Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony

304 PP.; $26.99

Were North America’s original thirteen British colonies the first ones relinquished by their mighty mother country? Most Americans probably smugly believe that’s the case. However,  as Matthew Parker shows in Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony, there was at least one precursor. Over a hundred years earlier, in the seventeenth century, Willoughbyland (named for its founder, Sir Francis Willoughby), located in what is now Suriname on South America’s northeast coast, was a prosperous colony that the English ceded to the Netherlands through the exigencies of national and international realpolitik. I suspect that most Americans—and I daresay most Brits—don’t know Willoughbyland’s peculiar history. But it’s a story worth pondering.

In the sixteenth century, gold was the incentive for the earliest European explorers of the vast territory between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers that included what would become Willoughbyland. The region’s indigenous people called this vast territory Guiana (“the land of many rivers”), and the explorers were Spaniards eagerly searching for El Dorado, the reputedly dazzling City of Gold. They were inspired by Indian folktales and the very real wealth the Spanish discovered in the defeated Incan and Aztec empires. Many of these expeditions came to bad ends, which was inevitable since El Dorado didn’t exist. Nevertheless, the legend continued to encourage quests even in the twentieth century. See David Grann’s excellent The Lost City of Z.

The impetus for Willoughbyland’s English origins was Sir Walter Ralegh—courtier, adventurer, scientist, Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite (for a while)—who publicized in England the alleged existence of gold in Guiana. (This is not the place to discuss the orthography of his surname; I use the book’s spelling). In 1595 Ralegh, in his forties, led a hundred men up the Orinoco River looking for El Dorado. As the mission proceeded, he made notes about the indigenous tribes he encountered, and, unlike most exploration commanders of that era, he insisted that his men treat the Indians they encountered with respect. (Long incensed by the ruthless marauding of the Spaniards, the Indians were appreciative.) Of course Ralegh’s expedition failed to find huge quantities of gold but his 1596 book about his mission—a mix of serious reporting on the people and tribal customs he observed and nonsense (headless yet living people, “cruel and bloodthirsty” Amazons, a history of El Dorado)—included tantalizing come-ons about the existence of gold, “without of course any evidence at all.” The book was extremely popular in his homeland and would remain so. As Parker writes, “…the book’s contrasts between the fabulous and the mundane, and fantasy and reality, shaped English experience in the region for another two hundred years. Certainly, Ralegh’s shadow looms over everything that happened in Willoughbyland.”

For the first three decades of the seventeenth century, a number of English colonists tried and failed to establish settlements in Guiana. Also a failure was Ralegh’s 1617 expedition to the terrain he had made famous (he was executed in England in 1618, the victim of English political squabbles). Enter Francis Willoughby (ca. 1603-1666), Fifth Baron Willoughby of Parham. During much of Willoughby’s adulthood England was afflicted by enmities between the rising middle classes and the aristocracy, Puritans and Anglicans, and the monarchy and Parliament. The antagonisms reached a climax in the country’s savage civil war (1642-48), which ended in victory for the Parliamentary forces and particularly Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers (King Charles I was executed for treason in 1649. And you thought we live in politically fraught times). Despite his peerage, Willoughby was admirably adept at adapting to the various factions roiling England. When the civil war commenced he was a Parliamentarian; eventually he fled to the Netherlands and became a Royalist. His political maneuvers weren’t always successful—he was imprisoned more than once—but most importantly, he managed to keep his head on his neck (he died in a storm at sea).

In 1652 Willoughby was the governor of the island of Barbados in the Caribbean, but his mandate had been conferred by Royalist authorities and England was now ruled by Cromwell. Willoughby was exiled and took three hundred followers to what would be named Willoughbyland in his honor. Why there? He suspected—correctly—that it would be a superb location to grow sugar, at the time a fabulously profitable crop. And, ineluctably, he was spurred by the many stories of El Dorado. Willoughby only stayed two months. “He…returned to England to confirm his grant for Willoughbyland [extracted in Barbados in return for his agreement to depart the island], define his borders and recover his English estates…he would not return to his colony for a decade.”

Despite Willoughby’s absence, the colony flourished. By 1654 there were about six hundred English settlers—men, women, and children—living there. In 1655, while in England, Willoughby urged his countrymen to emigrate to his namesake territory and he personally offered to subsidize emigration (indentured servants, for instance, were promised rather attractive inducements for the era). “For those struggling to survive in post-war England,” Parker writes, “where times remained hard and [Cromwell’s] commonwealth had degenerated into military rule, it seemed an excellent offer.”

One of the other enticements was that England, preoccupied with internal and European affairs, paid little attention to Willoughbyland. This meant that the settlers, at least the wealthy white ones, governed themselves. Lacking an English-appointed governor from 1654-57, they elected their own governor in 1657. Also, unlike the circumstances in their home country, Parliamentary loyalists and monarchy partisans managed to live together amicably. Even Jews, who were fleeing the Portuguese-implemented Inquisition in Brazil, were welcome: “Nowhere else before the nineteenth century had Jews enjoyed so many political privileges with so little intrusion into their lives. The result was the first permanent Jewish settlement in the Americas.”

In 1660 Charles II returned from exile to become king of England. With the monarchy having once again attained sovereignty—the Restoration—the Puritans lost power. These were auspicious events for Francis Willoughby. In July of that year he was named Royal Governor of the “Caribees”: Barbados, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, and Antigua. This was payment, in effect, for his service in working to return Charles II to England. In 1663 he was granted the co-proprietorship of Willoughbyland. Political intrigue prevented him from being given the sole proprietorship. In any case, in the 1660s Willoughbyland was an economic success, “a thriving, mixed agricultural economy, benefiting from fresh soil and seemingly boundless space.” (There was also a profusion of exotic wildlife, including thirty-foot-long anacondas.) Among its commodities were timber, tobacco (“of the highest quality, better even than that of Virginia”), honey, rice, and of course sugar. In 1662 four thousand whites were living in Willoughbyland and “[t]rade was booming.” By 1665 forty to fifty of the colony’s two hundred plantations at least partly cultivated sugar.

Sugar was a complicated crop to grow and process, which resulted in the moral evil permeating Willoughbyland: the importation of slaves from Africa. In 1663 a company called the Royal Adventurers was reconstituted in England to administer the nation’s slave trade. Its shareholders included, to their dishonor, Charles II, the queen and queen mother, and even the eminent intellectuals John Locke and Samuel Pepys. “This company,” Parker states, “can be seen as a turning point: the moment when slavery in the English empire was given official sanction and backing.” By 1667 it seems, on good authority, that there were three thousand slaves in Willoughbyland. And, Parker notes, “[s]lavery poisoned everything.” The author maintains, correctly I believe, that it is reasonable to surmise, based on what occurred in slave societies in other parts of the Caribbean, that the punishments meted out to recalcitrant slaves could be characterized as atrocities. He also suggests that slave rebellions probably occurred fairly often. Moreover, while one can’t say for sure, one can speculate that the brutality inherent in a slave-holding community eventually blighted the amity that existed between the various Caucasian blocs during Willoughbyland’s first few years.

Willoughbyland didn’t exist as an English settlement for very long. In the 1660s England and the Netherlands, Protestant nations and erstwhile allies against Catholic Spain, warred on each other over international commerce. Willoughbyland seesawed between the two countries during the conflict. When a peace treaty was signed in November 1667 the colony was once again English. However, England offered to swap it for New York, which it had seized earlier. The Dutch concluded that Willoughbyland was more valuable and decided to keep it. Willoughbyland was renamed Suriname and remained a Dutch colony until 1975.

To the shame of the Netherlands, its slaveholders in Suriname, like their English predecessors, used appallingly brutal methods to control their slaves. Slavery in Suriname “only properly ended,” Parker writes, in 1873, eight years after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Today the only signs of Willoughbyland are the settlements of “the Maroons, the descendants of the runaway slaves.” Parker visited these settlements and writes of them: “So at last there is a glimpse of history that goes back to Willoughbyland. But it is not that of the plantation owners, their lavish estates and their cruel system. In fact, it is the reverse: instead of slavery it is rebellion-bought freedom and dignity that has endured.”

Matthew Parker is a conscientious researcher and a good writer, and Willoughbyland ought to satisfy readers who are interested in the more recondite regions once ruled by England-Britain. I must acknowledge to being a bit peeved by two traits of the book. It’s somewhat padded: e.g., the plot summary of Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko (she visited the colony and was possibly a Royalist spy). And there are the Britishisms: “…keen to have the Europeans off their patch,” “The English settlers there were urged to up sticks for Antigua,” et al. Why don’t American editors who acquire British books edit?

Parker concludes that “the story of Willoughbyland’s rise and fall is a microcosm of empire”—by which I presume he means the English-British empire. Here I must disagree. No one colony, especially a fairly minor one, could possibly exemplify such an empire, which at its height extended over the breadth of the planet and encompassed an astonishing array of peoples, geography, cultures, languages, and governments. Rather, I see the colony as an early example of the effects of globalization. Think of the elements that contributed to its existence: European machinations, the ravaging of Africa, new political and social credos, nascent science, and industrialization. Perhaps, just perhaps, contemplating what happened in Willoughbyland can help us put our own tumultuous era in perspective.