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Before the beginning of the nineteenth century there were not many people in Guyana who could read and write, and these included almost all the African slaves. Those who had some form of education included planters, merchants, government officials and some free persons of African descent. During the period of Dutch colonisation, small schools were established by the planters to educate their young children, who, when they grew older, were sent away to Europe to continue their education.

From the early days of colonisation, the planters objected to the education of the slaves. Even attempts to expose them to Christian teachings faced the wrath of the planters.

By 1800 there existed a few small private schools which catered for the children of the White planters and the government officials. One such school was established in 1808 by Hermanus Post, the Dutch owner of Plantation Resouvenir, in one of his buildings in Georgetown. He hired the first teachers of this school which was attended, not only by children of the planters and government officials, but also by the children of soldiers, free Africans and "Government slaves". In many cases, the free Africans were mulatto children of plantation owners. As the school attendance grew, Post appealed to the London Missionary Society for assistance and the Rev. John Davies arrived in January 1809 to run the school which by that time had about 40 pupils. They were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and Christian knowledge daily.

The school building was also used as a church which drew a congregation of over 300, including many slaves. Rev. Davies preached to this gathering three times a week and also taught some of its members to read parts of the Bible.

On Plantation La Ressouvenir, Rev. John Wray had arrived in 1808 to preach to slaves at a chapel Hermanus Post built. He also taught some slaves to read parts of the Bible and to write. The slaves who learned to read then taught their companions to do so.

Mrs. Wray was also involved in the educating the children of the "upper class" in Demerara, and later in Berbice, after her husband was transferred there. She received payments from the planters and was able to send her two daughters to England to boarding school. Later they returned to Guyana to take charge of Mrs. Wray's school.

While stationed in Berbice, Rev. Wray established a school in New Amsterdam. This school had between 40 to 50 pupils, most of whom were free coloured children who approached their studies seriously. However, Rev. Wray faced difficulties caused by a group of Whites who opposed the attendance of non-Whites at the school. Nevertheless, he carried on his work and by 1813, this school had 80 pupils, including children of slaves.

Meanwhile, the churches organised by the London Missionary Society were teaching some adult slaves to read the Bible, and by 1814 five deacons from among the slave population were ordained.

After the East Coast Demerara slave insurrection (in 1823) which saw the condemnation of Rev. John Smith allegedly for supporting the slaves, the White plantation owners of Essequibo-Demerara called for the banning of missionaries from the Colony. Rev. Smith had taught some slaves to read and write during the period he served as a missionary. He faced strong opposition even from Governor Murray who had threatened to expel him from the Colony if he attempted to teach Africans to read.

The London Missionary Society reported in 1836 that a free African, Thomas Lewis, who was educated in England, was keeping a school at Union Chapel in New Amsterdam. Lewis was formerly a Muslim known as Toby who could read the Arabic text of the Koran.

In February 1837, an institution known as "The Berbice School" was set up in New Amsterdam. It was run by Mr. and Mrs. Parish who came from London. Mr. Parish died within five months of this arrival, but the school continued for some time.

In the same year the Anglican Church established a school in New Amsterdam, and within a year, four more were set up in different parts of Berbice.

During the same period two Anglican boarding schools for Amerindian boys and girls began operating in Bartica. When the missionary left the area in 1845 due to ill health, there were 56 boys and 35 girls attending these schools.

Between 1824 and 1839 many school buildings were erected chiefly by the Anglicans, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, Presbyterians, Methodists and the London Missionary Society. By 1841, there were 101 primary schools which were attended by a sizeable proportion of African children. This expansion was encouraged by the British Government, particularly in the period before Emancipation, because it saw the necessity of educating Africans to meet the demands of the civil service and other employment areas following the granting of their freedom.

In addition to these schools, there were "private schools" which were maintained through funding from religious denominations, private individuals, estates, and, from 1830, the Government. Additional funding from the Government was made through the Negro Education Grant which was channelled mainly to the Anglican Church.