The Cent Bread Riots

Close this window to return to the main menu

Previous Chapter        Next Chapter

Ever since the anti-Portuguese riots of 1856, bad feelings continued to exist between Africans and Portuguese. Both groups held prejudices against each other, and there were constant accusations that the Portuguese businessmen failed to deal fairly with the "lower class" Africans. Africans also made accusations that Portuguese who committed criminal acts against Africans were punished less severely than Africans who committed crimes against Portuguese. An incident of a Portuguese man being reprieved for killing his African reputed wife intensified these feelings particularly when not too long before an African man was hanged for the murder of his Portuguese wife.

On the 19 March 1889, a fourteen-year-old African boy surnamed Nurse went to Portuguese shop in Stabroek Market to purchase a small loaf of bread which cost one cent. After he paid for it, he took another larger loaf valued two cents and attempted to leave the shop. Vieira, the Portuguese shopkeeper, attempted to stop him, and in an argument that ensued, he struck the boy with a stick.

Vieira was promptly arrested by the market constables who took him to the nearby police station where he was quickly released, but he was shortly after re-arrested and held in custody. The boy was also taken to the police station and then to the Colonial Hospital where he was admitted.

While all this was happening, a rumour circulated that a Portuguese man had killed an African boy and that the police had been instructed to release the man.

Within a short while a full scale riot broke out and groups of Africans attacked Portuguese shops and people of Portuguese descent in the Stabroek Market. After police cleared the market, the rioters, comprising mainly of women and youths from the poorer sections of Georgetown, ran through the city stoning the houses owned by Portuguese and attacking people on the streets. Portuguese shops were broken into and looted, and Portuguese citizens were pulled out from tram cars and beaten.

The Sheriff of Georgetown, Henry Kirke, on command from Governor Gormanston, organised the police, and 100 special constables, armed only with batons, were ordered to protect the city from the mob. But they were unable to do so since the mob attacked them with knives, sticks and bottles and stones, and many of the peacekeepers were injured.

The rioters set fire to houses and shops in Alberttown, Charlestown and Albouystown where heavy looting also occurred. During the night, the rioters in groups of about fifty to a hundred moved through the city streets and attacked houses and business places.

Early on the morning of the 20 March, Kirke asked the British Guiana Volunteer Force for assistance. The Force of 42 men tried to contain the rioters but within two hours of daybreak 31 of them had received injuries. The Governor ordered the Volunteer Force to open fire on the rioters, but this did not happen as the rioters decided not to confront the guns and moved away to other areas of the city to carry on their marauding.

Some of the rioters attempted to spread disorder in the rural areas but they did not succeed. Portuguese shops at Meadow Bank, Agricola and Peter's Hall on the East Bank Demerara were attacked, but Africans in those villages helped to defend those businesses and chase away the troublemakers.

By late afternoon, the police and Volunteer Force managed to disperse the mobs and take back control of the city. By that time there was substantial damage to property later assessed at over $39,000. One person was killed; he was a Barbadian of African descent who was stabbed by a rioter while he was helping a Portuguese friend defend his shop. Actually, throughout the rioting, many Africans came out to protect Portuguese from the mob.

Over 230 persons were arrested and charged. Most were found guilty in the magistrate court and sentenced to two months hard labour. The Portuguese shopkeeper, whose act of beating the African boy instigated the riots, was also sentenced to two months imprisonment.

As an aftermath, the Government paid compensation amounting to $39,452 to the Portuguese who suffered damage to their property.