When Great Britain finally took possession of Guyana in 1814 its plan was to give the colony a stable form of government in order to create a favourable business climate for British investors. It was with this objective in mind that a form of Crown Colony government was set up after 1838. After this system of government was established, only the White planter class continued to be represented in the various legislative institutions. The African ex-slaves who formed the great majority of the population had no voting rights. As a result, the Governor, appointed by the British Government, took upon himself the authority to represent their interests, but on most occasions, he tended to support the positions taken by the planters.
In reality, the government was not patterned exactly as that of other Crown Colonies in the Caribbean. In addition, it was not fully representative of all sectors of the population. It was made up of a Court of Policy, a College of Financial Representatives and a Combined Court.
The Court of Policy comprised of an equal number of "elected" members and non-elected official members appointed by the Governor. The Governor, as President of this branch of the government, could use his casting vote and join with the official members to outvote the elected representatives.
The College of Financial Representatives was made up of members who were directly elected by the very limited White electorate. In the Combined Court, the elected members outnumbered the Governor and the nominated official members since it was made up of all members of the Court of Policy and the College of Financial Representatives meeting together.
According to this constitution under which this form of government existed, the Court of Policy had no control over financial matters and the Combined Court, which dealt mainly with financial matters, had no powers to determine government policies.
The elected members of the Court of Policy did not hold their seats for a fixed number of years, but vacancies would arise through resignation or death. When a vacancy arose, the planters' political body, the College of Keizers, would meet to nominate two candidates, one of whom would be elected by the members of the Court of Policy. (The members of the College of Keizers were elected by the planters and retained their positions for life, unless they resigned or left the colony permanently).
While the planters were satisfied with this constitution, the merchants and other members of the business community objected to it because they felt that the College of Keizers should not be given exclusive powers to select candidates for the Court of Policy. The business community wanted this College to be abolished and that there should be periodic elections in which the members of the Court of Policy would be chosen by direct vote of the limited electorate.
The merchants also objected to the qualification required for election to the Court of Policy. An eligible candidate had to own at least 80 acres of land of which 40 acres must be under cultivation, or a house valued more than $5,000 above any existing mortgage; or for those who owned no house or land, an annual rental of such property which was not less than $1,200. While the poorest planters possessed these qualifications, few merchants possessed them even though they had a great amount in liquid cash.
Due to these existing differences, a political movement known as the Reform Association was founded. Its members were mainly merchants and a number of Congregational ministers, including Rev. Edwin Angel Wallbridge who arrived in Guyana in 1842. Some planters who were dissatisfied with the College of Keizers were also among the membership. One of the Association's chief organisers was John Emery, the editor of the newspaper, Guiana Times. Public meetings by the Association during May 1838 in Berbice and in Georgetown called for constitutional reform which included the expansion of the franchise. The Georgetown meeting was attended by large numbers of free and "apprenticed" Africans from the East Coast Demerara.
The Reform Association continued its agitation throughout the 1840s and it gathered more and more support from the new group of property-owning Africans. In October 1845 it decided to petition Queen Victoria to abolish the semi-official College of Keizers and for the expansion of the electorate by lowering of the property and financial qualifications.
It was not until 1849 that the colonial authorities agreed to some reform when they decided to expand the electoral roll which allowed a small proportion of Africans to become voters. A person now qualified to be a voter if he earned $60 per month or paid taxes amounting to $24. In those days, these sums were very high and few Africans could show these amounts of liquid cash. Therefore, these qualifications kept out hundreds of Africans who had the worth in homes or land, but did not earn that amount of money or paid this amount in taxes.
The new electoral roll included only 621 persons; there would have been more but many Africans who qualified did not register because they felt it was a plan by the Government to impose new taxes. In addition, a large proportion of the qualified Africans were female, but they could not register as voters because women were not granted the franchise. By 1850, an increasing number of qualified Africans decided to register as voters, and this increased the roll to 916.
No other constitutional reform took place in ensuing years until 1891 when the colonial authorities decided to abolish the College of Keizers and to allow periodic elections to the Court of Policy. A decision was also taken to add three elected and three non-elected official members to this body. Candidates for election had to possess land or immovable property valued at not less than $1,500, while a person who earned at least $40 a month qualified to vote. The constitutional reform also included the creation of an Executive Council to assist the Governor in day to day administration of the government.