By Lakhram Bhagirat
St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church on the Essequibo Coast is as old as the village of Queenstown in which it sits. Being there from the inception means that the church went through everything that the village has been through whether it is a struggle for dominance or development of the community.
The fact remains that colonisers used Christianity as a weapon against enslaved Africans. It is no lie that they were beaten into submission and the teachings of Christianity forced. To date, a lot of the existing laws in former colonies remain products of the teachings of Christianity regardless of the societies being secular.
In Guyana, it is no different.
St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, however, has been a pillar of hope for many in the community of Queenstown along the Essequibo Coast. The history of the structure that hosts the church is itself connected to the enslaved Africans.
There is very little information regarding the history of the church and most, if not all of the elders with the knowledge of the journey of the church have died. Nevertheless, Sunday Times recently sat down with current parish priest Reverend Garfield Devellier and longtime member Winston Christiani, who tried to share a bit about the history of the village’s most historic building.
In September 1841 Reverend JH Duke who was the Rural Dean of Essequibo at the time accepted the offer of Carberry, who was one of the first individual slave owners and owner of Queenstown village, to accept the large “coffee logie” to house Anglican services. The coffee logie, located on West Field Estate was constructed by the enslaved Africans and rested flat on the ground.
As its name suggests, it was used for curing coffee beans that were planted on the Essequibo Coast during the colonial era.
The offer of the coffee logie also came with a promised annual grant of £1000 for the provision of “divine service” every Sunday. At the time of the offer, the bishop had proposed building a chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew to be under the assistant curate of St John Church and with the offer, he no longer had to construct a building.The Diocesan Magazine of March 1942 records that in 1842 “the foundation of St Bartholomew was laid when services began to be held in a ‘coffee logie’ on the very spot where now stands the present building.”
The dimension of the present building, the nave, aisles and transepts are 62ftx30ft while the chancel is 22 1/2ftx30ft. The church has a seating capacity for 320 members.
Ode to the ships
If you are to have conversations with native Queenstown residents then they would all tell you that the building of St Bartholomew’s was constructed as an ode to the ships that brought slaves to Guyana. According to them, the inside of the building resembles that of the hull of the slave shops and would refer to it as an “upside-down ship”.
However, because of poor record-keeping, there are no actual documents to confirm this claim or debunk it.
In a piece of writing, Dr Kimani Nehusi said “A key factor in the construction of the building was of some degree of African control over their lives and their village. The enslaved always tried to subvert the intentions of the enslavers.”
What we do know for a fact was that the building was actually constructed by enslaved Africans for the purpose of curing coffee beans.
Christian, in explaining the knowledge of the building, said “It was a coffee logie because during the days of slavery the coffee was planted on the Essequibo Coast and the slaves were responsible for planting and transporting and logging of the product. This building was used as the coffee logie where they used to be storing and drying the coffee. After that, you would have found that you would have had the slave rebellion and after the slave rebellion this building was handed over as a church where the slaves also attended this church.”
“Now this building is shaped in the form of the boat that brought the slaves from Africa. You see, we still try to maintain that shape to show the shape of the boat that brought the slaves from Africa. The entire building was clay bricks and wood and then they changed it to wood but we have a lot of problems now in terms of maintenance with wood because you know getting the quality of materials. We’re trying to do our repairs using cement blocks,” he added.
He said at first the church was under the control of the colonisers since they were the ones coming from the Church of England and ministering here.
St Barts School
The church also played a major role in bringing education to the community of Queenstown with the establishment of St Bartholomew’s Anglican School, popularly known as St Barts. St Barts was built in 1867 as a single flat building but as the demand for education grew more popular an upper flat was built in 1941.
The project was financed by the church and done with the help of the carpenters of the village.
The school’s curriculum in 1891 consisted of subjects like arithmetic, algebra, composition, geography and grammar among a few others. The school also did not refuse entrance to students because of their religious beliefs.
Doreen Ellis-Rudder, known as teacher Doreen, was the most beloved and she had written a poem “The Old St Bartholomew’s School”.
Below we share an excerpt of that poem:
If the old St Bart’s school building could talk
She would surely be hoarse from years of flying dust of chalk.
There would be so very much to say
Of all that happened from day to-day
She would recall pleasant days-days of fun,
With cricket in the ball field in the afternoon sun,
Some occasional cheating by girls playing “lick and pinch”
Boys fighting for marbles, getting into a clinch
She’d like to forget the sad moments when “lashes would fly”
When the unruly were disciplines and when lazy ones with their work
They were made to comply.
Embarrassment would fill her as she remembers mothers who came to complain
That their children were pinching money again and again
To buy from the women who sold at school:
Pepper-tamarind mango slices, metai and sugar cake,
Causing children, their food at home, daily forsake.
But she at times was very proud
She could hear the victorious cricket team shouting aloud,
They had given J.C team a good trouncing,
And in the yard, with glee, they were bouncing.
She heard them shout:
“J.C boy belly like a ‘guana lay out’
Float cork float!
J.C boy ‘nabel’ like a ping-pong table!
Float cork float!
J.C boy teeth like a closet seat!
Float cork float!
JC boy ‘nabel’ like a ping-pong table!
Float cork float!”
She is now wondering what would eventually be her fate.
Should she sit in idleness as we watch her dilapidate?
After serving the village so faithfully since 1868
Please! Restore her to some former use and continue to keep her great.
St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church now has been seeing a decline in membership, according to Reverend Garfield. He said that they have been doing visitations in the community to remind members that there is always a place at the church for them.
“My advice for us is to encourage one another. That is there is a place for the church and we know there are many lapsed members in the community that we need to get to and to talk to them. We are working to build stronger relationships with the community and making sure everyone knows there is a place for them.” [The article was first published in the Guyana Times newspaper]