It is always difficult for a reviewer to critically assess a book that attempts to cover so wide a subject as the social, economic, political, constitutional and historical development of British Guiana in a little over two hundred pages. There is certain to be quite a bit of condensation of material and under-elaboration of ideas. The temptation is great to produce a book that merely chronicles events and gazettes information. Dr. Smith has managed to do a little more than this and to produce one of the most interesting broad assessments of Guiana.
The merits of the book are best assessed in terms of the criterion Dr. Smith set himself. “I am currently engaged upon the preparation of a more technical sociological analysis of the social structure of British Guiana and the present work is not intended to be a substitute for it, though it could perhaps be regarded as an interim report.” How far does the book meet the criterion implied in an interim report to a sociological treatise? Knowing Dr. Smith both personally and professionally I am well aware of the fact that he is a ‘socialist’. Not unnaturally the sections of the book dealing with social analysis tend to be the strongest. The book must however justify itself in terms of the ‘whole’ it claims to be.
The first chapter of the book deals with natural resources. The intention being presumably to convey a picture of the human and environmental endowments of British Guiana. What in fact it turns out to be is a mere description of the physical environment in terms of the traditional classification of the coastal zone, forest zone and savannahs. In addition, there is a brief description of rainfall and temperature and the numbers and racial composition of the population. I expected that a sociologist would have taken a more meaningful approach to the concept of resources in Guiana. The fact that resources are essentially cultural creations could have been emphasised and so on an analysis that showed the continual interaction of the physical environment and the cultural complex of Guiana could have been undertaken. It is certainly true that the physical environment is a matter of great importance in Guiana, but its importance can only be assessed in a cultural context. Guiana is a part of the tropical world. The primary geographical unit is the region that lies between the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon, the Rio Negro and the Orinoco. The fact that this region has a variety of settlement patterns is largely a cultural phenomenon.
A proper study of the ecological regions of Guiana requires a different conceptual approach. Guiana will have to be seen from the perspective of the tropical world. The problems of resource creation in the tropics would then have led to a serious analysis of the impact of geography and culture in Guiana. The whole settlement pattern of Guiana, the structure of villages, the pattern of crop cultivation and the effect of water-control problems on cultural attitudes can only be meaningfully understood through some such analysis. The extent to which geography determines, delimits the possible and the impossible, or ranks the probabilities of resource creation in Guiana has not even been cursorily looked at. The continuing routine of every book on British Guiana beginning with a catalogue of geographical features will have to give way to an approach of a new dimension. This would appear to be a task for geographers, but it need not be so.
The second chapter examines the period of early settlement and Dutch control. Here the historical approach does not rise above the level of a mere description of events and the listing of constitutional changes that took place at this time. Beginning with a section on pre-history, the author moves on to cover the problems of discovery and early settlement. The fact that Columbus sailed along the Guiana coast in 1498 and no serious settlement was attempted until the seventeenth is mentioned but not explained. Similarly the fact that Guiana was principally colonised by the ‘new’ imperialist powers, Britain, France and Holland as against the older imperialist powers, viz. the Portuguese and the Spanish, is not analysed for historical significance.
Failure to divert the trend of colonization from the North American colonies to El Dorado is an instructive comment on the importance of the Portuguese and Spanish in the region and the unattractive short run possibilities for trade existing in Guiana. Indeed, profitable contract between the European powers and the Guiana region could not for long be sustained by the exchange of native goods for European wares. Settlement became urgent and necessary. If it were not for the Dutch and their unique cultural abilities to deal with the problems of water-control in Guiana, it is difficult to be sure that the part of the region now known as British Guiana could have been successfully settled.