A Belated ‘Gold Rush’ for Suriname? Dreams of wealth compete with the sanctuary of anonymity

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.

Theodor de Bry’s ‘Gilded Man’

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.

A rather fantastical vision of the land of ‘Guiana’ prior to the establishment of Willoughbyland

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.

Maroons make up about a fifth of the Surinamese population. There are fears that they may fall prey to ‘eco-tourism’

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.

Further reading

Parker, M. Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony (2015)

Introspection Required: Harry Follows Edward’s Lead in Exposing Royal Redundancy

So, the Queen has momentarily quietened the latest scandal to afflict the British royal family by supporting Prince Harry and his wife Meghan’s desire to take a ‘step back’ by allowing a ‘period of transition’ as they split their time between the UK and Canada.

At 93, Elizabeth II must have thought that her days of fixing family issues were long gone, but such is not the case with an institution so archaic and inflexible as to feel redundant for most ordinary people. Or so it would seem.

The Queen is reputedly very unhappy with the Sussex’s

The public reaction to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s surprise announcement, and the media frenzy that followed, shows how deeply ingrained interest in the lives of the royal family remains in modern Britain. It seems a particularly quixotic sideshow for many people despite the inherent dullness of much of the Windsor clan.

A Mail Online poll suggests the public feel as betrayed as the Queen by the Sussex’s decision

Obvious comparisons can be drawn between Prince Harry’s wish to alleviate the royal burden from himself and the decision by Edward VIII to abdicate the throne in 1936. Whilst not as drastic a turn of events – Harry is, after all, only sixth in line to the throne – the circumstances of Edward’s abdication and the personalities involved show some parallels with the current ‘crisis’.

Having only ascended the throne in January 1936, Edward VIII’s reign never seem destined to be a long or happy one. A reputed playboy in his youth, he never wanted to be king and showed disdain towards royal tradition on his ascension, failing in the eyes of many to act in a manner befitting of a royal. Breaking point came with the entrance into his life of an American woman (cue comparisons with Ms Markle).

Wallis Simpson was a soon to be twice-divorced woman when her and Edward entered a relationship. Scandal abounded at the royal court and the public were just as horrified by the news that their monarch was dallying with a treacherous divorcee. This was particularly troublesome given that the King was the titular head of the Church of England, which thoroughly disapproved of re-marriage after divorce.

Edward was not to be deterred, however, and he renounced the throne to marry ‘the woman I love’.

A scandalous marriage: the former Edward VIII (then Duke of Windsor) ties the knot with Wallis Simpson in France, June 1937

It could be argued that the appearance of Wallis Simpson on the scene was the perfect excuse for Edward to justify turning his back on a duty he never wanted to fulfill. One may be equally cynical and suggest that Meghan Markle offered Harry a similar opportunity.

Never appearing comfortable within the royal fold – how could anyone born outside such bizarre tradition and conformity? – Meghan has rumoured to have been agitating for a break from the stifling role of monarchical ambassador. Harry, too, has frequently castigated the unfair attention directed at his family (especially from the press), seemingly pained by having to tow the royal line.

Whereas Edward retained royal titles and proceeded to live the life of riley after his abdication – cosying up to Hitler, socialising with the elite on both sides of the Atlantic, landing a cushy number as Governor of the Bahamas – Harry does not given the impression that he simply wants the easy life.

Edward was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser

Already deeply engaged in charitable work (as is Meghan), the Prince clearly just yearns for a break from the spotlight. Questions will necessarily still rumble regarding the Sussex’s income, for how can they continue to take taxpayer money without being paraded on show from time to time?

If ever there was an opportunity for some introspection from the royal family then it is now. This is not a modern institution in touch with reality, its global role and clout diminishing by the year as the heady days of Commonwealth unity disappear in the rearview mirror. Losing one of its most popular members – however conclusively – is a devastating blow and neither the Queen nor Prince Phillip will last much longer despite their remarkable longevity.

It remains to be seen whether Prince Charles, or his elder son William, have the energy and desire to re-invent the British monarchy for the 21st century.