school in New Amsterdam, and within a year, four more were set up in different parts of Berbice.

During the same period two Anglican boarding schools for Amerindian boys and girls began operating in Bartica. When the missionary left the area in 1845 due to ill health, there were 56 boys and 35 girls attending these schools.

Between 1824 and 1839 many school buildings were erected chiefly by the Anglicans, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, Presbyterians, Methodists and the London Missionary Society. By 1841, there were 101 primary schools which were attended by a sizeable proportion of African children. This expansion was encouraged by the British Government, particularly in the period before Emancipation, because it saw the necessity of educating Africans to meet the demands of the civil service and other employment areas following the granting of their freedom.

In addition to these schools, there were “private schools” which were maintained through funding from religious denominations, private individuals, estates, and, from 1830, the Government. Additional funding from the Government was made through the Negro Education Grant which was channelled mainly to the Anglican Church.

Expansion of Public Education (1844-1876)

From The Guyana Story – By Dr Odeen Ishmael

In 1844, Queens’s College was established by the Bishop of the Anglican Church, Rev. William Austin. The aim behind its establishment was to provide secondary education to the sons of the middle and upper classes. The tendency at that period was for the upper classes to send their sons to England for a secondary education. The school was first housed in Colony House, located on the site now occupied by the Victoria Law Courts. It was later moved to two other locations, including the site now occupied by the Bishop’s High School where it remained to the end of the nineteenth century.

Bishop’s High School, originally called Bishop’s College, was organized by the Anglican Church in 1851, first as a theological school which also doubled as a teacher training institution. No too long after, it was decided to expand it to cater for secondary education for the daughters of the middle and upper classes.

The Catholics also expanded secondary education by setting up St. Stanislaus College for boys in 1866 and a high school for girls in 1880.

With the growth of the Indian population in Guyana, the question of the education of Indian children became a matter of concern to the Government and also to the Christian churches. Christian priests moved into the plantation areas hoping to convert the Indians (who were Hindus and Muslims), but they met with little success. Primary schools were established, but the head teachers complained about the irregular attendance of Indian children. It was partly as a result of this that in 1876 the Compulsory Education Ordinance was enacted. It made education compulsory up to the age of 12 years for children in rural areas and up to 14 years for children in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Buxton. This Ordinance also outlawed employment of children under the age of nine years.

There were many Indian parents who kept away their children, especially the girls, from the schools because they did not want them to be taught by African teachers, and also they feared that the children would be influenced by Christian religious teachings. However, the real story was that many of the Indian parents kept away their children from schools so that could earn money doing jobs on the plantations.

The plantation owners themselves were happy to have gangs of children working in the fields, and it was widely believed that they disagreed with the Compulsory Education Ordinance. The Immigration Agent General, at that time, a close friend of the planter class, wrote later in his 1888 Report that the Ordinance was a source of hardship to the Indian parents since on most estates

“large gangs of little children under that age (the age of nine), are often employed in light work such as carrying earth, ashes or manure and this is not only a benefit to the parents but also a source of pleasure to themselves. No one who has seen these children work, each with a little basket in which to convey a nominal load, running backwards and forwards in high glee and spirits, could fail to feel pleasure at witnessing their being thus trained up to active and industrious habits. . . The employment of children under nine years of age may be, and no doubt, open to grave objection, when the condition and nature of their occupations are such as to produce physical and moral degeneracy; but in a country, where their work is as much pastime as labour and is conducive to the promotion of health and vigour, both of body and mind, the necessity of such a restriction does not appear to me to exist.”

The Ordinance also specified that the compulsory attendance rule was not to be enforced during the first ten years of the Indian immigrants’ arrival in Guyana.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 07/26/2020 at 4:55 pm

    So, do you understand why President Forbes Burnham changed the name of “Murray Street to Quamina Street”?

    • Mike Persaud  On 07/26/2020 at 7:00 pm

      Francis, no educated or uneducated Guyanese would or should object to the name-change. John Murray was a despicable man.

      Quamina was a freedom fighter and a national hero, unquestionably.

      You happily credit the name change to the Dictator Burnham. By the same token, I hope you can also discredit him for choosing May 26, a day of bloodbath and infamy at Wismar, as Independence Day. That is an evil, dishonourable thing for anyone to do. It is a slap in the face of Indo-Guyanese. I hope you can also see evil where it exists and call it for what it is.


  • Kman  On 07/26/2020 at 5:02 pm

    I now see why many Guyanese are dunce, especially the ones who are ‘educated’

  • Kman  On 07/26/2020 at 5:03 pm

    Many more names of places, buildings,streets, regions of Guyana should be changed.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/26/2020 at 8:44 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: