The north-eastern coast of South America has seldom attracted the attention of the rest of the continent. Even after the ‘discovery’ of the New World, Europe’s expansionist endeavours largely neglected this particularly remote and forested land.
Today, few people know of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. Unless you happened to have immigrated from there to one of these states’ former colonial masters – the Netherlands for Suriname, Britain for Guyana, or France for Guiana – it is unlikely that their fortunes will occupy your mind.
Could this be about to change though? At the start of this year, Total SA announced the discovery of vast oil deposits off Suriname, a country with a per capita income of $6,000. Just last year, ExxonMobil declared a similarly fantastic find off Guyana. Is it time for a belated gold rush to this ‘Wild Coast’ as the 16th and 17th century chronicles dubbed it?
Of course a rush of speculators and deluded fantasists tends to follow in tow any new discovery of wealth, often to the detriment of the host nation. People would do well to remember the region’s typical, if oft-reported, experience of colonial exploitation that seemed to come out of nowhere in the mid-17th century.
Whilst never enticing the conquistadores in the way that the mighty Aztec and Inca empires did, the northeast coast of South America was, nonetheless, another territory where the less fortunate might strike it lucky. The legend of El Dorado had not completely diminished by this point. Instead, rather than being seen literally as a city of gold with a ‘gilded one’ at its heart, it became a metaphor for a life of comfort, luxury and safety, a sanctuary far apart from the wars and religious intolerance of Europe.
In 1650 Lord Francis Willoughby, the Governor of Barbados, furnished 20 ships and sent them under the command of Major Anthony Rowse to plant a colony in the area of present-day Suriname. Willoughby himself was an interesting character. He had reluctantly fought for Parliament during the English Civil War (often poorly) but his Royalist sympathies attracted suspicion from the victorious Cromwell regime and he had his lands and property sequestered. Fearing for his life, he managed to secure the governorship of Barbados and fled, telling his wife: ‘Since all is gone at home, it is time to provide elsewhere for a being’.
The inhospitable terrain of the Surinamese interior quickly became apparent. Winding, narrow waterways fed crocodile-infested rivers; thick forest hid any sign of life and left the colonists vulnerable to ambush; marshy swampland prohibited cultivation. Yet the determination of the settlers – many of whom were former Royalists fleeing retribution or impoverished Catholics terrified of Puritan fury – enabled a vision of a viable colony to be implanted in the brains of their leaders. There was even an influx of Brazilian Jews, drawn by the promise of tolerance and democracy.
Yet despite establishing several thousand acres of sugar and tobacco plantations, Willoughbyland (as the colony had vaingloriously been named) was destined to fail. The forced labour brought upon the Indian tribes of the interior and the importation of African slaves undermined any democratic intentions. Unlike the successful Spanish colonies – which of course suffered their own considerable abuses – the English settlers were unable to engage a compliant native group. The social structures simply weren’t there, the people far less advanced than in Peru or Colombia for instance.
A lack of Crown support on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the beginning of Anglo-Dutch competition in the following years, sealed the fate of Willoughbyland. A Dutch naval force traveled upriver to smash it, Willoughby himself drowning hundreds of miles away from his colonists in Guadeloupe in 1666, although not after introducing a devastating illness from the Caribbean during his previous visit in 1664.
In February arrived a Dutch fleet from Zealand…to take the colony, which found us in a most weak condition, near half our men dead and half that were living, miserably weak, ill armed.
So wrote William Byam, the final Governor of Willoughbyland. In only seventeen years of existence, Willoughbyland served as a microcosm for everything that was problematic with European settlement in the New World.
The Dutch would rule Suriname with only minor interruption until 1975. Coffee and tobacco was grown, along with some sugar. But this was not a particularly rich land in terms of resources – at least that’s how it seemed – and after the rush for colonial land-grabbing had ceased it was all but forgotten. Perhaps the most notable legacy of the Dutch occupation was the plight of the ‘Maroons’, escaped slaves who banded together and fled into the impenetrable interior where they created distinct tribal groups that have persisted until this day.
It would be strange if most Surinamese were not encouraged by the oil discovery off their beautiful shoreline. But what will be the cost? Dutch rule was hardly benevolent yet it brought a stability uncommon to most countries in the Americas. A short blast of colonial exposure in the mid-17th century had demonstrated the ravages brought by imperial competition. Whilst it will take place in a different manner and context, any oil rush in Suriname will undoubtedly bring such competition once more.
And is the extraction of this new oil deposit even reasonable? In a world where countries and companies are pledging to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels, do we want to see a horizon of floating rigs off a pristine coastline that has been spared such decimation in the past?
These are questions for the head and the heart. Not easy to reconcile but a glance to the past might help settle some wavering minds should the oil companies get their way and continue their pursuit of environmentally-devastating fuel sources.
Parker, M. Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony (2015)