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Missions of the Church in British Guiana

From The Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal, No. XXIV (November, 1849), pages 161-172.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2008


THE present population of British Guiana is composed of various races; and the streets of Georgetown, its capital, present to the stranger who has just arrived from England a spectacle of some interest. He finds himself, on lording, surrounded by a busy throng, composed of men of every shade and colour; his own countrymen,--the Portuguese of Madeira,--with the Hindoos from Calcutta, and their darker brethren from Madras, in their showy eastern attire; while the Negro population, composed of the emancipated slaves and their children, with not a few Africans liberated from captured slavers, form the most numerous class of the whole. While gazing upon the busy scene, his attention may be arrested by a group differing in many points from the rest. By the bright copper tint of their skins, their long, glossy, straight black hair, and too frequently by their very scanty clothing, may be recognised the aborigines of the country. They usually bear in their hands little articles of their own manufacture for sale, such as small baskets of various shapes, bows and arrows, models of canoes and Indian houses, &c. Frequently parrots, monkeys, and other animals, are added to their little stock, the price of which will supply the family with axes, cutlasses, hoes, and other necessary implements, perhaps a gun, and a few articles of clothing of European manufacture for the ensuing year; if, indeed, the elder members of it can resist the temptation to drink rum, the bane and destroyer of their race.

It is easy to perceive, from the manner of these children of the wilderness, that they are more or less strangers to the habits of civilized life. The young ones stare around them, and seem [161/162] bewildered by the various objects which meet their gaze. Their home is in the vast forest, and on the banks of some one of the rivers which intersect the interior of the country. They sometimes visit the coast and the town, but only for the purpose of procuring the articles before mentioned, after which they retire to their abode in the forests until necessitated to seek a fresh supply.

A question will arise in the mind of the Christian,--Is any effort being made to introduce among these benighted and perishing people the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? A few years ago, the answer would have been in the negative. At the present time that reproach has been in part removed; and, considering the difficulties which present themselves, we may reply that much has been attempted and accomplished, though much more remains to be done. And it is a gratifying consideration to him who loves and reverences the Church of his fathers, that she stands preeminently forward in this work, and is almost the only labourer in the field. May she be divinely strengthened to complete the work which she has begun!

On inspecting the map of British Guiana, it will be seen that several large rivers, running almost parallel to each other, afford a means of communication with the interior. They are, in fact, almost the only means, the country being covered with a dense forest, only crossed at present by the foot-track of the Indian. In order to get at the various tribes, it becomes necessary to ascend these rivers, and plant Missions in the most populous districts; the most favourable situation being generally at the confluence of two or more streams, which affords the Missionary the means of communication with the inhabitants of each as they pass and repass in their corials or canoes.

Berbice, the eastern division of the colony, has two principal rivers: the Corantyn, which divides it from Dutch Guiana; and the Berbice, from which it takes its name. Although a Mission was founded by the Moravians in the course of the last century on the banks of the former of these rivers, scarcely a vestige of their labours seems to remain in the whole colony. Proceeding westerly, we find a Church of England Mission of great promise on the river Mahaicony, in the county of Demerara. The river Essequibo has another at Bartica, and a station higher up at Waraputa, while towards the western boundary of the colony we find the Missions of Pomeroon and Waramuri.

A full account of the Missions on the Essequibo river having been lately presented to the public, [1] [(1) In Mr. Bernau's work, entitled "Missionary Labours in British Guiana," of which a notice appeared in the Colonial Church Chronicle, Vol. III. p. 33.] any notice of them here [162/163] might appear superfluous. The other stations seem chiefly to require notice. They are supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and the first undertaken was that in the river Pomeroon, to which river Mr. Brett was sent by the Society as Catechist in the beginning of the year 1840.

As the Indians there were unacquainted with the doctrines of the Gospel, and the conduct of most of those called Christians, with whom they were acquainted, was anything but creditable to the religion professed by them, or attractive to the Heathen, they at first received every entreaty of the Missionary with quiet contempt, pointing out the example of their own ancestors as the perfect pattern for themselves to follow. Many months passed away in apparently fruitless labour. The broken English, of which most of the men speak a little, was found to be totally inadequate to express the great truths of Christianity; and much time required to be spent ere the most imperfect idea of them could be imparted thereby to their minds.

During this period, however, their conduct was free from all rude insolence, and generally kind, even when it became evident that they were annoyed by repeated importunity. At length, a man of the Arawak tribe, who had been one of their In piai men, or sorcerers, became convinced of the error of his past life, and expressed a wish to be taught, with his family, the way of salvation through Christ. His example was followed by many of his tribe, and ere a twelvemonth had elapsed the congregation assembled at the old hut, which the Missionary occupied, amounted to sixty; while a daily school was established, the children being left by their parents with the Missionary.

About the middle of 1841, an attempt was made to bring over the Carabisce, whose country commences about ten miles higher up the river than the Mission station, which is about forty-three from its mouth. Less difficulty was experienced at first with these than with the Arawaks, but more in the end; as their knowledge of English is more imperfect, and their own tongue quite distinct from that of the other tribe. In the beginning of 1842, the building which had been used as a place of worship, was rebuilt, beautified, and enlarged, and ere the end of the year, it was frequently filled by the congregation, consisting of the Indians of these two tribes, once very hostile to each other.

A visit from the Bishop in the beginning of the next year, added considerably to the stability of the Mission, which was still further increased by the admission of their teacher to Holy Orders. Soon after, a fine hill, which had been formerly the [163/164] site of a wood-cutting establishment, was purchased by the Bishop for 200l. Two buildings were included in the purchase, one of which made a very good school-house, the other became the residence of the Missionary. The chapel remains at the former station, which is nearly a mile distant, all the attendants of the Mission proceeding thither every Sabbath by water; the river covered with corials presenting at such seasons an animated scene.

A period of success attended the labours of the Church until the year 1844, at which time the Carabisce in Manawarin, and the Waraus in Haimara-cabara became anxious to learn the truths of Christianity. These streams are branches of the Moruca, and as the distance is upwards of sixty miles from the Pomeroon Mission, and it was impossible for an unassisted individual to continue to visit them sufficiently often to supply their need, application was made to the Bishop and favourably received. A new Mission was resolved on, and the Rev. J. H. Nowers quitted his station among the negroes to take charge of it.

This second Mission, which is called Waramuri, from the, name of the hill on which it is situated, rapidly increased in importance. The Indians, encouraged by the port-holder, an officer who is charged by the Government with their protection, assisted the efforts of the Missionary, and built a great portion of the chapel and its Mission-house, the sides and roofs of which are thatched with the leaves of a species of palm called troolie. Every leaf had to be brought by them from the Pomeroon, many miles away, and the labour thus bestowed was only remunerated with small allowances of salt fish and a little molasses. When the Bishop visited these stations in August 1845, the Mission-house was completed, and the chapel was ready for Divine Service by the end of the year. The sum granted by the Demerara and Essequibo District Society for these buildings was about 170l., and the labour of the Indians would have cost an equal sum, had it been necessary to pay them. The number of Indians attending this station in 1846 was about three hundred, and there were sixty-five children attending school. Had the health of the Missionary been spared, it would undoubtedly have become the largest Mission in Guiana, as the Indians are more numerous in that swampy district than in any other part of the country. At the same time they are most uncivilized and wretched, being principally Waraus.

About this time a remarkable imposture was practised upon the Indians in that part of Guiana. A person pretending to be the Lord Jesus Christ went into the far interior with some [164/165] deluded followers, and having established himself on the banks of the Cuyuni, he sent from thence emissaries into the neighbourhood of all the Missions, to call on the Indians to quit their homes and fields and go to him. They were told that they should possess lands which would yield a large crop of cassava from a single stick, and various other absurdities, very alluring to the indolent Indian. These tales, joined to others of horrible destruction, which should come upon all who refused to go, had their influence on the minds of many, and lured them away. The victims of this imposture were not from among the number of the baptized or catechumens, but chiefly those who having kept aloof from sound instruction, fall readily into a deceitful snare. Hundreds from all parts of the country went to "see God," as they termed it, some of whom perished by sickness on the way, and the others found themselves in a state of destitution on arriving at the spot. The writer of this saw an Indian who was one of those thus deluded, who said, "I travelled many days, and when I arrived there, I was led to a little enclosed hut, from which I heard a voice commanding me to return, and fetch my friends and neighbours, as a great destruction by fire and water would come upon the whole world except that spot." He said also that the impostor did not make himself visible, but remained concealed from all, as far as he could learn. He also added, that on looking around him he could see nothing but drinking and dancing, a portion of the little bread which they could obtain being made into paiwari (an intoxicating drink), and from this he became apprehensive that it was a delusion of the Evil Spirit, and made his escape the same night, and returned.

This strange story, the leading facts of which have been authenticated by other evidence, is a remarkable illustration of Matt. xxiv. 26, inasmuch as the impostor was both in a "secret chamber" and in the "desert," and it shows how necessary it is that every effort should be used to diffuse among these simple people that Gospel which alone can make them truly wise. At the same time it proves that the knowledge of the existence of a Saviour from destruction has spread very widely, although to many it was but as a glimmering light, not sufficient to keep them from going into error.

The same year a long drought, followed by a severe famine, and subsequent sickness, carried off many of the aborigines. Waramuri suffered much. The medicine chest of the Missionary was in constant requisition, as many as three hundred doses having been distributed in about one month. About the same time the Mission buildings were in great clanger of destruction, a fire having caught the dry wood which covered the [165/166] swamp, the conflagration rushing over the hill, destroying every thing in its course, and passing within about thirty feet of the chapel. The fire continued burning one month, feeding upon the enormous trunks of trees which lay in every direction, and upon the peat of which the soil at the foot of the hill is composed.

It is to be feared that the situation of this Mission is very unhealthy Mr. Nowers and his family suffered so much from continual sickness, that after losing one of his children, he found himself compelled to quit the station, and eventually to return to England in 1847. The Mission remained vacant until the beginning of the present year. Soon after the departure of Mr. Nowers, the Mission in Pomeroon was deprived of the services of Mr. Brett, from the same cause. A removal to the coast was judged necessary, and after residing there a few months he became again strong enough to resume his labours partially, until the present year, when increasing illness compelled him to return to England.

The Bishop visited Pomeroon in October 1848, and found upwards of two hundred Arawaks there, anxious for the reestablishment of the Mission as soon as might be possible. Almost every family of this tribe in Pomeroon has one or more members who can read the English New Testament. Before leaving the Colony his lordship licensed a Catechist for Waramuri, and another for Pomeroon, who will occupy these stations until they can be replaced on their former footing.

The third Mission, supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, is situated on the banks of the Mahaicony. In the year 1844, the Bishop, accompanied by Mr. Brett, ascended this stream, for the purpose of ascertaining the probable usefulness of a Mission in the upper part of it. The Indians having been apprised of the intended visit, welcomed his Lordship with a grand Maquarri. This is the Arawak national dance, in which all the males, each with a long whip in his hand, of peculiar make, dance in two parallel rows, uttering at the same time a peculiar cry, composed of two notes, similar to the cry of a certain bird. At the head of each row of dancers is a leader, with a rudely-carved baton, representing a long-necked bird, in his hand. While the main body are dancing, some are continually stepping aside from the ranks in pairs, and whip each other, giving alternate lashes on the naked leg, frequently fetching blood. This is borne by each party with perfect good humour and affected indifference, although they are sometimes laid up for two or three weeks after the, dance is over. Their music is a rude bamboo flute, and a small drum covered with deer-skin, and a canoe full of [166/167] paiwari is provided to stimulate the dancers. Each person is arrayed in his best ornaments, and the females sit by watching the dance, and passing remarks on the courage and endurance of the men, the whole presenting a wild but beautiful spectacle of Indian amusement.

On arriving among them, the Bishop was received with a hearty welcome, and they observed, that if they had known at an earlier period of his intention to visit them, two canoes of paiwari should have been provided instead of one. On the object of the visit being explained to them, however, they ceased their dance, and listened with great interest; promising to give up their heathenish customs, and attend the instructions of the teacher who might be sent among them.

Soon after Mr. Berry was sent there as Catechist, who was succeeded, in June 1846, by Mr. S. Manning. Mr. Manning was compelled to quit, by serious illness, in March 1848, and Mr. Deryck, the present Catechist, was licensed to succeed him. When the Bishop in the latter part of the year visited this Mission, he found it in a very flourishing state, with a congregation of more than two hundred, and the people actively engaged in building their habitations. This Mission is under the superintendence of the Rev. J. F. Bournc, who visits it every quarter, and is much beloved by the people.

Any account of Missionary labour in Guiana would be incomplete, without notice of the exertions of the Rev. W. Austin, Rural Dean of Essequibo. This gentleman, who is Rector of the parish of St. John, a large tract on the Aruabisi coast of Essequibo, has (in addition to his parochial duties among a population of several thousands of negroes) laboured with considerable success among the Arawaks of Itrobisi, a river and lake in his neighbourhood. More than one hundred have attached themselves to his ministry, and weekly assemble to be taught by his family. His two daughters have acquired considerable knowledge of their language, and their zeal and perseverance in teaching the Indian children deserve great commendation. This station, though not on the same footing as the other Missions, inasmuch as it is not assisted by any Society, is a very important one, as there are nearly three hundred Indians in the neighbourhood, who would be immediately benefited by it were additional assistance to be given; and should any unforeseen circumstances compel the abandonment of Pomeroon, many might be brought from thence to this spot by the labours of an itinerant Missionary; and it would thus become the most important Arawak Mission in the Diocese of Guiana.

Some of the Indians of Capouè Creek, between the last [167/168] mentioned station and Pomeroon, have been also induced to attend the ministry, first, of the Rev. J. F. Bourne, and then of his successor, the Rev. H. Hunter, at the chapel of St. Saviour, on the same coast. The number of Indians residing in this creek is sixty-five, about one half of whom are baptized, the other remaining obstinate in heathenism.

This is a brief sketch of the labours of the Church of England in Guiana. It may not be out of place to add here, that there is a small station on the western bank of Essequibo belonging to a dissenting body, another not far distant under the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland, while the Roman Catholics have a Mission supported by Government in the Moruca, among the Spanish Indian refugees from Venezuela.

That a considerable change has taken place in the course of a few years among the Indians in the neighbourhood of the Missions in Guiana, is evident to all acquainted with them. Of the spiritual state of many there is cause to think well, while the manner in which the ordinances of religion are attended by them proves that they value them highly. They who were formerly unclad, now clothe themselves from head to foot, and while the heathen of both sexes may be seen moving about the roads in a state of almost perfect nudity, an Arawak Christian female would no more think of appearing in such it state than would an English woman. At the Missions they also provide themselves with better houses. A few posts supporting a roof were formerly all that was thought necessary, but now the Mission-cottages have sides, doors, window-shutters, and frequently a boarded floor. Tables and benches are also now thought necessary, whereas formerly a block of wood rudely carved was deemed sufficient, with the hammock. Many families are also provided with washing-tubs, irons, &c.; and it is pleasing to see a group of females busily occupied in preparing the clean apparel for themselves and families against the Sabbath. Shoes and stockings are worn by many on this day, although they go with bare feet during the rest of the week. These beneficial results are to be attributed to the introduction of the Gospel, with its handmaids, industry and temperance. For it has ever been found, that in proportion to a man's faith and diligence in attending the means of grace, so has he laboured more to support his family, and ceased to be a drunkard. With regard to Christian charity, the writer has seen an Indian girl take her second frock and bestow it upon a little girl of another tribe, who had been left at the school by her friends without a dress. And during the famine in Ireland, when they were reminded of the duty of assisting the sufferers according to their ability, and very little money was to be found among them, a man brought [168/169] forward all his little wealth, which he had been working on the coast for some weeks to procure, to the amount of ten dollars, two of which he gave for himself and family, and Lent the rest to his countrymen who had nothing to give, telling them to repay hint as they could.

And yet there are sonic who ask, What temporal benefit results from Christianizing these people? Were no temporal benefit resulting, our duty and high privilege would still be to obey our Lord's great commission, and endeavour to save their immortal souls. But infinite temporal benefit results from this work to the people themselves, and it is of advantage even to the community at large. For every Indian who attends a place of worship once, immediately feels that be must attire himself decently as the rest of the congregation, or go no more. Hence he finds himself compelled to work for the estates, either in thatching, wood-cutting, or in cleaning trenches; nay, in the beginning of the present year, during the strike of the negroes, Indians were employed, in one instance, in cutting sugar canes. Thus he benefits not only his own family, but the planter, who is in want of labour, as well as the merchant and manufacturer of the goods of which he becomes a consumer.

But in order to see the temporal benefit which Christianity confers upon the Indian, his character and condition require to be closely observed, and these must be calmly considered and investigated as they really are; which reality will be found to differ widely from the picture formed in the imaginative mind. It is a mistake to suppose that the life of heathen man is or can be one of happiness, however favourable the climate and country in which he dwells. The "noble savage," running "wild in woods," is a poetic idea; and doubtless there is a charm in the wild freedom of a life in the woods, and considerable enjoyment to a young and healthy person in managing the light canoe, or pursuing his game through the forests. But it is animal enjoyment merely, and instantly fades under the pressure of hunger, and at the approach of sickness. When the Indian becomes sick, he has no comfort, no consolation; his superstition teaches him that his sickness and pain are occasioned by the tormenting presence of an evil spirit, [1] [(1) So rooted is this belief, that the Arawak commonly calls a pain, "Yauhahu simaira," the evil spirit's arrow.] and this is agonizing to his mind; while of the Supreme Being, as a God who hears prayer, he knows nothing. When the pretended sorcerer whom he summons fails to relieve him by his incantations, he may see himself shunned by his friends, who fear lest they should be the next victims. The writer once visited a settlement, in which [169/170] was a man dying of a fever. His friends and his family had quitted him, but his wife still lingered in the hut farthest from her husband, watching him from a distance, with her mind divided between superstitious fear on the one hand, and natural affection on the other. Hence it is that the Indians are called unfeeling to each other in cases of sickness. They are, when better taught, kind and affectionate; but superstition, in this as in other things, hardens the heart.

There is indeed something very picturesque in the appearance of an Indian in native costume gliding through the dark green forest. We will figure to ourselves a young Carib. His black hair is surmounted by a handsome circlet of the feathers of the parrot and other splendid birds, and his face painted with the bright vermilion of the arnatto. A collar, composed of the teeth of the peccary, jaguar, and alligator, is worn round his neck, while the long tasselled extremity of his girdle is wound gracefully round his shoulders. He bears in his hands nothing but his gun, or his bow and arrows, and makes a rather imposing appearance. Not so the female following him. Her costume does not differ widely from that of her husband, save that her head is bare, and her face disfigured by two or three pins struck through her lower lip, with the points projecting outwards. She has an enormous basket, containing hammocks, food, and half their goods, suspended on her back by a strap passed across her forehead; her hands are filled with cooking utensils, &c.; an infant is slung at her bosom, and another child is crying to be taken up. Thus loaded she must cross the stream on the rude bridge formed by a fallen tree, and continue to bear that burden until she reaches their dwelling; while her master walks unconcernedly on, without touching any part of the burden with one of his fingers, unless perhaps he take charge of his favourite son. The Indians use their wives very hardly; it is nothing unusual to see Warau and Carabisce women paddling their corials and canoes, while their husbands amuse themselves with a stroke now and then. But under the Gospel woman resumes her natural place, and though still obliged to work hard, it is only in her appropriate duties. It is only in cases of emergency that a Christian Indian would compel his wife to paddle. Nor is this the only advantage derived by the female sex. Whenever an Indian gets drunk, which is generally as often as he can procure the liquor, his wife may expect a beating; for though exceedingly mild when sober, he becomes fierce and quarrelsome when intoxicated. And this habit, so rooted in the Indian, can only be cured by the doctrines of the Gospel; for though the Missionary frequently fails in reforming the drunkard, there is probably no instance of an Indian addicted [170/171] to this vice becoming a sober person, unless by the influence of our holy religion.

There is also another habit fatal to their domestic happiness--this is polygamy. We frequently meet Indians who have two or even more wives of about the same age. And it is a very common thing to see a man with a wife and family of young children, bringing up a little girl, who is, in a few years, to become his second wife. The unhappiness attendant on this practice is manifest to all; frequent quarrels ensue, as the first wife will not always quietly submit; for though in a degraded condition, she has still the natural feelings of a woman, and jealousy and unhappiness have in some instances led even to suicide.

But when the Indian believes the Gospel, he becomes conscious of possessing an immortal soul, and learns that his Maker is not a God who is regardless of the wants and actions of his creatures. Hence he feels that he has something else to do besides to eat, drink, sleep, and dance. Evil spirits are no longer applied to in cases of sickness; morning and evening God is worshipped in their native tongue by himself and family. Dancing, with its attendant drunkenness, is discontinued; he makes a public profession of his faith in baptism, and is married to a wife in the presence of his tribe. Polygamy, and other evil habits, wear away before the progress of the Gospel, to the increasing happiness of all.

With respect to the occupation of the Indians, they are excellent wood-cutters and thatchers, and would also, it is probable, make good plain carpenters. It seems by no means advisable to bring their youth into towns, and put them to sedentary occupations, or those which would confine them to a house. The restless disposition by which they are characterised renders it very improbable that they would follow such employments any longer than they were absolutely constrained to do so; and the majority would acquire every vice which they saw practised around them. Such tradesmen also abound in the colony, while its great want is a more numerous and tractable peasantry. Every Mission should be well supplied with gardening implements, and each child compelled to work a short time every day before being admitted to school. This plan has been tried with success, the parents themselves seeing the advantage of it. It will be necessary to combine mildness with firmness; but no able-bodied person should be tolerated in idleness at any Mission, as such examples are very pernicious, and there are many whose indolence is excessive.

All the Missions which have any appearance of stability are within one hundred miles of the coast; and it is principally the [171/172] Arawak tribe which has been brought to embrace the Gospel. This is the chief of the coast tribes. Something has also been attempted and done with the Caribisce and Waraus, though the work with the latter is but in its infancy. Individuals of the Acowai tribe have also been brought over. But in the interior there are numerous tribes, some only recently brought to notice by an enterprising traveller, the Chevalier Schomburgk. The conversion of these must be a work of immense difficulty, and cannot be attempted until the Church in the colony has much more increased in strength, and developed her internal resources. The language of these tribes is an almost insurmountable barrier, as each speaks a different one; and the construction of these various languages is diametrically opposite to those of Europe. And no Missionary can become very useful to any tribe, unless he has, in a great measure, acquired their tongue, as it is impossible otherwise to instruct the majority in an intelligible manner; and interpreters, though at first indispensable, are frequently little to be depended upon.

It will be seen from the foregoing sketch, that the principal drawback to the Missions has been the failure of the health of the Missionaries. While this painfully shows the unhealthiness of the country, especially of that tract between the coast and the high lands of the interior, it is a great cause for satisfaction to find that the blessing of the Most High has so far rested on the work undertaken for the glory of his name, as to cause so general a willingness among these poor people to receive the Gospel. The fields are "white already to harvest," and this should lead to increased exertions; at the same time every precaution should be taken to preserve, as far as possible, the health of the Missionary, and to provide a substitute when a change becomes indispensably necessary, otherwise most men will find themselves thoroughly disabled at the time they are becoming really useful.

The above is a brief outline of that portion of the Missionary history of Guiana with which Churchmen in general are but little acquainted. It may be seen that the Church has done what she could, although in that colony at present her difficulties are so great that she can scarcely keep the ground which she has already occupied, much less make any fresh attempt.

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