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How England saw Guyana (then British Guiana) in Victorian times

Charles Waterton (1782-1865) wrestling with a caiman somewhere in the interior of Guyana

This painting depicts the naturalist, Charles Waterton (1782-1865) wrestling with a caiman somewhere in the interior. The background depicts an earthly paradise, with trees resplendent with birds. This conformed with the contemporary image of the colony as a pleasure garden, ripe for enjoyment (in truth, the 'Wild Coast' was lethal to many Europeans; if the malaria didn't get them, the grog did ...)

Even Trollope waxed a little too lyrical. 'Demerara is the Elysium of the tropics,' he wrote, 'the Happy valley of Rasselas, the one true and actual Utopia of the Caribbean Seas, the Transatlantic Eden.' It was only much later, through Evelyn Waugh, that Britons were given a rather different picture of this land. ‘A destructive and predatory civilisation’ he wrote in 1933, ‘disappearing like the trenches and shell craters of a battlefield …'

So, why the change? The answer may lie in the reference to First Wold War, and in the cynicism it engendered. Or it may simply be that Waugh - recently divorced - was at a low point in his life, and wanted somewhere to hate.

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