The Baton Relay arrives today (02.03.2014) to the first of the Caribbean Commonwealth countries, Guyana, which gives me the perfect occasion to introduce my Club21 project about the University’s earliest connection with the only English speaking country in South America.
Researching early historical links between the University and Guyana, it soon became apparent that the majority of the students that went to Guyana were either merchants or physicians. One very interesting medical graduate, who I would like to feature, was Michael McTurk, whose family remained connected with British Guiana and has members living in modern Guyana to this day. Michael’s great-great-granddaughter, Diane McTurk, is a dedicated, and well-publicised, conservationist of wetlands ecosystems in Guyana.
Michael McTurk was born in 1785 in New Cumnock. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1807 to study medicine under renowned Professor of Botany Dr James Jeffray. McTurk was awarded a degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1810.
He went on to spend 34 years as Principal Medical Officer in Demerara. As a member of the Georgetown Town Council he was responsible for two important measures that ensured the townspeople had water and the sugar estates were irrigated: the construction of a canal and a plan for water conservancy.
Michael was also a Major in the 2nd Battalion Guyana Militia. Although he participated in the suppression of the Demerara Slave Uprising in 1823, he became active in propagation of the freedom of all slaves in the colony as a member of the Court of Policy. After the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833, he brought in a local measure ensuring that full emancipation of the slaves began on 1 August 1838. The emancipated slaves expressed their gratitude to McTurk by presenting him a silver salver “as a slight testimonial of their gratitude for his exertions in shortening the period of their apprenticeship.”
McTurk was knighted by Queen Victoria on 7 September 1839 for his efforts on the behalf of the emancipation of the hundreds of slaves in Guyana. He died in Georgetown on 17th of November 1844.
We are still building the story of the University’s connections with Guyana, so get in touch if you have more information, and look out for new additions at the Guyana country page of the International Story.
By Marta Kulesza, MA Economics, Club21 project Commonwealth Caribbean: Guyana