My return to Georgetown, secondary schooling, and work (1929)

I was 13 going on 14 years, and the country school had given me all it could offer. My uncle, my half sister, and my father, on one of his infrequent visits to us, decided that I should leave H.M.P.S. and be sent to live in Georgetown in the interest of furthering my education. It was agreed that I would live at the home of Mrs. Mary E. Mordle, who was then a partner of my father in his latest diamond venture.  The company which they formed was called “Roraima Mining Syndicate".

Once more I had to make another adjustment in my life style. During the last five years I lived in the country in a little apartment among rustic surroundings and really poor people. At Mary Mordle, I resided in a large three-storied house set in a big yard. It was located in Broad Street, near to the corner of Russell Street, which was a continuation of Camp Street. The Electric tram-car ran along Broad Street turning into Russell Street and just in front of the house was a line loop, by which trains going one way could pass others going in the opposite direction.

Mary Mordle was the owner of several wood grants on the bank of the Demerara river, one of which I remember was called “Waratilla”. Ton wood was cut on these grants, brought down the river in flat bottomed punts or barges to Georgetown, and sold to various purchasers like Sprostons and the Electric Company for firing the boilers on ships and turbines etc. She was a hard-boiled business woman, and I will here try to give a reasonable word picture of her. She was a locally born white, tall, about 50 years old, heavily built, and a widow. Her mode of getting around to conduct her business at banks, wharves, unloading places used by her punts and so on, was by the use of horse-drawn cabs.

There was a conveniently located horse and cab stable just around the corner owned by the Toolsie family, and Mary Mordle made constant use of it. Having to control a very crude lot of employees, she adopted a tough attitude, dressing in a rough and ready way, and she invariably wore boots and a broad-rimmed Panama hat. For a woman, she drank too much, and at times successfully to argue and control her workmen, she had to be quite abrasive. I shared a room on the top floor with her grandson, Arthur Fey, who was about five or six years my senior. There was just the three of us living in this huge house.

Shortly after arriving in Georgetown from M.I.P.S. my father tried to enrol me at Queen’s College, but I could not pass the entrance exam, since for my age group, I was expected to know a little Latin, French & Algebra, but of course I was never taught any of these subjects. As a result, I became a pupil of St. Joseph’s Intermediate School, popularly known as Blackman’s School. I spent about six months at this school and learnt very little. It was all play at Blackman’s and, looking back at those days, the classes were far too large for the teaching staff to cope with. I therefore terminated my attendance there, and joined the roll at the Collegiate School with E.B. Hazlewood as headmaster. This was a much smaller school and not nearly as pretentious as Blackman s.

At about the same time, I changed my residence from Mary Mordle’s in Broad Street, to the Applewaithes in Durban Street. Both Johnny and Milly Applewaithe were friends of my parents. As a matter of fact, Milly was once a protégée of my mother’s in the more halcyon days before I was born.

They were indeed happy for me to come and live with them. Now that I was somewhat more stabilized - in a more tranquil home, and at a reasonable school, I earnestly pitched into my schoolwork, and in the two and a half years I attended the Collegiate school, I gathered as much knowledge as I could, taking and passing two Oxford & Cambridge Overseas exams,and one College of Preceptors (Jnr.) obtaining honours in the last one.

Shortly after this, however, my father died in the Interior, and there was no alternative for me except to find a job. I was not yet eighteen. After a couple of disappointments, I was finally employed by Bookers as a pharmacy apprentice in their drug department. This was about 1924. By dint of hard work, long hours and low wages, I was finally given the supervision of a small branch shop in the north-eastern corner of the Stabroek market. Up to this point in my working career, I had studied for, and taken the intermediate examination for Chemists & Druggists which I passed fairly easily. I distinctly recall taking the practical part of this exam at Brodie & Rainer’s Pharmacy with F.I. Larrouy as examiner. He gave me a lousy mixture to make containing Gallic acid; I suppose he was testing me to see if I would suspend the acid, but I certainly let it fall to the bottom of the bottle as a precipitate, and put on an “extra shake” label!

By this time I had attained my majority, and in the course of attending various social events - dances, parties etc; I met a charming girl, Emma Pendleton, who some years later, was to become my wife. No doubt it was because of this possibility, and also the opportunity to earn twice the wages Bookers paid, that I decided to quit my firm in 1929 and accept a job with Victor Hill, a friend of mine, who was the general manager of a diamond buying company called “The New Diamond Venture Co.” This company comprised a chain of five shops situated on the upper reaches of the Mazaruni river. They were stocked with every kind of merchandise one could think of - food, hardware, clothing, tobacco and alcohol etc. Apart from the salesmen, each had a diamond buyer who was in reality the manager.

Shops were located within reasonable access of areas where diamond prospectors were operating, and the function of the shop was to buy the diamonds from the prospectors, paying for the gems both in cash and or supplies. As a result, shops were important supply depots which enabled diamond seekers to be constantly supplied with all their requirements for continuing to work. When one realizes that this up-river region was 150-200 miles from the nearest town where supplies could be had, these depots or shops scattered in the diamond and gold working areas of the interior were absolutely indispensable.There were certainly no roads, the only access being via the river.

My friend Victor Hill trained me to buy diamonds, (uncut, of course) and I was put in charge as buyer at the Oranapai shop. The other four shops were at “Eping”, “Perenong”, “Sands” and eleven miles “Backdam”. To take up my appointment, I had to travel to Bartica, which is a little town on the Essequibo River, and from which point all the river craft left for the diamond fields.

The journey to Oranapai, the location of my shop, took about one week, and although the large open boat we travelled in had an inboard motor, it had to travel almost constantly against the stream.  The trip up river was very eventful. It was fascinating to ride on the very bosom of one of the great waterways of British Guiana, and the thrill of running the numerous rapids, unloading and reloading the boat at impassable waterfalls with full cargo, and stopping at nights at various rough camps by the riverside; cooking meals campfire style; listening to (and finally falling asleep in a hammock slung between two trees in the open) the strange jungle sounds of croaking frogs, distant howling baboons, and all the eerie noises which emanate from a tropical forest at nightfall.

This journey of approximately seven days along the upper reaches of the mighty Mazaruni, followed six months later by a three day return trip home was epic, if primitive. Although, since then, I have driven over the Brenner Pass on my way from Belgium into Venice, and also completely around the Volcanic island of Hawaii, I would yet say that my jungle river trip in British Guiana was the most exhilarating of all my various travels. A couple of experiences which I must relate occurred on this first up-river journey to the diamond fields. - We had come to a certain point on the river, then about a quarter of a mile wide, when ahead of us, we could see that the surface of the water was very turbulent. The captain announced that we were approaching one of the major waterfalls. He called it “Trutruba”. It was not the usual type of cataract where water cascades from a higher level, but instead, it represented a wide foaming turbulence which stretched across the entire navigable width of the river. As the craft entered the “falls” it trembled and rocked violently, and this continued for several minutes until the area was passed. To speed the boat past this danger point, the crew of about eight had to use large paddles, so as to assist the motor which normally furnished the driving power.

Then there was the famous portage, “Caburi Rock” which virtually traversed the river at one point.

Here, all cargo had to be unloaded at one end of the “Rock”. The boat was then guided onto a rail-track built on the rocky surface which extended for about a hundred yards. Everybody joined in hauling the empty craft over the rail until we got it back onto the river surface at the top end of the portage, where it was reloaded, and the trip continued. To me, it was a most fascinating experience. Only then could I realize what a terrific hold this type of life must have had on my father. Another great and stirring adventure on this trip occurred on about the sixth day.

Our boat had reached what was described as the “Still Water”. Here the river was wide and the surface still and almost glass-like. Suddenly, one of the men shouted that something or someone was swimming ahead of us, somewhere between our boat and the left bank of the river. It was quickly decided that it must be a deer, and as only part of the head was visible above the water, it could well have been so. With the prospect of having roast venison for dinner, the boat was headed for the swimming object. As we got closer however, it did not seem to bear the true resemblance of a deer, and as we closed in on our prey, what we had thought was a harmless and very edible animal, turned out to be a full-grown and fierce-looking tiger. Consternation reigned, and at this point everyone who was on the side of the boat nearest to the approaching tiger rushed over to the far side, and, as a result this fully laden craft almost sank. I was the only person on board with a gun, so I picked it up, aimed at the tiger, pulled the trigger - nothing happened - the ammunition was probably cold from exposure to water spray on our journey up river. By this time, the tiger was up to the side of the boat and was trying to get its front paws on the gunwale, which indeed would have been fatal as the boat would have capsized.

The captain and bowman (mate) attacked the tiger with heavy steering paddles, chopping it with the sharp edges. Were it not for the fact that the tiger was in the water and had nothing solid to brace on, there would have been a few mauled bodies among us. The animal was finally overcome, partly by drowning, and we tied it up and towed it along behind the boat. The next day we arrived at Kamakusa, the government station near to Oranapai, and gave the dead tiger to the wireless officer there. A tiger’s skin, properly cured, complete with head, teeth and claws is quite a trophy. This was indeed a most impressive initiation into the life of the Hinterland of British Guiana.

I spent about six months at Oranapai at the depot to which I was assigned, and was quite successful in my job of buying diamonds. There was one occasion when I was fooled into buying a piece of glass, about two carats in weight, which the seller cunningly mixed up in a “parcel” of real diamonds brought in for me to price and buy. The error cost us quite a bit of money, but mistakes like these sometimes occur, and compensation was usually made by carefully under-pricing future “parcels”.

At the end of six months with the New Diamond Ventura Company, Victor Hill and I transferred our affections to a larger company which operated in the same area. This was the Bartica Company Ltd. An Austrian named Einhorn was the general manager, Victor was the head buyer, and I was a junior buyer. My base shop was now at Tumereng, on a high hill overlooking the mouth of the Eping creek.

I really enjoyed the five months I spent there. It was not only more conveniently located, but we had certain luxuries for this isolated part of the country, such as a refrigerator, fresh milk and fruit.

It was while stationed at this shop that I saw the largest diamond I had ever seen. It was thirty two carats in weight, but the colour was not white, it was “Cape”. In diamond buyers parlance, “Cape” was a colour of the faintest yellow, and this type of stone was one, when cut and polished, that only a person like an Arabian potentate would buy. This gem was purchased by our crack buyer, Victor Hill, from a group of prospectors who came to my shop.

Between my two diamond buying jobs, I had taken a months holiday in Georgetown and Emma, my girl-friend and I, became engaged. We planned, before I returned to the interior after my short vacation, that in another six months or so, I would give up the job, then we would get married, go to Canada, and start life afresh there.

We made contact with a pharmacist friend over there, Robert King, and he had agreed to place me in a job at his pharmacy in Ontario. I also made arrangements with immigration and shipping to sail by Lady Boat in about six months time. The Lady boats were a fleet of comfortable passenger shims which did a fortnightly run to Canada.

Lady Hawkins

As a result of these plans, when I accepted the job with the Bartica Co. Ltd. it was with the distinct intention of working for just a short while, so as to accumulate as much money from my wages, then quit, and carry out our pre-arranged plan. After spending about five months with my new company, I therefore resigned and proceeded back to Georgetown.

On the way down river, it only took three days going all the way with the tide, our daredevil captain told us that he was going to take a short cut to Bartica by running a series of prohibited waterfalls. The name of this series of rapids was “Pyremap”.

Although using this route was forbidden by law, many of the more expert boat captains took it since it saved nearly a days travel. It avoided going a long way around a great bend of the river, by cutting through a narrow and torturous boulder strewn gorge, where the water rushed, frothy and violent, at incredible speed. The boat had to be prepared for this daring ride, and some time before we reached Pyremap, the awning was taken down, and all our baggage and other impedimenta repacked in the bottom of the craft, and carefully covered with a tarpaulin.

As we approached the rapids, everyone was ordered to keep low in the boat, leaving the steering and bow manipulation solely to the captain, bowman, and another steersman. The motor was shut off…. Without much warning we were suddenly caught in a maelstrom of conflicting currents, with the captain and his assistants hanging on to their huge paddles, each of which was nearly twice the size of a man. Standing at the bow of the boat was the bowman, with a similar large paddle, deflecting the craft from giant boulders embedded in the shallows; expertly changing his position from one side of the bow to the other. We were almost aghast when our boat seemed headed straight for a great jagged rock, and the captain appeared to have pointed us precisely at it.

At no more than a few feet away, a powerful cross-current swept us clear off the rock, and we breathed freely again. The captain obviously knew of this particular feature and acted accordingly. He afterwards told us that if he had not pointed the craft to what looked like imminent disaster, the cross-current would have dashed us against another boulder on the opposite side. As a result of this daring manoeuvre we arrived at Bartica well ahead of time and were thus able to catch an earlier steamer to Georgetown. I could hardly have had a more fitting climax to my eleven months of experience in the hinterland of British Guiana.

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