THE BEGINNING OF THE RICE INDUSTRY
Rice cultivation in Guyana was introduced by the Dutch in the early eighteenth century. They brought seed for the crop from Carolina in North America and small fields were cultivated on the plantations in Essequibo. When the French briefly took control of Guyana in 1782, seed was imported from the French colony of Louisiana.
The Dutch plantation owners were importing rice, grown in southern Europe and in Carolina, for domestic consumption. The rice cultivated in Guyana was used mainly to supplement the diet of the slaves, and not too long after, some of the African slaves began cultivating small plots in their farming areas on the plantations. By the mid-eighteenth century, runaway slaves also subsisted partly on rice they planted in swampy clearings in inland areas where they were hiding.
As part of the effort to discourage slaves from escaping, plantation owners sent groups of their loyal slaves to locate and destroy the rice fields cultivated by the runaways. One report of 1810 told of a large field which was destroyed in the back lands of Mahaicony.
After Emancipation, there was an expansion of peasant farming as many of the Africans acquired their own lands. Some of them practised rice farming on a small scale, but they still continued to depend on other crops for their main source of food. Some attempts at large scale rice farming were not successful because of an irregular supply of irrigation water and poor knowledge of cultivation methods. One company which was formed in 1853 to cultivate rice on a large scale on the West Bank Demerara experienced these problems and was forced to close operations after a few years.
From around 1860 Indian immigrants on the West Coast Demerara who were experienced in rice farming began to cultivate the crop. By 1865 they had planted about 16 acres of rice but their efforts at first were not very successful also because of poor irrigation. But they persevered and more and more Indians in other parts of the country joined in the enterprise, even though it was still done on small plots. Around 1870 drought conditions led to a decline in acreage cultivated, and only in the Abary district on the West Coast Berbice rice farming continued unhindered.
Following improved weather conditions, there was an upsurge in cultivation mainly on the Essequibo coast where more and more Indians, who had completed their indenture, turned to rice farming. By 1886, over 200 acres of land in Anna Regina were under rice; by 1893, rice was cultivated on over 2,500 acres in different parts of the country. As more and more Indians acquired land, much of which were bought from African landowners and also from the Government, rice cultivation continued to expand. More than 7,500 acres of rice land existed by 1898; in 1920, the area under rice expanded to over 55,000 acres.
As rice production expanded, imports also gradually declined. Up to the mid-1890s nearly 19,000 tons were imported annually, but by 1900 this amount decreased to about 8,000 tons. This decline continued year after year, and in 1917 the final import of 70 tons was made.
But while imports were declining, Guyana had in the meantime commenced exporting rice to the West Indian islands. This export trade commenced in 1903 when five tons found a market in the West Indies; by 1917, over 14,000 tons were exported.