President David Granger: Thank you, please be seated. Residents of Den Amstel, members of the media, fellow Guyanese:
I’m very happy and honoured to be here this morning. John Adams, in his quiet moments, can tell you why, but I feel that the ceremony that we are witnessing here this morning is a hugely important one and I will do everything in power, as defined by the Constitution, to ensure that this site becomes a part of our national heritage, as part of our national trust.
I don’t say that lightly. I say that because I am confident – and John can tell you that I have been confident over the last five years in my belief that James McFarlane Corry’s service has been little recognised and little valued our the years. And I think [that] if we went back over his life and his legacy we would learn a lot about local government, about communities and I would like the ministers present to take away that lesson from this morning’s proceedings.
All of the books that mention James McFarlane Corry describe him as the Father of Local Government in British Guiana. No one fails to acknowledge that; Norman Cameron, Walter Rodney anybody who writes about Corry describe him as Father of Local Government in Guyana and tomorrow morning at this time you should remember that – that somebody from Den Amstel was described as the Father of Local Government.
We remember him for his sedulous work in this village and in all the villages in Guyana at that time, and also for his visionary leadership in the establishment of a chain of Cooperative Credit Banks and many people don’t know that much about him.
He was born in 1850 and he died at the age of 74 in 1924. There is some dispute about his birth. His mom and dad are not here to confirm but I can assure you that if he dies at 74 in 1924, he had to be born in 1850. There is a plaque, so the dates are carved in stone literally that he died 92 years ago on the 7th March. So maybe we are ten days late in observing his death anniversary. But we are going to get it right next year right John?
Mr. John Adams: Yes sir.
President David Granger: He worshipped at the Congregational Church, which as you now is one of the oldest churches in this country and we have here of course – I think those of you who come to this community from time to time would have observed the 150th Anniversary of Ebenezer and there is in the Congregational Church in Georgetown; Smith Congregational Church, a plaque to his memory, to show you how highly he was regarded in the Congregational Church.
As you heard earlier from the Chairman, Den Amstel and Fellowship were twins and declared a Village District in 1892. And if I can correct him, Corry was actually the third because he took office in 1895 and he served until 1922. He was a village leader, and he was the founder of the Young Men’s Christian Association branch right here in Den Amstel and remained as President for 27 years. That Association, [which] of course has disappeared from Den Amstel, was credited at that time, and I quote “…with providing the moral and intellectual improvement of the villagers”. I don’t know if you’ll agree Mr. Chairman, that there needs to be still, the moral and intellectual improvement of villagers.
Corry was a professional man, he became a Magistrate’s Clerk in 1881 being regarded as and I quote, “An example of thoroughness in the preparation and presentation of his work”. He was appointed as a stipendiary Magistrate in 1911 and he also served as a Justice of the Peace in this District.
The Village Movement started in 1839, the year after Emancipation and our administration declared the 7th November to be the National Day of Villages and there will soon be issued a stamp to commemorate the start of that Village Movement on 1839 and will memorialise all villages, not just African villages because most of us arose out of villages. We are not ‘town people’ we migrated to the towns, but most Guyanese came out of the villages.
The peasant proprietors, in a little over a decade, between 1839 and 1848 spent over $1 million and bought over 6,000 hectares to establish our first villages. You just calculate what a million dollars would mean in today’s currency. But the early villagers bought over 6,000 hectares with hard cash to establish our first villages and within that first decade, over 40,000 persons mainly of African origin of course, marched off of the plantations not because they didn’t like agriculture or they didn’t want to work, because they continued to work; but they continued to work in the freedom of their own villages, with their own homes, their own churches, their own schools and their own farms and that is what we regard as the ‘Village Movement’.
Sugar planters, who historians called the plantocracy, controlled the legislature. At that time it was called the Court of Policy, we now call it the National Assembly, it was then called the Court of Policy and they tried every device, legislative and vindictive, to strangle the development of the free villages because they wanted to control labour and the more the labour left the plantations, the more they had to import labour from Portugal, from India and from China.
So, they tried to keep the labour close to the plantation because in that way labour would be cheap and it was very expensive to import labour. So, there was as great clash between the peasantry and the plantocracy. There were numerous examples of the resilience and the desire for independence among the peasants. There was a boom in agriculture because they had to feed themselves and many agricultural communities were self-sufficient. There was a boom in manufacture and many agricultural communities all along the coast were capable of producing and preserving a variety of products: cassava bread, guava jam, guava cheese, guava jelly, all sorts of juices were made in those villages.
In fact, the villages actually held agricultural shows more than 120, 130 years ago. They actually established agricultural societies. They established Christian Improvement Associations. There was a Conference of School Managers and Teachers as early as 1896. Many villages unfortunately however, suffered from flooding, from disease and from a declining population and declining production; plagues which we are still bothered with – drought and flood.
So, when we look at the life of Corry. We are looking at a situation in which there were some bright persons trying to move the villages forward, but there was a hostile plantocracy in the Court of Policy, which was passing laws and trying to restrict the villages and prevent them from expanding and growing. At the same time, there were harsh environmental conditions and all of us who live on the coast know the difficulty in drainage and irrigation. And it was in this environment that James McFarlane Corry, the Chairman of Den Amstel village, inaugurated something called the Village Chairmen’s Conference. He was elected the first Chairman in 1904 and he served for 20 years until he died in 1924.
Norman Cameron, in his book The Evolution of the Negro wrote of Corry’s tenure as Chairman of the Conference and I quote, “His annual addresses preserved his views on local government, the serious attitude which he took of the share of government entrusted to the villagers, his passionate appeals to his fellow Chairmen and Councillors for co-operation (I suppose this is something we can still do today) and to Government for fair-play and a recognition of their services”.
In other words, Corry recognised 112 years ago that local government was a part of the governmental system. It was the first tier of government and that was the tier that was entrusted to the villagers. The villagers are part of government and that’s what we are going to do tomorrow; we are going to show the people who tried to strangle local government that the villages of Den Amstel and all of the villages and municipalities and neighbourhood of this country are part of the governmental system and must not be ruled out. [Applause.]
So, it was James McFarlane Corry who initiated the Village Chairman’s Conference, bringing all of the Chairmen of all of the villages together, and this Conference was aimed at improving village life and strengthening local democracy.
Again, I turn to Norman Cameron who wrote that, the objective of the conference and I quote, was that:
“…those who were appointed Chairmen should come together, year after year, discuss village affairs, make suggestions among themselves for the improvement of the Villages and, generally, to get such information as would help them in the management of their affairs with intelligence and success;” or, as was later expressed, “…to assist one another in the art of managing our own affairs, to discuss the best means of carrying on our work, and to watch legislation as it affects our villages.”
And I remind you that legislation at that time was hurtful and harmful to the villages because persons ensconced in the Court of Policy meant to prevent the villages from expanding and from growing. The Conference’s first agenda was progressive and it was extensive, matters to be discussed included the collection of rates; the office of overseer; the custody of village money; the sanitary improvement of villages; the establishment of local agricultural societies such as the one in Victoria Village; the introduction of village reading rooms and libraries – we’re talking about 112 years ago, this is what the village chairmen were talking about – the establishment of reading rooms and libraries and of course Government, aid in the form of grants, loans and agricultural instruction. This is what I would like to see happening again in the Neighbourhood Democratic Councils; 112 years after Corry first said so.
Corry, at this time, was a very serious and studious man and he became aware of the functioning of the Raiffeisen Bank in Austria. Now, what is a Raiffeisen Bank? These banks were founded by somebody called Friederich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and they provided small loans, at low rates, for designated purposes, to worthy members of the agrarian population.
This man Corry was a visionary. Here he sees an example of a banking system existing in Germany that provides small loans, at low rates of interest, for designated purposes, to worthy members of the agrarian population, and it was Corry who seized this idea; he thought it would be good for local small farmers in British Guiana to have access to similar sources of credit. He brought the idea to the notice of the Conference – the Village Chairman’s Conference in August 1904, and he admitted that he didn’t know much about how these banks would function, but the seed was planted.
The Conference decided to obtain help and, as a result, members of the conference were invited to a meeting of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society (RACS). The next time you go on Church Street next to the Bank of Guyana you see a building which houses the National Museum if you go to the northern side of the building, you will see four letters R.A.C.S. the name of that building has not been changed since independence – The Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society. So that is where the village Chairmen was invited to go to listen to a presentation on the Raiffeisen banks.
Certain members of Victoria Village, at that time always in the lead, modified the suggested plan to suit their local conditions and in August 1905, just one year afterwards, the first local Co-operative Credit Bank was started and this was on the initiative of James McFarlane Corry from Den Amstel village. Other banks followed, some succeeded and some subsided, but the banks at Victoria and Buxton and Demerara and Rose Hall – and at that time Rose Hall was a village; it is now a town in Berbice – were reported to be doing well. The Conference came to the conclusion that the central Government would have to play a part, if the best results were to be obtained.
The Conference therefore, urged the establishment of similar banks, but they must be operated by Government. The idea was not adapted at first because the Government was hostile, it is recorded and I quote again, “The efforts of the people’s representatives and the spirit of self-help displayed by the farmers were rewarded when in 1914, the Government started to operate District Credit Banks”.
There were three at first in 1915. The next year, 15 more banks were created. At the 1917 Conference of the Village Chairman, it was decided to request the Government to retain the services of the energetic official who had been establishing those banks solely to be able to work in connection with them, and the request was granted.
So, we have here, the creation of a Cooperative Credit Bank and it did a lot of good work in Guyana, saving the small farmers from loan sharks and from various money-lenders with whom they had to deal with before the banks were established.
The Cooperative Credit Banks assisted them to overcome the vagaries of weather in Guyana – the droughts and the flood. As you know peasant farmers are normally severely afflicted by this cycle of drought and flood. Corry was recognised as the individual who brought forward that movement. He, himself, was fully conscious of the importance of having such loan banks in the villages and was satisfied that the Conference had done something creditable in inaugurating those banks.
Corry himself announced that and I quote him, “As a permanent memorial of our appreciation and that measure, I invite this Conference to make a practical effort to firmly establish the Co-operative Credit Banks in our Colony, and hand down to posterity” (he is not thinking about himself, he is thinking about posterity) “as our contribution to the progress of our people, and as a result to the progress of the Colony at large”.
Can you imagine the mind of this great man thinking about extension of agricultural credit for posterity and for the nation at large – that was the sort of man we are honouring today Den Amstel. James McFarlane Corry was a leader. He gave the Village Chairman’s Conference its initial direction and the benefit of his guidance. It was similar to the leadership that he had seen in Agricultural Improvement Societies, which took place, which occurred, which were established in other villages along the coast.
The Conference and the societies worked towards similar objectives – the improvement of the lives of proprietors; those persons who owned house lots and owned farm lands. The social significance of these village institutions could be measured by the statistics concerning the number and size of the villages. There were 214 villages, of which 96 were in Berbice, 66 were in Demerara and 52 were in Essequibo that is by 1902. The village population had almost nearly doubled from 44,456 to 86,935.
The value of property in those villages had increased by half a million dollars and there were 13,969 proprietors owning 31, 255 hectares of land – all in the period between 1848 and1902. And this was by people who had just emerged from the most cruel and inhumane system ever known to man, the system of enslavement and this is their achievement within that half century after emancipation.
So, ladies and gentlemen, residents of Den Amstel, we are gathered here today to honour a great man. He died at the age of 74 in 1924. He bequeathed to us a rich legacy of leadership in rural communities; a legacy of Christian stewardship especially through the Congregational Church; a legacy of organisational ability that without cell phones and transport he was able to bring village leaders from Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice together for that Village Chairman’s Conference every year. He had the communication skills to be able to convince and persuade his colleagues; he had the ability to plan, he was a visionary and he dedicated his life to the service of his community. He was a great guide and a worthy helmsman during an extremely difficult period in the evolution of rural Guyana.
Today, I would say without fear of contradiction, that there is no better way of honouring his memory than by what we are doing here. There is no better epitaph to Corry’s life than Norman Cameron’s conclusion that he was and I quote, “One of the greatest leaders of his people in this Colony even though his activities were mostly restricted to the Villages”.
James McFarlane Corry will always have a place in the history of our country; in the memory of our people and that memory will live on (I hope) in the village of Den Amstel and this site will be preserved and protected from bush and neglect.
I thank you.
May God bless you all.
President David Granger: Thank you, please be seated. Residents of Den Amstel, members of the media, fellow Guyanese: