In 1885 the Government appointed a Commission headed by the Attorney General, J. W. Carrington, to determine how a land settlement scheme could be established for Indians in compensation for their return passages to India. The Commission met with plantation owners, groups of Indians and other interested persons, and visited a number of places suitable for settlement. The Commission subsequently established a Return Passages Committee in September 1896 to obtain the sites and to select the settlers.
In 1896 Helena, an abandoned sugar plantation on the west bank of the Mahaica River, was purchased by the Government. It was then surveyed and divided into lots, and the old drainage canals were also cleared.
Distribution of house lots and cultivation plots to the selected settlers began in April 1897, and by the time this process was completed, 1,206 persons were in possession of land in the settlement. However, all the persons granted land in Helena did not move from their former places of residence to reside there. Some owned farms elsewhere and they had to sell those properties before they could move. In addition, many of them were employed on the on-going Demerara railway project for relatively good wages and were not ready to surrender their jobs to settle permanently at Helena. As a result, the settlement suffered from neglect.
The Carrington Commission felt that the settlers could not manage Helena without Government support. The Governor, Sir Walter Sundall, therefore, appointed Rev. James Cropper of the Canadian East Indian Mission as superintendent of Helena, and also of Whim, another Indian settlement which had started on the Corentyne.
Cropper was faced with numerous problems at Helena due to the fact that many of the new proprietors were not living there, and also because those who were occupying lands were very poor. The long drought of 1899 worsened their plight since their crops, particularly rice, suffered badly. Thus, the collection of rates for the maintenance of infrastructure was not an easy task.
The Whim settlement started in September 1898 when land for housing and cultivation was allocated to settlers. By March 1899, land was shared out to 574 persons.
Many of the persons granted land at this settlement previously resided at the nearby sugar estates of Port Mourant and Albion where they had jobs, mainly as cane cutters, when they were not working on their own lands. The long drought in 1899 forced many of them to abandon their plots and return to Port Mourant and Albion, but they gradually returned to Whim as the weather conditions improved. Some of them also experienced severe economic problems because they incurred heavy debts after borrowing from money lenders to finance the building of houses. It took some time before they could eventually pay off these debts.
The settlers cultivated mainly rice, but also planted coconuts, coffee and fruit trees. With their earnings from the sugar estates they were able to erect better houses than their counterparts at Helena.
Current expenditure to maintain the settlement was defrayed from rates collected from the new proprietors. However, progress was slower than expected and the Government decided not to expand the settlement.
A third settlement for Indians was established at Bush Lot in West Berbice. The area was an abandoned estate which was heavily indebted to the Government for rates, and the proprietor sold it to the Government for $1,200. Comprising of an area of 1,306 acres of which 463 acres were waste land, it was handed over to the Return Passage Committee in March 1897.
The early settlers of Bush Lot experienced the problems associated with the drought of 1899 and their rice crop was severely affected. Even though house lots and cultivation plots began to be distributed from 1899, it was not until February 1902 that Bush Lot was officially declared an Indian settlement. A sum of $40,000 acquired from the immigration fund was spent on laying out the settlement and the digging by shovel-men of a canal, over three miles long, to the Abary River to obtain water supply.
As at Helena and Whim, many of the persons granted lands, did not move to Bush Lot immediately and so the erection of dwelling houses progressed slowly for the first few years. Although land was allotted to 1,227 persons when the settlement began, only 394 were in occupation in 1904, and 632 by 1911.
To maintain the village, such as clearing drains and fixing the streets, residents were asked to give voluntary labour, but they were not cooperative and they refused to do so unless they were paid.
Maria's Pleasure on the island of Wakenaam started in 1902 when 168 lots were distributed. However, only 40 persons built homes and rice and coconuts were cultivated. But since most of the new land owners could not be found, not enough rates were collected.
In 1903, the immigration agent reported that some owners were using their house lots for cultivation purposes while their cultivation plots were left unoccupied. The following year the Government expressed dissatisfaction with the problems occurring in Maria's Pleasure and decided to place this settlement, as well as Bush Lot, Whim and Helena, under the control of the Board of Health. This was eventually done in March 1905.
In 1905, the Government abandoned the scheme to settle Indians in exchange for their return passages, and agreed instead to assist them in purchasing land. In 1912-13, the Government purchased the abandoned estates of Unity-Lancaster on East Coast Demerara from their owners and improved the drainage and irrigation canals. The land was then divided into one-acre plots which were sold for $20 each.
Around the same period Clonbrook, another abandoned estate just a mile to the west of Unity-Lancaster, was also purchased by the Government and divided into house lots and cultivation plots. Each house lot was sold for $30 while a cultivation plot cost $20.
On the West Coast Demerara, Windsor Forest and La Jalousie, with a combined area of 3,000 acres, was offered for rent at a rate of one dollar per acre for the first year, and six dollars for each subsequent year. The tenants had the option of purchasing the land by paying $8.50 per acre for 25 years. A nearby estate, Hague, was also leased out in lots and offered under similar terms.