November 23, 2017

A ‘Magnificent Providence’ on show

Postcard cover reads: “Botanic Gardens, Georgetown, British Guiana”. On its reverse states: “Botanical Gardens, Georgetown, British Guiana. Central Drive and Gate from the Botanical Gardens, which are large and beautiful.”

As the only British colonial territory in South America, British Guiana was probably better known to the outside world than it appears today. Every effort was made by the-then Colonial Office and government to promote British Guiana abroad.

Guiana’s industries as they were – timber, mining, forest products and, of course, sugar – added to the rich diversity of exotic flora and rare species of fauna and the anthropology and artefacts of the colony’s aboriginal peoples, made a worthy  showcase of the colony’s resources.

The Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society (RACS) was founded in 1844 by planters and men of influence in British Guiana. The Society was instrumental in procuring and facilitating these world events through the RACS Committee of Correspondence. It prepared the official descriptive catalogues for the British Guiana exhibits and even sent representatives abroad to manage the exposition stands.

“Kaieteur Rapids & Gorge, British Guiana”. On the reverse reads: “A scene on the Potaro River. The Gorge approaching the Kaieteur Fall, which is seen in the distance.”

In 1851, London hosted the Great Exhibition of Arts and Industries of All Nations, the brainchild of Prince Albert opened in Hyde Park, Kensington. The event drew in nearly six million visitors. One of the star exhibits at the London exhibition was the Giant Water Lily or the Victoria amazonica, which was discovered in Guiana by Robert Schomburgk in 1837.

The year 1851 coincided with the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign and the newly discovered water lily was aptly named the Victoria Regia. The water lily was described in the catalogue as “Queen of the Aquatics” and it became the perfect emblem for the Monarch whose domain extended over the oceans – the ‘Flower of the Empire’.

The successor to the 1851 Hyde Park exhibition was the International Exhibition in London in 1862, where once again British Guiana made an appearance. This was followed by the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867.

Reverse of postcard describes the scene on its cover: “Kaieteur Fall, British Guiana, a beautiful view from the foot. Vertical drop of fall 740 ft.”

“Exposition universelle [d’art et d’industrie], for which a British Guiana Catalogue of contributions was published, and again in Paris 1900, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, where 5,000 sq. ft. were designated for the British Guiana stand.”

Eastward to India, British Guiana was represented by Mr. Henry Kirke, the then Commissioner for British Guiana, at the International Exhibition held at Calcutta in December 1883. The Governor and Court of Policy of British Guiana were keen for the representation and placed an item of $2,000 on the supplementary estimates to defray the expenses connected with the exhibition.

The RACS Committee did everything in its power to forward exhibits to Calcutta, so as to bring the colony of British Guiana and its mode of tilling the land, vividly before the people of Calcutta.

British Guiana also made its mark in the United States, first at the International Exhibition in Nashville Tennessee in May 1887 and then at the World’s Columbian Commission Exposition in Chicago in 1893. John Quelch, the curator at the British Guiana Museum, went to Chicago as the British Guiana Commissioner. A set of “TIMEHRI” journals and the “Scientific Journal of Guiana” appeared as one of the prize winning exhibits from British Guiana. The exhibit won a diploma and medal awarded by the Board of International Judges.

Cover of one of the postcards

The British Empire Exhibition, which was held in Wembley, London in 1924, was one of the last shop windows to show off British Guiana at its best. The British Guiana fully illustrated descriptive catalogue and guide to the exhibition, a tome of 126 pages, encapsulates the essence of the colony, its history, geography, places of interest, people and natural resources.

The concluding paragraph of 1924 Wembley catalogue sums up what British Guiana had to offer the nations of the world, and it is still relevant to Guyana today:

“Altogether British Guiana presents a rich field of possibilities and probabilities, and not a few certainties to the enterprising capitalist. Unlike most of the West Indian Islands, it is as yet undeveloped save on the coastal belt, the source of the famous Demerara Sugar. There is vast scope in its mineral wealth, in tropical agriculture of various kinds – Sugar, coffee, coconut, rubber and other plantations – in domestic industries, as yet almost nonexistent, and in the task of improving its means of communication. There is room for millions of new population. When the people come in their numbers, as they must come sooner or later as the other empty spaces of the world fill up, British Guiana will quickly establish a just claim to the title that is at present little more than a pious aspiration – the ‘Magnificent Province’.”

“War Memorial & Georgetown Club, British Guiana”. Reverse states: “The War Memorial stands at the head of Main Street. At the back of it is seen the chief Club of the City, and also the General Post Office.”

Featured today are some of the postcards said to be “specially taken for the British Empire Exhibition 1924”. They are artistic work done by Alfred De Breanski Jr., a British artist, and published by Raphael Tuck & Sons of England, who were referred to as the “world’s largest postcard publisher” and as “art publishers to their Majesties the King and Queen”. The postcards are called “oilettes”, a term used by Raphael Tuck & Sons to refer to a particular style of postcard production. The oilettes often looked like oil painting, with noticeable brush strokes. (Text by Wayne McWatt. Photos from