Through British Guiana to the Summit of Roraima
Mrs. Cecil Clementi
Library of Alexandria
British Guiana, as first seen from the shoal-water near the Demerara lightship, is a mournful and monotonous picture. Mud flats, fringed with courida and mangrove, stretch endlessly along the shore. Never a hill is to be seen. The coastal flats are four feet below the level of high spring tides, and the Atlantic slops over the sea dams in yellow waves of muddy water. The wide expanses of rich sugar-fields and smiling rice lands begin about a mile from the seaside and stretch “aback” to the “wet savannahs,” by means of which they are irrigated. These wet savannahs are vast natural swamps converted artificially into shallow lakes by “stopping off” their seaward outlets. South of them spreads “the bush,” that great primeval forest so hostile to man, but sheltering in its mysterious recesses a million varieties of insects, a multitude of beasts and reptiles, and a wealth of bird life unequalled, perhaps, in any other part of the world. Little, however, does the average colonist or the chance visitor to British Guiana see of the wonder and beauty of South America. The forest builds an impenetrable barrier, keeping him a close prisoner upon seaside mud flats, which are in the main a dreary waste of uncultivated land. Lack of labour renders it impossible for more than a small fraction even of the coastal fringe to be made to yield its increase. A land the size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined; a population equal to that of Hertfordshire, and a cultivated area less than one-fifth the size of Kent; a land for the greater part unknown and unsurveyed, whose only roads extend along the seaboard and for a few miles up the banks of its main rivers—such is British Guiana, ever since the close of the Napoleonic Wars a possession of the British Crown, the only one in South America, and rich in unexplored possibilities. But the colonists of British Guiana have never made any serious attempt to investigate the interior of their heritage. Their revenue has always been spent upon coastal development; and a conviction exists that the interior is not only a death-trap, but also a wilderness of useless jungle and sandy deserts. Many attempts were made to dissuade me from venturing into it with my husband, and I was assured that I was risking my health—nay, my life. But the call of the wild was too strong, and I shall always be glad that I decided to go; for the fact that a woman has traversed these forests and the highland prairies beyond during many strenuous weeks and came back with health and vigour renewed may perhaps dispel the legends accumulated about the horrors of “the bush,” and induce people to investigate for themselves the charms and opportunities of this neglected land, or at least to travel with us in spirit into those great expanses of sleeping Nature which await the day of man’s occupation. British Guiana lies, like the princess of the fairy-tale, in an enchanted sleep. One day, surely, the fairy prince will come, mounted upon an iron horse, and bid her awake!