GUYANA HISTORY: A summary of the 1889 ‘Cent Bread’ riot in Georgetown – By Nigel Westmaas 

Stabroek Market: Location of the inciting incident

Georgetown: Stabroek Market: Location of the inciting incident

By Nigel Westmaas 

In 1889, there was massive riot in Georgetown that led to widespread unrest and the destruction of buildings, especially Portuguese shops. The incident that sparked the revolt was the occasion for the riot but the context was simmering for decades. It was symbolized and highlighted by the expressive ‘cent bread’ descriptive.       
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DETAILS

On the morning of March 19, 1889, a 14-year-old African Guianese boy, Gershom Nurse, was sent by his mother to buy cassava and bread at the Stabroek Market. 

In later testimony at the trial of the defendant, John Veira, Nurse gave his firsthand account of the incident that set off the riot:

“I went to the stall where [the] defendant was selling. I bought bread from him – a cent bread. The bread was in a tray on the stall. He told me to take the bread. There was only one tray. He told me to take one and I took it. I paid my cent. He saw me take it. He took my money. I asked him for a piece of fish and he gave it to me. I had the bread in my hand. I broke the bread. He then came down from behind the counter and held me. He said I had taken a gill bread. He called a constable and charged me with stealing….

The constable said he could not lock me up because I had paid for the bread and he had told me to take it… He snatched the bread from me and said he could not give me the cent back… I [hear?] people say what are you doing with the stick? I turned around. Defendant had the stick produced in his hand. He gave me two blows on my head with it. He held the stick with both of his hands. The blows caught me on the head and I fell down. He struck me once while on the ground…”

After Veira had struck Nurse, the latter stumbled a few steps and fell to the ground unconscious. John Veira was arrested by two market constables, who took him over to the ice depot station in the immediate vicinity of the market. The Clerk of the Market, one Mr Binnie, ordered his release with the now famously expressive (but contested) statement: “Loose the Portuguese and throw the damn n…ger unto the street.”

The Riot

This remark infuriated sections of the crowd that had gathered by this time and, according to the governor’s report, “talked volubly and angrily in little knots”. While Nurse had been taken to the hospital, rumours spread “like wildfire” that the youngster had died from the stick blows. Sections of an enraged African population took to the streets of Georgetown in response. For over two days, the Echo reported, “the quietude of the city of George-town was disturbed”.

Provision shops were gutted of their contents and flour, rice, butter and sugar were seen strewn on the streets in front of city markets. Portuguese were pulled from tramcars and other vehicles and beaten. Shop windows were smashed. Many Portuguese shops and other property in Georgetown were struck, especially in areas of the town like the Charlestown district, where the Portuguese tended to cluster. Some buildings were put to the torch.

One newspaper highlighted the situation outside the Black Lion rum shop on Regent Street. Evidently, the state had placed armed police around this particular rum shop since it was the property of Jachinti Gonsalves, the same shop in which a Portuguese shopman called “Zay” had killed an African Guianese citizen some months before. Women rioters had sworn vengeance on the shop – hence the heavy protection.

The citizens who took to the street were selective in their attacks as Portuguese property and Portuguese citizens appeared to be the chief targets.

But there were variations in treatment of individual Portuguese. As the Echo, an African Guianese-owned newspaper, noted: “forasmuch as the rioters seemed blind to all reason they still maintained respect for certain Portuguese, who were never molested, especially Mr J. S. Da Costa, who walked through one of the largest crowds unhurt…” This, coupled with the fact that a few Portuguese stores in Water Street remained open during the riot, underscores the economic cause or basis of the incident.

Women and children who were very active in the riot were blamed for its intensity, so much so that the Echo could have been accused of misogyny, when its editorial pronounced that “the discontented were only a few men; but women and children did all the mischief.” A few attempts were also made in a few East Bank villages to attack Portuguese property, but the Echo credited their lack of success to the fact that other Africans prevented them. The paper even suggested that “villages on the coast are on the best terms with the Portuguese.”

The governor of British Guiana at the time, Viscount Gormanston, called out his security forces and reintroduced an Ordinance that had already been employed to suppress the 1856 ‘Angel Gabriel’ riot, which also focused on Portuguese citizen and property.

Overall, the riots resulted in the deaths of at least two persons. When the dust settled, 230 persons were arrested, both Africans and Portuguese, for various offences associated with disturbing the peace.

For his part, Veira, the defendant, was later found guilty of assault with battery and sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour.

Social Context and Origins of the Riot

The incident that sparked the disturbances, a social collision between a minor and a shopkeeper, may have petered out with a minimum of racial and social fallout in a different context or different time. In circumstances of festering social and social anxieties, however, the ‘Cent Bread’ incident acted like a squib. From the 1840s, relations between Africans and Portuguese had by no means been cordial.

Riots by Africans against  Portuguese had already twice punctuated the century and minor friction with a bearing on the social and economic position of the respective groups continued for most of the century. In 1848 and 1856 (Angel Gabriel riots), economic tensions and the feeling that the Portuguese had gone ahead in social terms at their expense had fueled African-Guianese anxieties and resentment.

The colonial ruling class did not help by promoting the Portuguese as a “buffer” between themselves and the African Guianese population, as argued by Guyanese historian Brian Moore. As the century wore on, ill feeling between the two groups grew in a context of racial and social insecurities in the wider society, which included Indians, Chinese, Amerindians and African indentured labourers.

In any event, Portuguese and Africans were rivals in key points in the economy, including the huckstering business and shopkeeping. Since their first arrival in the colony from 1835, the Portuguese had made rapid progress in certain sectors. Researcher Khalleel Mohamed established that Portuguese progress had been facilitated by the British colonial ruling class. Assisted by their alleged business acumen and the seemingly willing complicity of the state, the Portuguese had by 1852 eclipsed other rivals for control of the retail trade in the colony. Mohamed’s statistics show, for instance, that by July of the same year, the “Portuguese owned 312 of the 423 rural shops in Demerara and Essequibo”, with the remaining 111 belonging to Coloreds, Blacks, Whites and East Indians.”

It is, however, important to underscore two important facts to place the position of the Portuguese community in context. First, the Portuguese, considered less than white, also faced British ruling class contempt. As Noel Menezes has established in her work, at least one governor “scoffed at them as being uneducated and socially unfit.”  Additionally, many English merchants found the economic success of the Portuguese to be threatening to their economic and social dominance.

Secondly, not all Portuguese immigrants prospered in British Guiana. Many were poor and the Portuguese Benevolent Society, created in 1872, “disbursed $137,352 in relief to poor and old Portuguese” in one year. This, together with the difficult battles with the planter class that lay ahead for Portuguese desiring to enter the political fray, highlights the difficult circumstances facing the average Portuguese, despite their considerable social advance.

The lot of the aggrieved African population contrasted sharply with that of the Portuguese. As early as the 1840s, African Guianese hucksters and shopkeepers were slowly but surely muscled out of certain sectors of the economy. In the late half of the 19th century, large sections of the African population, already faced with unemployment and underemployment in the urban centres, were restricted and discouraged by a land policy—one that forced the African labourer to “live close to the estates,” according to Alan Adamson.

Meanwhile, the immigrant groups brought in as replacement labour were also intensifying their struggle for a better deal from the social pie. Nearly two decades before the riot in 1889, Indian immigrants protested conditions on several plantations. From the Leonora Riot in 1869 to Non Pariel in 1896, Indians were involved in periodic disturbances on several plantations. Chinese indentured labourers were also involved in several incidents with other immigrant groups, including the African community.

By the 1880s, the colonial economy was feeling the squeeze from the effects of a severe depression, the most wide-ranging since Emancipation, and one which was mainly occasioned by the fall in sugar prices. To accentuate an already dismal situation in the society, there were issues immediately preceding the riot in 1889 that posed problems for the already bad relations between Portuguese and African-Guianese. One of these related to the justice system, as reported in the press. Specifically, the contrasting treatment of the justice system to two murders involving citizens of two different race groups.

In the first case, an African defendant, Walsh, was hanged for the murder of his Portuguese wife in 1888. Not long afterward, a Portuguese man who was also sentenced to death for killing his Portuguese paramour, Julia Chase, but was given a reprieve by the jury. The pressure of the Portuguese Crown allegedly played a role in the outcome of the judgment, but this case was keenly observed by all sections of society. For the African community, it was essentially a test case, as it was the common belief, confirmed by events in court, that justice was not impartial.

The ‘Cent Bread’ incident that sparked the unrest in Georgetown in 1889, like most events of similar nature before and since, provoked an active press response.  In the aftermath of the incident a lively newspaper debate ensued in the only available “social media” of the times (apart from talk)

The press corps in 1889 consisted of newspapers representing several sections of the community. The Echo and Reflector generally represented the African Guianese community. The Colonist, Daily Chronicle, the Argosy, the Liberal and Royal Gazette, while purporting to represent the whole society, clearly epitomized the conservative views of the planter class and the colonial state apparatus. The Portuguese press was also quite visible and vocal, although their newspapers, with a few notable exceptions, were written in the Portuguese language, while others were bi-lingual. A Uniao Portugueza (Union of Portuguese) held the distinction of being created in response to the anxieties facing the Portuguese population at the time. A Uniao Portugueza was actually launched in May 1889.

The Daily Chronicle set the tone for establishment responses to the riot. This paper was extremely critical of the riot and African Guianese in general. It appeared to be slanted to direct blame to the African Guianese population for the incident and the editorials appeared to be one-sided. In one editorial, it raged: “There is not the slightest doubt that the trouble originated through the ungrounded prejudice and criminal ignorance of the black people in regard to the Portuguese”.

With editorials like these it was not surprising that the Chronicle provoked several responses in its letter pages from individuals and, in at least one case, from the village of Queenstown. The latter letter, signed by one Fr Gilzean, included a remonstrance to Governor Gormanston for his statements in the wake of the riot.  “We the undersigned,” it said, “deeply regret the disorder which have taken place in the County of Demerara, whereby the reputation of our race is lowered….” Fr. Gilzean and his villagers went on to severely criticize the Governor for his lack of even-handedness. The letter continued:

“We are deeply hurt to find that Your Excellency throws no blame upon the Portuguese shopkeepers as provokers of disorders, and we have learned from daily experience that many of the Portuguese shopkeepers are neither good citizens nor loyal subjects of the British Crown. Frequently we have out loyalty put to the test by the taunts and seditious language of the Portuguese shopkeeper…”

This letter prompted a reply from a Portuguese citizen, Manoel De Souza De Santos, in the same newspaper on April 3, while several Portuguese citizens approached Government by petition to organise a volunteer corps comprised and “officered by their own race…” as protection in light of the 1889 riot.

The Echo, representing the African community, published an 80-page pamphlet titled The Disturbances and priced at 16 cents contained reprints from various local papers. The Echo defended African Guianese from some newspaper reports. It explained: “those who took part in the fracas formed only a minute fraction of the population of the ‘black people’ and only a small component part of the lowest order.”

One anonymous writer, ‘Sambo’, referring to the rioters, enquired whether it would “be just to judge a race of people by a few?” Resorting to statistics to bolster his case, ‘Sambo’ estimated the African population in the city at the time at 30,000 – and the rioters at “…only about 3,000 or 4,000 people.”

Perhaps the best summing up of the tempo of the press on the ‘Cent Bread’ riot in the months following the incident was a statement appearing in the press purporting to represent the views of an elderly Portuguese gentleman expressing, in broken English, his feelings of regret at the riot in one of the columns of a newspaper: “Two timpse dis black man get bex, and every time he get bex, he get bex wid awe.”

In sum the 1889 ‘Cent Bread’ riot did not drop out of the sky. It occurred at the end of a process, the end result of the cumulative effect of several incidents in the economic and social spheres that had been smouldering for decades prior to 1889.

Nigel Westmaas is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College in the United States.

 

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Comments

  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 07/12/2021 at 1:45 am

    In my pre-teen years, (over 70 years ago), I was told the story of two murders of the time in British Guiana that ended differently; a Portuguese man who had murdered his African wife, was set free by the court, while an African man who had murdered his Portuguese wife was condemned by the court and hanged.

  • brandli62  On 07/12/2021 at 4:57 am

    An informative account of race relationships back in the 19th century of British Guiana. In the specific case, the accused black boy was given right and the Portuguese store owner was sentenced to jail! It appears that justice could prevail even back then.

    “For his part, Veira, the defendant, was later found guilty of assault with battery and sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour.”

  • Dennis Albert  On 07/16/2021 at 7:06 pm

    Nurse was a minor at the time, and children tend to have more rights in the European countries (well nowadays)

    If Nurse was a full-grown adult Black man, the police would not take his side. That is my hypothesis.

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