First issued in 1850, the early postage stamps of British Guyana are revered by enlightened collectors and include some of the rarest, most expensive stamps in the world. The unique British Guyana 1c magenta from 1856 is a fitting philatelist representation of a diminutive state with a heady history – one of slavery and sugarcane.
The one-time British colony, on the north coast of South America, was discovered by English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh but it was the Dutch who were first to settle here in the early 17th century, founding the colonies of Essequibo and Berbice, before adding Demerara decades later. In the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century (when the Dutch were occupied by the French) a British expeditionary force from the nearby colony of Barbados seized the trio of colonies from the French-dominated Batavian Republic. The colonies surrendered without a shot fired and in 1796 Britain took charge. The three colonies were officially ceded to the British in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 and in 1831 they became one united colony, taking the name British Guiana.
The London-based Booker Group company – today known for their support of the Man Booker Literary Prize – dominated the early days of the economy benefiting from a burgeoning sugarcane industry propped up by slave labour. An island of civil rights importance, British Guyana was the site of the Demerara rebellion of 1823. Involving more than 10,000 slaves, the uprising was quashed after only two days and lead to the death of up to 300 slaves as well as the sympathising English pastor, John Smith. Known as the ‘Demerara Martyr’, Smith became of great interest to anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, an instrument of the abolitionist cause and a figurehead for the ensuing Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
In the 1880s, falling sugarcane prices led to the growth of rice farming, mining and forestry but sugar remains a core facet of the country’s economy, accounting for nearly 50% of all exports, even today. On 26 May 1966, at midnight, British Guiana became the new nation of Guyana and started a brand new and illustrious chapter as an independent state.