Demerara and Paramaribo, a study in contrasts—Oriental life in South America—British and Dutch Guiana, the last relics of great colonial empires—Native customs and character
A. Hyatt Verrill
Travel magazine February 1916, collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle August 2011.
TO those seeking new lands to visit during the winter months— places out of the beaten track and yet within easy reach and where every necessity and luxury may be obtained—Demerara will prove an ideal spot.
Here on the northeast coast of South America is a land intensely tropical and marvelously luxuriant with strange and wonderful forms of vegetation—a land where splendid highways enable the visitor to drive or motor for hundreds of miles through scenes utterly new, and where hunting, fishing, sailing, golfing or any other sport or recreation may be followed to one's heart's content. A country of strange, sharp contrasts, where Twentieth Century civilization borders on the untamed wilderness, where wild birds and beasts and wilder men may be seen dwelling in their native homes, and yet where every comfort and necessity is provided for.
Although less than five hundred miles north of the equator, Demerara—or more properly Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana is not oppressively hot, and, contrary to prevalent ideas, it is not unhealthy.
Throughout the year the trade winds blow constantly and temper the heat of the tropic sun, and while it is often unpleasantly wet during the rainy summer season, yet the mercury never soars into the nineties, and the sweltering, humid heat of New York is unknown. During the winter—from October until January or February—the thermometer rarely exceeds 85 degrees, occasional showers cool and freshen the air, the nights are cool and delightful, mosquitoes and other insect pests are rarely troublesome, and as a whole there are few places in the tropics which possess a climate more agreeable or less trying to Northerners. But if you visit Demerara don't make the mistake of trying to live, dress and eat as in the north; even the healthiest of tropic lands will prove inimical to one's welfare unless one's life and habits are adapted to the local conditions.
"Early to bed and early to rise," is an excellent maxim for the visitor to the tropics to bear in mind, for abundant sleep is a necessity and the early hours of the morning are the pleasantest of the twenty-four.
Don't overeat, but partake of native food as much as possible; far too many tourists adhere to a northern diet in the tropics, with dire results. Wear the lightest of summer clothing, but avoid draughts or cool air when warm. Don't overexert or over-exercise, and thus exhaust your vitality, for while sunstroke and heat prostration are practically unknown, yet extreme lassitude, digestive disorders and irritating skin affections often result from a too strenuous life beneath a tropical sun. Above all, never use spirituous liquors to excess; if you must drink, drink sparingly; liquor has killed more men in the tropics than all the fevers, insects, snakes and diseases combined.
While Demerara is almost unknown to the majority of Americans, yet it is a big, bustling, modern place with a population of nearly half a million, commerce amounting to over $20,000,000 annually, and an output from its gold mines of over $1,000,000 a year.
Quite out of the world, as far as tourist travel is concerned, yet Demerara is within easy reach by steamer from New York, and the ten days' voyage, over the smoothest of summer seas, is pleasantly broken by stops at charming West Indian islands— tropic gems set in turquoise and sapphire seas where verdure-clad mountains lose their summits in the drifting clouds and rustling palms shade the quaint and sleepy towns—and to visit which would alone be worth the entire trip.
Originally settled by the Dutch in 1613, Demerara has been a British possession since 1814, but the influence of its original owners may still be seen on every hand. Wherever the Dutch settled, they seem to have selected sites as much like their beloved Holland as possible, and they apparently could not feel thoroughly at home unless they devoted much of their time and labor to keeping the sea from their possessions. True to this tendency they founded Georgetown on land as flat as a board and so low that it is several feet beneath sea level—or, rather, river level, for the town borders on the great Demerara River nearly twenty miles from the ocean.
Seen from the water Demerara is disappointing, for the one-time dykes have been transformed into broad sea walls and great docks, lined with warehouses, stores and buildings which almost conceal the city beyond. But as the traveler emerges from the docks he steps into a busy, bustling, well-built modern town. The broad, straight streets are smooth and well kept; trolley cars run here, there and everywhere; automobiles and motor trucks hurry hither and thither; drays and carts pass and repass in a never-ending stream, and people of innumerable races and of every shade and color throng the sidewalks and the stores. As in most West Indian towns, colored people predominate in Demerara, but the population as a whole is wonderfully cosmopolitan. Aside from the English, Scotch and other Anglo-Saxons, there are many Portuguese; Chinese are numerous, and most noticeable of all are the Hindus. Picturesque and striking in their native costumes, the East Indians give a touch of the Orient to the scene and form one of the most interesting features of Demerara. Originally brought over from India as indentured field laborers, the ''coolies" have prospered and increased, and many of them are now independent planters, well-to-do merchants, successful tradesmen and skilled artisans. Everywhere they are in evidence. On country roads, in stores and shops, on the city streets they are seen, all redolent of the Far East, ever with something of the mystery of India about them and always fascinatingly foreign and strange to northern eyes.
Thin almost to emaciation, the men stalk about, clad in the lightest and scantiest of costumes and with huge turbans on their heads, while the women—brilliant in gaudy, silken jackets and heavy with silver and gold armlets, bracelets, anklets, collars and nose rings—squat beside trays of sweets or fruits, or trip along with lace or silken scarfs fluttering to the breeze. To see the East Indians at their best, however, one should visit their villages in the suburbs or should travel to the outlying sugar estates.
Here they swarm, living their own lives, following their own customs, and worshiping in their own temples as in far-off India.
Above the nodding palms the shimmering dome of a mosque gleams in the sunlight, and if the visitor desires—and wins the favor of the white-bearded descendant of the Prophet—he may step within the dim interior or the mosque, first having removed his shoes, and may gaze upon the ponderous Koran resting in its niche.
In soggy, marshy pastures, mud-blue buffaloes graze while tended by naked Hindu boys. Beside the roads motley throngs of Orientals haggle over the prices of strange, spiced viands and odd fruits. In the shade of tamarinds coolie barbers ply their trade and shave their fellow countrymen in the open air in sight of all the world, and upon the highway passes an ever-changing procession of men, women and children that well might have stepped from one of Kipling's stories.
Hindu priests in loose, white robes; Parsees and Brahmins; wizened fakirs in rags and tatters; holy men with beards dyed scarlet and foreheads painted with mystic symbols; fat, well-fed merchants in spotless silk and with huge parasols to protect their turbaned heads— a score of races, a thousand types, innumerable castes, some plodding on foot, others crowded into tiny donkey or bullock carts, and still others whirling along on motorcycles or in automobiles.
Though far more interesting and picturesque than the omnipresent negro, and while their soft "Salaam, Sahib" is a vast improvement over the accustomed "Mornin', San," yet the East Indians are but one of the manifold attractions of Demerara.
The broad, smooth streets are shaded with great trees, and in the residential districts have well-kept grass plots and shady paths in their centers, while through many of the city thoroughfares and everywhere in the country are the canals. Within the town they are lined with concrete and are flushed and cleaned daily and at cross streets they are spanned by attractive bridges, while on their placid waters are mirrored the lofty palms and beautiful buildings that rise above their banks. In the outlying districts they become lovely sylvan streams, bordered by gorgeous flowering shrubs, shaded by long avenues of stately palms and often filled with blooming lotus and pink-hued water lilies. By their sides the natives dwell in neat cottages on stilt-like posts, while under the verandas ducks swim about, cattle and buffaloes munch the reeds and water plants and children bathe and splash in the shallow water.
These canals are a characteristic feature of the place, typical of Demerara, and while adding greatly to its charm they combine utility with attractiveness, for they are essential to Georgetown and serve to drain the low-lying ground on which the city is built. Each time the tide runs out the ponderous sluice-gates are opened by their Hindu tenders and the land is drained, and when the tide turns the gates are again closed to keep the river out. Stretching across the country, bordering the highways and flowing through the city's streets, the canals add a touch of Holland to the scene, but unlike those of the Netherlands they are not used as thoroughfares, for canals have few advantages where roads are as numerous and as perfect as in Demerara. Level as a table, smooth as asphalt, broad, straight and lined with palms, luxuriant tropical foliage and brilliant flowers, the roads of Demerara are simply ideal for driving or motoring. One may spend days driving about and never visit the same spots twice, for there are over 350 miles of highways around Georgetown, and if one cares to go farther afield there are splendid auto roads leading for seventy miles and more into the interior.
Here one may motor in comfort and ease, with the untamed "bush" stretching away on every hand, or past broad fields of cane and great sugar mills; through paddy fields where all-but-naked Hindus labor waist deep amid the tender, green rice plants; along rivers where sharp-prowed Indian canoes drift slowly down the stream between jungle-covered banks; or by villages of thatched and wattled huts where bare, brown children scurry to cover like frightened partridges at one's approach.
If one cares for outdoor sports or recreation they are to be had in plenty in Demerara. There are golf links and tennis courts, cricket grounds and shooting clubs, and a race course which is one of the finest in America. Within easy reach there is excellent fishing, game is abundant in the near-by forests, and the river affords an ideal spot for motor boating or sailing.
Lines of river steamers ply upon the great waterways, and an excursion may be taken far into the heart of South America, where naked Indians live their primitive lives, where gigantic liana-hung trees form a forest that sweeps unbroken for untold leagues, and where strange beasts and birds are still unafraid of man. By these steamers one may visit the lumber camps where greenheart, purpleheart, crab-wood and many another rare timber is being cut, or may travel to the "diggings'' where miners are washing precious metal from Guiana's golden sands.
And to accomplish all this requires no hardihood, little discomfort and no hardships. Stopping places are all provided with hotels, the steamers are clean and comfortable, and the entire trip is scarcely more than a summer picnic or a holiday excursion, for at Demerara civilization rubs elbows with the wild, and it's but a step from the teeming, modern business center of the town to the vast, almost unknown interior and its impenetrable jungles.
But of all things in Demerara, the crowning attraction is the public garden, or "Botanic Station." Close to the busy city and within easy reach by trolley or carriage is this veritable wonderland —a bit of tropical forest improved and beautified by man and yet so well arranged and so admirably planned that there is no artificiality about it to detract from its natural beauty. Here are gathered together the flowers, shrubs, vines, trees and palms of every tropic land, with nurseries and experimental plots filled with all the food-plants, fruits, spices and economic trees adapted to a tropical climate. Everywhere through the gardens are smooth, well-kept, shady roads stretching for miles, and one may walk or drive through the station for hours and ever see something new, interesting and strange. Here and there are broad, grassy lawns, above which rise stately palms of enormous size. Ponds and streams are spanned by picturesque Japanese bridges and shaded by clumps of gigantic bamboos. Beside the roadways are canals choked with the wonderful leaves and great, white flowers of the marvelous Victoria Regia, and everywhere are arches of huge trees, their branches covered with strange air plants and brilliant orchids. Best of all, bird and animal life teems in this beautiful setting, and to drive through the Botanic Station is like driving through a zoological garden.
In the tree-tops paroquets and parrots chatter and scream or wing away in bright-hued flocks at one's approach. From hedges and shrubbery the notes of gorgeous song birds issue, and among the flowers brilliant tropic butterflies and swift-winged humming-birds flash like living jewels in the sun. Across the lily pads and water plants dainty jacanas and purple gallinules run nimbly back and forth, seeming to walk upon the water's surface. Among the lotus leaves white egrets and dignified herons perch and crane their necks to view the passerby, and in canals and pools great alligators doze and clumsy manatees look curiously at the intruders.
But no description can do justice to the gardens or to Demerara, and one must visit the place in person to appreciate the many attractions, the innumerable features of interest and the manifold advantages which this bit of the tip of South America presents to the tourist from the north.
Then, having seen Demerara thoroughly, take a little trip "around the corner," so to speak, and visit Georgetown's next door neighbors in quaint old Paramaribo.
Only eighteen hours are required to make the trip from British Guiana's capital to that of Dutch Guiana, a city unlike any other in the world and the quaintest and most interesting town in South America, if not in the entire western hemisphere. Moreover, Paramaribo should be of the greatest interest to every New Yorker, for Dutch Guiana or Surinam was the price of our metropolis, and* Paramaribo was given by the British to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam in 1674.
For twenty miles inland from the ocean the ship steams slowly up the broad and sluggish, coffee-colored Surinam River, between the low, mangrove-covered shores and around bend after bend. Here and there, upon a higher bit of ground, large trees, lofty palms and red-roofed houses may be seen. Cane fields, patches of bananas and cultivated lands break the monotony of the all-pervading "bush" and now and again a "Dutchy" church steeple rises above an outlying village. At last the city comes into view and the traveler feels that by some magic spell he has been transported from South America to the shores of Holland, for squatting behind its dykes at the water side Paramaribo might well be a village on the Zuyder Zee were it not for the palm trees nodding above the roofs and the absence of great windmills. White, green-shuttered houses with steep, gabled roofs and projecting dormer windows line the streets and water front; typically Dutch church steeples stand clear cut against the deep blue sky and the Dutch flag floats from the masthead of many a steamer and sailing ship lying at the great iron and concrete docks.
Strange as it seems to find this bit of Holland dropped down amid tropical surroundings, it is stranger still to step ashore among the people. In vain one looks about for staid, stout Dutchmen, plump, fair-haired fraus and tow-headed youngsters. In their places are burly negroes, buxom negresses and brown pickaninnies, but despite the color of their skin all are Dutch as Dutch can be.
Their gabble and chatter is in Dutch, prices are quoted in guilders, Dutch names adorn street corners and store fronts, and "Yah, mynheer," is substituted for the customary and familiar "Yes, sah."
Even the costumes of the negro women are patterned after the dress of Holland—combined with the African's love of gaudy colors and slight variations made necessary by the climate—the result being both picturesque and remarkable.