Map of Guiana by Theodor de Bry from part VIII of the Great, or American, Voyages, which reprints the accounts of Raleigh, Drake, and Cavendish. Frankfurt, 1599. Courtesy of Arader Galleries

El Dorado

Had Christopher Columbus heard of El Dorado when he sailed along the northeast shoulder of South America during his third voyage to the New World, he might have made landfall at Guyana rather than at the Paria Peninsula. And for three centuries after Columbus’s 1498 close encounter, explorers and adventurers from many nations did search for this fabled “Lost City of Gold,” which they also called Manõa.

Spanish conquistadores were the first to mount expeditions to find El Dorado, but the English, Portuguese, Dutch, and French also coveted the Guyana region. English interests were advanced by Sir Walter Raleigh, who hoped not only to discover the legendary City of Gold, but to challenge Spanish influence in the area. Raleigh believed that El Dorado was on the shores of Lake Parime in the Guyanese highlands. He made the first of two voyages to Guyana in 1595, sailing far into the interior on the Oronoco River. The report of this venture published the following year excited so much interest that three editions were called for, and the account was later included in the standard collections of voyages compiled by Hakluyt, de Bry, and Hulsius. 

Despite the hopeful title of his narrative—in full, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana, with a Relation of the Great and Golden Citie  of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) and the Provinces of Emeria, Arromaia, Amapaia and other Countries, with their rivers adjoyning—neither Raleigh nor any other seeker found El Dorado (and Lake Parime turned out to be as mythical as the city). But fortunes in natural resources were discovered in the greater Guyana territory during the search. The place name Guyana derives from an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters,” and explorers used the many interior waterways, as Raleigh had done, to travel inland in the areas that became Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Surinam.

Sir Walter Raleigh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana. London: Robert Robinson, 1596. From the Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching


Engraved portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh by Robert Vaughan, from Raleigh’s Judicious and Select Essays and Observations. London: T. W. for Humphrey Moseley, 1650. From the Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching

Guyana itself proved a somewhat challenging proposition. The heat, oppressive humidity, and heavy rainfall limited inland development, and even today 80% of the country remains forested, including one of the largest undisturbed rainforests in South America. Despite Raleigh’s pioneering efforts, Guyana was initially colonized by the Chartered West India Company of the Netherlands. The Dutch established three separate colonies in what would become Guyana: Essequibo (1616), Berbice (1627), and Demerara (1752). At first the Dutch West India Company acted essentially as a corporate privateer, preying on Spanish shipping. But the fertile land eventually encouraged the cultivation of sugar, coffee, and cotton—crops that brought with them slaves to work the plantations.

Near the end of the American Revolution, Holland declared war against Great Britain, which, recognizing that it was about to lose its North American colonies, retaliated by invading Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice. The French forced the British out in short order, and in 1783, the colonies were returned to Dutch control. But the English never fully forsook a presence in Guyana, and in 1796, British troops dispatched from Barbados again captured the Guyanese colonies. The English remained in control until 1802, when the Treaty of Amiens returned the three colonies to the Batavian Republic (as the Netherlands was briefly styled during its enforced alliance with France).

The Napoleonic Wars ensured that the peace was short-lived. The very next year Admiral Samuel Hood’s squadron carried a small expeditionary force, commanded by General William Grinfield, to Stabroek, the colonial capital of Demerara. Demerara and Essequibo were surrendered almost immediately, with Berbice similarly capitulating when the British landed there a few days later. This time the British occupation lasted until 1814, when the three colonies were officially ceded to Great Britain. The British had begun prior to that to centralize the administration of the colonies, and in 1831 the three were combined as the Crown Colony of British Guiana, with the capital situated at the former Stabroek, now rechristened Georgetown.

For the next 135 years, British Guiana played its part in ensuring that the sun never set on the British Empire, but daily life there was not greatly changed from the earlier period of Dutch rule. Sugar plantations remained the mainstay of the economy, with the plantations worked by free—albeit indentured—laborers after England abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834. But although El Dorado was never found, a treasure far more valuable than gold was produced in British Guiana—a philatelic pearl of great price that would inflame the imaginations of the conquistadores of the collecting world. 


The Early Postal History of British Guiana

The first organized mails from the South American colonies of the Dutch West Indies Company began in 1796 when a private packet-boat service was employed to ship letters to Barbados to be forwarded across the Atlantic Ocean to the Netherlands, Great Britain, and beyond. These were regularly scheduled sailings on ships carrying passengers, trade goods, and communications in what was known as the Packet Trade. Conflicts, including the Napoleonic Wars, and changes of governance were a source of constant disruption. It was expensive, the captains of the private ships were not all entirely honest, and the sailing ships were slow. Steamships first picked up mail in Georgetown in 1840, the same year that Great Britain introduced postage stamps. By 1842, when the Royal Mail Service was inaugurated, the Guianese postal system had become faster, more reliable, and more frequent. But while mails arrived at the port, there was still not any efficient mechanism for delivering the letters and parcels onward.
Lithograph of Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana, after a drawing by F. A. Goodall. Courtesy of David Druett,

British Guayana according to Sir Robert Schomburgk.  Drawn by Augustus Petermann, engraved by G. H. Swanston.  London: A. Fullarton & Co., ca. 1850. Courtesy of David Druett,

A main Post Office had been operated at Georgetown since the eighteenth century, when the city was still named Stabroek. In 1813 a sub-Post Office was opened in New Amsterdam, Berbice. Postmasters, appointed by the Dutch and British respectively, had come and gone with great frequency and had met with little success and even less respect. The few attempts that had been made to implement inland mail delivery were irregular, expensive, and short-lived. The only real purpose of the Postmaster and his office was to collect, sort, and dispatch the transatlantic mail. As this was the era before postage stamps and the prepayment of letters, the citizenry would have to go to the Post Office and pay for their mail, which in turn paid the salary of the Postmaster. This system inevitably encouraged abuses. Postmasters often charged their captive clients more than was officially owed, and an inspection of the Georgetown Packet Office in 1820 revealed that Postmaster Williams, in office since 1804, had “let out the Office to Farm to different persons,” having “only personally discharged his Duties for the space of two years.” The Admiralty Service assumed control of the Packet Service in 1823, but problems persisted.

E. T. E. Dalton, Colonial Postmaster

Edward Thomas Evans Dalton was one of Williams’s successors as Postmaster at Georgetown, but his career was notably more successful. Even so, Dalton frequently faced discipline from the Colonial Office, which had little understanding of the exigencies of running a British Post Office in a remote colony. Between his appointment as Deputy Postmaster General in March 1837 and his retirement as Postmaster of the colony in 1874, Dalton was removed from—and reinstated to—office at least three times; received—and ignored—numerous official reprimands from London about the irregularities plaguing his performance; and kept himself and the Post Office at Demerara constantly in arrears. (It should be noted that the jumble of currencies in circulation in the West Indies may have contributed to his financial mismanagement.) Still, he greatly impressed and won praise from the novelist Anthony Trollope, who toured British Guiana in his role as a British Postal Inspector in 1859.

The Georgetown Post Office was evidently something of a family sinecure. E. T. E. Dalton succeeded his father, Edward Henry Dalton, who had formerly been a sugar planter, and he was followed in turn by his own son, Edward Henry Goring Dalton. But it was Edward Thomas Dalton who achieved greatness in the postal realm: he introduced regular inland mail delivery to British Guiana and he provided the colony with some of the earliest postage stamps in the world.

On Saturday, 15 June 1850, an announcement appeared in the biweekly Royal Gazette, heralding a new daily inland service (Sundays excepted), which was coordinated with local train timetables, railways having been established in the colony in 1848. The notice provided a schedule of towns to be served, receiving offices, and postal rates, which varied according to distance: the minimum rate was 4 cents an ounce and the maximum rate was 12 cents an ounce, with an intermediate rate of 8 cents an ounce. Stamps, which were already being printed as of the date of Dalton’s announcement, were expected to be ready for sale by 24 June at the Post Offices in Georgetown and New Amsterdam, as well as at the twenty various receiving stations—a combination of police stations and general stores.

In January 1846, Dalton had actually started an earlier inland post between Georgetown and Essequibo, but at the end of February the British Colonial Office informed Dalton that his arrangement was illegal and ordered that it “be immediately discontinued.” In 1850, British Guiana sought official permission to launch a local post, and approval was granted by London—but in true Demerara fashion, Dalton started the service three months before it was formally authorized.