A life in British Guiana

Trace it back far enough, and my family has – collectively – experienced a huge diversity of living conditions, cultures, events, and geographies. Some of them have been recording these experiences, and others investigating and preserving them.

My mother has recently transcribed notes taken by her father of talks given by his mother about her time in British Guiana. So, as a family, we now have several digital copies of these stories sitting around on our computers, waiting for hard disks to fail, or file formats to become obsolete. In an attempt to avoid this fate, I’m going to post them here, to be cached, indexed and generally digested by the global networked brain. Maybe they’ll last a few more years, and be of interest to someone in the future.

First, some metadata:

22nd March 1976 – note by Reginald Shannon Spence

This manuscript by my mother, Mary Christina Spence (nee Shannon) was a ‘talk’ given by her at Hamiltonhill Mission, Glasgow about 1946.

8th January 2015 – note by Mary Sleigh (nee Spence)

I transcribed these notes from photocopies of the original hand written notes. Despite my best efforts there are some words that I cannot decipher. Perhaps one day someone will discover the original papers and solve the missing words. I have included some notes that may be of interest to future generations.

4th February 2015 – note by Andrew Sleigh

I’ve copied the text from the source above, translating comments (written by Mary Sleigh) from the original Word (.doc) file into footnotes. and re-saving embedded images as .png files.

I’ve also uploaded the second of these stories here.

My Life and experiences in British Guiana

Mary Christina Spence

I have often been asked to give a talk on my life and experiences in British Guiana, my native land, but hesitated never having done anything of the sort in my life. I have just had six weeks in bed, being ordered a complete rest, and have decided to spend part of the time in thinking of what I would tell you that would prove interesting at the same time asking you not to be too critical.

To begin with I suppose you all know where British Guiana is? I have often been asked if it is one of the West Indian Islands, but I feel sure you know better than that. Well, if you look at a map of South America, you will find it right up in the North, with Dutch Guiana and French Guiana. British Guiana consists of the counties of Berbice, Essequibo and Demerara, of which Georgetown is the capital, and the islands of Wakenaam and Leguan, with a very mixed populations of Europeans, Negroes, Portuguese from Madeira, Chinese, East Indians and Aboriginal Indians or Bucks.

British Guiana as first seen from the Demerara Lightship is a mournful and monotonous picture, mud flats stretching endlessly along the shore, never a hill is to be seen. The coastal flats are four feet below the level of high Spring tides, and the Atlantic slops over the sea dams in yellow waves of muddy water. Georgetown and all the counties are built on the absolutely flat coastal land every bit as flat as the floor of this room. Little, however, does the average colonist or the chance visitor to British Guiana see of the beauty and wonder of South America. This brings me to the start of my life and experiences in the colony. I was born in British Guiana in the island of Wakenaam and spent the first ten years of my life on the West coast of Demerara and my home was called Edinburgh House, a picture of which I will show you later.

A copy of a watercolour by Seldon Mitchell 1895, a friend of Dr Shannon. Edinburgh House, 3 miles from Katrina Village, West coast Demerara. Home of Dr Matthew Shannon, my great grandfather. Original watercolour is now in the possession of my (Mary’s) brother Keith Spence and came from my parents’ house. I have a copy which came from Uncle Keith’s house when he left to live in a nursing home.

My father was Government Medical Officer on the West coast of Demerara, where the noted Demerara sugar comes from, in those days a most flourishing industry. Often I had the privilege of going over the sugar factories and seeing the process of making sugar, from the grinding of the sugar cane to the finished yellow crystals which you can all get and I fell sure enjoy, for I have no hesitation in saying it is hard to beat.

The mode of living is quite unique, and is no way like life in Britain. Our day started at 6 a.m. when our first meal was served and consisted of hot buttered toast and coffee. From that hour to 8 a.m., beautifully cool and then intensely hot until 4 p.m. At 4 p.m. all Government Offices and shops ½and schools close. The afternoons are spent in tennis, golf and visiting friends, which was only too short, as there is no twilight in the tropics, darkness comes with no warning except a buzz of the 6 o’clock beetle which is as sure as the clock striking and really rather irritating, but one soon got accustomed to it. The darkness brought all sorts of insects such as hardbacks, a black beetle, quite harmless. They gather in swarms round the lights. Then the mosquitos gave us no peace and in desperation we would leave the room and go onto the veranda where the breeze would help to keep them away, but at times they just drove us to bed. Every bed has a mosquito net and only linen sheets and four or more windows in each room and even then it was hot on some nights. This all sounds awful, but not in reality and in my opinion in spite of everything it is an ideal life and easy as labour is cheap and wonderfully good – but it is the same with black as with white, you get good and bad. We get a great variety of vegetables and fruit, but nothing like you get in Britain, but excuse me for saying, far nicer. At every meal rice is served and we grow sweet potatoes, cassava, pumpkins, eddoes, okras, yams, plantains, and several others, and fruit oranges, grapefruit, sapodillas, mangoes in great variety, pineapples and last bananas, and listen. We got 6 for a penny! The climate is the same all the year round, except for the rainy season, which is always very welcome as we depend on the rain for our drinking water. All the houses have gutterings connected to large wooden vats – and every drop has to be carried up to each house, be it country or town.

I left Demerara in 1886 and spent seven years at a Boarding School in – Somerset returning to Demerara in 1893 and got married in 1896. We spent our honeymoon in Britain and on our return I went with my husband into the interior or Bush as it was called where his work took him as Government Gold Officer and Land Surveyor. At the time it was considered I was running a risk, as the bush was considered not only a death trap but also a wilderness of useless jungle, and sandy deserts, but it had no fear for me, and my husband had served many years in the jungle previous to our marriage. The journey was a thought. We left Georgetown with our baby girl, 5 months old, and travelled all night arriving in the early hours of the morning at Moreawhanna always a very rough journey and what a boat. It rolled from side to side and each time we wondered if it would ever right itself again. We landed and spent an hour or so with some friends and after breakfast started up the Barima river in a launch arriving at Kariabo after dark, where we spent the night with the Government Gold Officer and thankful we were to settle down for the night in hammocks, although it was by no means a peaceful slumber as the mosquitoes soon found us, and gave us no peace. Up again the next morning at daylight and after a meal started again in the launch and arrived at our destination Arakaka after a most monotonous and tiring journey – nothing to be seen as the land on both sides of the river is absolutely screened from the travellers by a dense fringe of the jungle growth. The dead silence got …. One, broken only by the song of the birds or the hoot of the owl, which is a most depressing sound at the best of times. Well this settlement on the top of a small hill in the thick of the forest, with only two bungalows with roofs (made from the leaves of a palm tree) a small hospital with a black qualified nurse in charge was to be my home. So you will understand how I felt, strange to say I was quite content and after a good night’s rest in a real comfy bed I was up bright and early unpacking and getting the bungalow to look like home with all my nic nacks and pictures etc. and the vases filled with the few flowers I found growing. Here we were day after day with nowhere to go as we were surrounded with the thick forest and only a narrow goat path into the jungle and it was not safe to go alone, but we sometimes went for a walk for the sake of exercise, but very seldom, as I had a dread of snakes, which could never be seen, until disturbed by the rustling of dead leaves as we walked along the path. Now you will remember the journey took three days from Georgetown, so we were cut off from civilization, no Doctor, no church, no shops and no friends. All our food like butter, tea, sugar, canned stuff we brought with us and we never saw fresh milk or butcher’s meat. I had to depend on our huntsmen, who went out every day returning at 3 to 4 in the afternoon sometimes with a macaw a bird which was fine eating or two kinds of fish, the marrocol ?and the kymarror ? and often with nothing and we had to have tinned stuff for dinner. We had a black cook and 2 black female servants, one for the house and the other did our laundry. We had to bake all our bread, which was done by the black cook and he did right well, but we all fail at time and occasionally had some real dough … We all think the present rationing hard, but you will agree that 45 years ago our position was just as bad and yet we got a lot of fun out of it and thought nothing of it. (Mention here about Eileen and the bat and the lady with the lamps)

All went well with my daughter growing and thriving splendidly. When we got the news that my husband was to be moved to the Potaro District, a most unhealthy spot full of malaria we had no choice and with great regrets we had to face the journey back to Georgetown, with only comforting thought that we would have a few weeks holiday before taking up his new post, this time going up alone and leaving me to follow a couple of months later.

The time passed by and in due course the time came for me to join my husband. I left Georgetown with my two servants and this time with 2 children by steamer for Wismar, a small settlement 60 miles up the Demerara River. The journey took 8 hours, the scenery not interesting, but the steamer good and comfortable. Here my husband met me and we then went from Wismar to Rockstone by train, a miserable affair, very dirty as the engine burned wood fuel and the sparks were most dangerous. From Rockstone we went by launch and as the river was in flood we did the journey in one day and thankful we were for with five adults and two children in the launch we had no room to move, but on the journey we stopped for our meals at suitable parts of the river and then got a chance to stretch our legs. We were now on the last lap of our journey, and as we came up the river we could see the Tumatumari Falls in front of us and it was a magnificent sight for Tumatumari is a formidable cataract with rocky islands amidst its swirling rush of water. The name is said to mean ‘as hot as pepper’. All river traffic whether up stream or downstream is stopped by this obstacle, but this did not affect us, as this was our destination and our house was on top of the hill, also a police station and Post office and many Bucks or Indians lived in the jungle and they paid us a visit after we arrived. They always walk single file, one behind the other. And not as we do two or three abreast, which is easily understood as in the jungle they only have a narrow path. Their clothing is very scant. They are friendly but very shy and do not speak much. The falls were only a very short distance from our house and I thought I would never get accustomed to the roar of the rushing water, but as the days passed by I barely noticed it and had it ceased I would have missed it, as it broke the awful stillness of the bush. I had it all my own way as I was the only white woman at the Station, quite a unique experience and gave me a great feeling of my own importance, but that soon died a natural death. I must here mention the wonderful Kaieteur falls which are miles away from Tumatumari and which I never got the chance to see, but I have heard about their beauty and have photos of them which you will see later. The fall is six times the height of Niagara, but not as wide. The journey to the Falls is most difficult and in my day few attempted it. All went well for a time and then we all became victims of malaria and things became so bad that my husband applied for leave and we all returned to Georgetown this time doing the journey in a tent boat as being the dry season the river was too low for a launch and the journey was very long and tedious and to save time we travelled all night which was nerve racking as on several occasions the boat stuck in a or fallen tree and the boat hands had all to get out into the water and push the boat off. It was glorious moonlight which made it possible for us to travel by night. We were thankful when we reached Rockstone and thence by steamer to Georgetown, from where we sailed for a holiday in Britain. After six months we all returned restored to health, but my husband settled us in Georgetown and he returned to Tumatumari alone. It was a miserable existence for us both but before many months there was a vacancy in the Head Office and my husband was appointed to it. We had been longing for this and the great day had come. We enjoyed many years in the capital but from 1918 to 1922 my husband’s health was very poor and in 1922 after a short illness he passed peacefully away.

I left the Colony a few months later with my family after great difficulty in getting passages caused by the rush after the last Great War. Eventually we were all on the water in three different steamers and it was with a heavy heart I said goodbye to all my friends. I have crossed the Atlantic 23 times and only twice had stormy weather and one trip during the last war with no wireless on board, a trip never to be forgotten, but ‘all’s well that ends well’.

That ends my story. A life of joys and sorrows which is what we must expect for’ into each home some rain must fall’ but we must’ turn our clouds inside out to see the silver lining’. I always feel that nothing happens by chance and everything happens for the best. We must always leave ourselves in God’s safe keeping and He will guide and guard us and give us strength to face the ups and downs in life.

I could tell you a lot more about British Guiana, about the gold and diamond industries, Bauxite and the great variety of timber, also the mode of living and travelling, also many funny stories about the Negroes, but time will not allow.


  1. Wakenaam is an island of about 17.5 square miles (45 km2) at the mouth of the Essequibo River of Guyana. One of the largest islands (the others being Leguan and Hog Island) in the Essequibo Islands group, it was settled at one time by the Dutch in the 18th Century; the name Wakenaam is Dutch meaning “waiting for a name” and still contains old Dutch graves at various locations on the island. The island, like most other islands in the Essequibo River in Guyana, is characterized by green vegetation, blue skies and cool breeze from the Atlantic

  2. Before decimalisation so one penny in 2014 would be worth about 1/2p

  3. Open boats that had a canvas ‘tent’ to give shade and protection were commonly used.