by Peter Halder
The year 1913 was propitious for British Guiana.
Sir Walter Egerton was the British Governor.
For the first time, the head of the British Sovereign appeared on British Guiana Postage Stamps.
The first map showing the Corentyne River as the boundary between British Guiana and Dutch Guiana (Suriname) was published.
The population of the colony reached some 300,000 and the population of Georgetown was 58,000. The Amerindian population was 13,000. Sugar, known as Demerara Crystal, continued to be the major export.
But the year was also one of mystery. In that year alone, there were two major, mysterious fires in Georgetown. On March 7, the Brickdam Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the premier Catholic Church in the colony was burnt to the ground. At the time, the Cathedral was highly regarded for its structural beauty and fine edifice. There were two versions about the cause of the fire.
One was that a plumber was using a blowtorch near the top of the great tower of the Church when something went wrong and the building went up in flames.
Another version was that a workman, a Frenchman named Bencher Cornelle, innocently left a coalpot burning in the tower while repairing it and the result was an inferno.
The fire was a great shock to the people of Georgetown since the Cathedral was regarded as a national landmark. It was also the main place of worship for Catholics. The Church was packed to capacity on Sundays.
The other fire occurred in December at a time when the people were deeply engaged in preparations for the Christmas Season. On Monday, December 22, just three days before Christmas, at around 8.25 a.m., there was a loud and violent explosion in the western section of Georgetown. The thunderous and deafening noise, so it was related, was heard not only in the Capital but on the East Coast, East Bank and West Bank Demarara.
The explosion took place at Chin-A-Yong’s shop on Lombard Street. There, according to reports, fireworks were being manufactured in a vault. The “little bombs” were a delight for little boys to throw around on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The explosion blew Chin-A-Yong’s business place sky high and was followed by a massive conflagration. It also killed 20 persons and injured many others. The raging fire also almost destroyed all of Lombard Street. A swift breeze from the northeast turned the raging fire into an inferno. News reports stated that valiant work was done by the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Artillery, the Militia and Volunteers, but their efforts were retarded by low water pressure. By the time the fire had vented its rage, Bugle Sawmill was no more. Psaila’s Store, Hope Sawmill, Bugle Building, Bettencourt’s Sawmill and the Demarara Company warehouse with 67,000 bags of sugar were all burnt.
Several days after, when the Police and Fire Brigade inspected what was left of Chin-A-Yong’s place of business, they found a secret underground cellar. The authorities believed it was an opium den. Opium smoking was a serious problem in British Guiana at that time.
The year 1913 turned out to be propitious, mysterious and maybe just another instance of misfortune for the unlucky number 13.
For further reading you can access an online version of “The British Guiana handbook, 1913” edited by Alleyne Leechman just by clicking.