THE START OF THE BAUXITE INDUSTRY
Up to the end of the nineteenth century the area around Mackenzie was sparsely populated. Settlement can be traced back to 1759 when a land survey was carried out for the establishment of a township which later became known as Three Friends. This township, settled some time after the survey, was named for three friends, Messrs. Spencer, Blount and John Dalgleish Patterson who settled there in the late eighteenth century. They were former naval officers who had fought against the French in the Caribbean during the Napoleonic War.
Patterson, a contractor for the Dutch colony of Essequibo-Demerara at the time, owned plantation Christianburg which was a choice place for retirement of British naval officers after 1803. At Three Friends, he built a great house which became a guest house for visitors of the early settlement. When Patterson died in 1842, the British Guiana Government took over his plantation and the great house was later used as a magistrate court. A portion of the plantation was later sold to Sproston's, a prominent company of the period. The company was interested in the establishment of a railway to Rockstone on the eastern bank of the Essequibo River where there were valuable resources in stone and timber. There it hoped to establish a stone quarry at Rockstone and to cut timber in the area.
Wismar, on the western bank of the Demerara River, was formed by the influx of immigrants from various European countries, mainly Germany. It became a larger settlement following emancipation when many former African slaves, who refused to work on the sugar plantations, migrated to live there. Some of the Germans who settled there were originally recruited by the British Guiana Government as part of an alternative labour supply for the sugar plantations, after most of the freed Africans refused to work there. The German settlers named the settlement Wismar after a German town of the same name.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, bauxite was discovered in Guyana in a belt stretching across the country from the North West District to the Corentyne River, with large deposits identified in the Pomeroon, the Essequibo around Bartica, Mackenzie, Ituni, Canje, and Orealla.
In 1913 a Scottish geologist, George Bain Mackenzie, visited the area about 60 miles up the Demerara River and bought lands for mining on the eastern bank of the Demerara River. According to some stories, he was able to purchase unoccupied lands at very cheap prices from the owners, because he claimed he would cultivate oranges there. Very few persons at that time knew about bauxite and its potential. In 1915 Mackenzie died and his lands passed into the control of Winthrop C. Nelson.
A paper presented in London in 1916 on the occurrence of bauxite in Guyana generated such interest in the USA that the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa) in the same year incorporated the Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA). Shortly after, DEMBA secured leases on large areas of bauxite-bearing land in the vicinity of the area purchased by Mackenzie.
In 1916 mining of bauxite commenced and hundreds of people from the coastal areas migrated there in search of employment. A settlement known as Cockatar, which grew up in the bauxite mining area, joined up with the Christianburg plantation and became known as Mackenzie. When a village administration was formed in 1918, Wismar, for local government purposes, was linked up to Mackenzie.
DEMBA started production at Akyma on the Demerara River, south of Mackenzie. In 1922 the operation was expanded and processing and shipping facilities were established at Mackenzie, the head of ocean navigation in the Demerara River. In 1929 Alcoa handed over the operations to its Canadian associate, Alcan, and production continued at a steady rate over the next decade, during which Guyana became the world's third largest bauxite producer after the USA and Surinam.
By 1922 the population of the Mackenzie area was less than one thousand persons. Employment was dependent on not only bauxite mining, but also the timber industry and some independent gold prospecting. The timber was located along the Essequibo River and transported by railway to the Demerara River.
A slump in the bauxite industry between 1930 and 1936 caused much hardship. Trade picked up just before 1939 and particularly during the World War of 1939-1945 when the demand for aluminium was high.
The Berbice Bauxite Company, a subsidiary of American Cyanamid, started production of chemical grade bauxite for the manufacture of alum at Kwakwani up the Berbice River in 1942. In 1943 DEMBA extended its operations to Ituni, about 35 miles south of Mackenzie, and by the end of the decade Guyana was the world's second largest producer, accounting for 17 percent of world production. With the expansion of mining, the working population grew and most of the workers settled permanently in the area.
Despite the high profits made by DEMBA during the early 1940s, the workers in the bauxite industry toiled under very harsh working conditions. In 1943, each working day was of 10 hours duration, and each worker had to work six days a week. By 1947 the working week was reduced to 48 hours.
The company did not support the formation of trade unions, but members of the BG Labour Union from Georgetown were able to recruit bauxite workers as members during meetings at Wismar, away from the mining district. The union also helped them to organise a strike in 1944 for better working conditions. But the strike collapsed after just three days, and the workers were unable to win any concessions from the bauxite company.
In 1952 Reynolds Metals acquired the Berbice Bauxite Company and started production of metallurgical bauxite at Kwakwani where a small settlement of workers developed. At around the same time DEMBA expanded production of refractory grade and abrasive grade bauxite at Mackenzie, making Guyana the world's most diversified bauxite producer. In 1956 DEMBA started construction of the alumina refinery which began production in 1961.
Most of British Guiana's bauxite was shipped as raw ore to the parent companies' plants in Canada and the United States, but a small proportion was calcined. With the opening of the alumina plant, a quantity of alumina was extracted and exported. The royalties and export duties paid to the Government were extremely low, being 25 and 45 cents per long ton respectively.
For the workers, the company established facilities which provided for workers' accommodation, education, health, and recreation. But these amenities were somewhat diminished by the existence of a virtual colour bar between the mainly White expatriate supervisory staff and the Guyanese workers.
The scale of operations grew considerably over the years, with a rapid increase during the Second World War. By 1957 production totalled 2,200,000 tons. Most of this was produced by DEMBA from its mines at Mackenzie.
Although several companies had concessions and exploration licences, the only other company producing bauxite was the Reynolds Metals Company operating at Kwakwani, where production reached 225,023 long tons in 1957. In 1958-59 production by both companies dropped to 1,675,000 tons because of the United States recession and a local strike.