THE BEGINNING OF THE GOLD INDUSTRY
Between 1849 and 1857 reports of gold discoveries in Essequibo were circulating in Guyana. Then in 1860 the Superintendent of Rivers and Creeks declared that gold could be found on the beds of some rivers in Essequibo. No too long after, the owner of a Georgetown jewellery establishment, B. V. Abraham received permission from the Government to prospect for gold in the Cuyuni River. Abraham set up machinery at Waririe on the right bank of Cuyuni and managed to gather small quantities of gold, but the gold company which he established with a capital of $75,000, could not maintain itself since only small quantities being found. Mining operations were halted and Abraham, on behalf of the company, asked the Court of Policy for financial relief claiming that over $65,000 was spent without obtaining any profit. This request was refused.
Abraham was convinced that gold existed in large quantities but more capital investment was necessary. He travelled to England to convince business persons there to subscribe capital to his company so that he could continue the mining operations. However, investors in England were discouraged by the report of the geologists Brown and Sawkins, who stated that Guyana was unlikely to produce large quantities of gold. Further, the British Government at that period declared that there should be no mining in the area where gold was found region because it had an agreement with Venezuela that due to existing territorial claims, neither country should occupy it.
Abraham returned to Guyana where he established a business association with D'Amil, a Portuguese wood-cutter, and they secretly mined for gold and both men became very wealthy.
In 1863 a quartz crushing operation was started in the Cuyuni, but the low quantity of gold obtained forced it to close down.
In 1879, after information circulated that gold was found in other parts of Essequibo, many individuals left the coastal region and became independent gold miners in various tributaries of the Essequibo River. In October of the same year, one African gold miner, Jules Caman, using a place-washing system, found relatively large quantities in the Akaiwanna Creek and the Konawaruk Creek, two of the smaller tributaries of the Essequibo River. Gold was also found in areas near the source of the Demerara River.
The Venezuelan claim to most of Essequibo at first hampered the development of the gold industry in that area. As late as March 1887, the Officer Administering the Government (or acting Governor) of British Guiana, Charles Bruce, issued a public notice that licences issued for gold mining were subject to a subsequent settlement of the border dispute with Venezuela. This notice did not help at all to encourage investors interested in gold mining.
This state of affairs changed in 1889 when the new Governor Viscount Gormanston announced in the Combined Court that the British Government would no longer recognise any Venezuelan claim east of the Schomburgk Line. He declared also that the territory near the Orinoco, where gold was also found, would become a separate administrative area know as the North West District.
The dismissal of the Venezuelan claim encouraged gold miners to rush back to the Essequibo region, particularly to the Potaro where large gold discoveries were made. The Essequibo Gold Mining Company was established and it operated mainly in the Potaro River area where it made rich finds and earned large profits for its investors.
Gold mining had a serious effect on labour on the coastal areas especially in the sugar industry. This was because many of the male African workers departed for the gold fields with the hope of earning quick riches. In an effort to stem the drain of labour, the Government in 1880 imposed a royalty on would-be gold miners of 2 percent. But this did not halt the flow especially since sugar was fetching a low price in Europe. Earnings were never sufficient and hundreds of African men in the villages found great difficulty in finding employment in the estates and in the towns. Gold mining became a lure for these men and they singly or on groups departed for the interior districts in search of gold. Most of these miners operated independently or in small partnerships as soon as they staked mining claims in the interior areas where they "panned" for gold in the rivers. Since much of their diet consisted of salted pork, they began to be referred to as "pork-knockers". The settlement of Bartica, the gateway to the interior, became a busy service centre, growing rapidly in size and officially becoming a township in 1887.
As gold production grew, the sugar estates continued to face a serious threat of losing many of its skilled workers. The Government in 1896 published its Mining Regulations which placed a number of demands on gold miners, possibly with an intention of discouraging them from moving to the gold fields. Prospectors, in addition to the royalty they had to pay, now had to fill out lengthy forms to obtain licences for which fees were charged. In addition, they had to submit themselves to a body search when they were departing from the gold fields. Nevertheless, these actions did not deter more and more persons from becoming gold miners, some of whom branched out into digging up the gravel banks of the river to search for diamonds after those gems were discovered in Mazaruni.