The British Empire Library

Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony

by Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker, the author of The Sugar Barons, has written about one of the more obscure and oft-forgotten colonies of the Americas. He tells the story of Willoughbyland or Surinam as it is better known. The colony was only in existence for little more than a decade and a half although its influence and success was considerable in such a short space of time. Furthermore, it was ultimately swapped for New Amsterdam in North America which is perhaps better known by the name it acquired of New York! Although to the modern mind it might seem swapping New York for a colony along the Surinam River was a bargain, in reality it was the Dutch who got the better of the deal as the sugar plantations proved themselves able to provide an El Dorado all of their own.

The colony's beginnings were formed in the messy aftermath of the English Civil War as Royalist emigres sought to escape Parliamentarian control as they lost power and influence through defeat in the 1640s. Their first port of call was the Caribbean islands which were on the periphery of the Civil War and had escaped the worst of its ravages and turmoil. However a victorious Parliament's decision to cross the Atlantic and impose order on these commercial outposts ultimately saw a small but inflluential body of Royalists under the leadership of Francis Willoughby create a fall back plan to go into further exile along the 'Wild Coast' of South America. The area chosen along the River Surinam had not been selected completely by accident. Sir Walter Raleigh and other English sailors had explored this coastline and its many river systems in the hope of discovering the location of El Dorado. There had even been some friendly interaction with local coastal tribespeople which would help smooth the new settlers' efforts at carving out plantations for themselves in what was an otherwise hostile climate and environment.

The reason this colony succeeded when so many other attempts detailed in the book failed, was because of the value of the relatively new cash crop of sugar cane. This cash crop was just beginning to be mastered and developed with the help of Dutch Emigres who had been evicted from Brazil by the Portuguese. Sugar would ultimately allow the river colony to pay its way and would act as a magnet to new settlers lured by the high prices and relatively generous settlement terms offered by Francis Willoughby.

The colony's fortunes would be tied to the vicissitudes of the religious and political churnage back in England. The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 seemed to offer new opportunities for the Royalist backed enterprise. Francis Willoughby was honoured for his loyalty to the King by being given title over the lands in Surinam and the colony was even allowed to continue to avoid the harsh terms of the Navigation Acts which had been reissued by Royal Decree. This allowed the colony to continue its relatively Free Trade attributes which were of some importance in a part of the world which relied more on Dutch ships than English ones for imports and exports.

Despite its promise, the Restoration would actually end up causing the eventual destruction of the fledgeling colony. First of all, Parliamentarians fled from England much as the Royalists had done previously with many settling in the relative safety provided by the distance of Willoughbyland from England. The delicate political balance and harmony would be disturbed by this influx at a crucial time within the next few years. The real threat though came from the Dutch upon whom the colony depended so greatly. Charles II's broader policies against the Dutch, including the reissuance of the Navigation Acts and the creation of the Royal African Company to compete with the Dutch in the lucrative African slave trade, would ultimately lead to war between the two ostensibly Protestant, trading, maritime nations. The English greatly underestimated the power and reach of the Dutch and would see their isolated colony of Willoughbyland fall to the determined and skillful Dutch who had unexpected and important help from the French who also took advantage of England's diplomatic isolation.

Matthew Parker gives a good account of how the war escalated from Africa to the Caribbean to the shores of South America and how Willoughbyland was in many ways undone by its own proprietor Francis Willoughby and the English King. As the governor of the Caribbees he was the one ordered by Charles II to seize Dutch colonies only to see that this escalation created a backlash that would see his own colony seized by his enemies and later bargained away by the very king who had only recently confirmed his ownership of the lands. The Royalist Willoughby was to learn first hand the fickleness of royal patronage and diplomacy.

All in all this is a very impressive book from Matthew Parker. It is significantly shorter and briefer than his 'Sugar Barons' but is a more focussed book as it concentrates on the history of just the one colony which only existed for a decade and a half. This is not to say that he does not provide plenty of regional and diplomatci context for the events that would have an impact on the profitable but isolated colony. His writing is very clear and the book is a pleasure to read. This is no academic chore of a book to wade through. Rather, the book unfolds as a fascinating narrative with larger than life characters in an exotic if at times bizarre and other worldly location. It shines a light on a part of the Seventeenth Century world that receives all too little attention. And yet despite the colony's brief period of existence, its experiences with slavery, plantations and cash crops would provide a powerful insight into the wider Atlantic and Caribbean world that would eventually see England, and then Britain, grow into the regional (and then on to global) imperial power within just a few generations of the passing of Willoughbyland. The colony's existence may have been brief but its journey was indicative of the dangers, pitfalls and suffering that its inhabitants had to endure but it also illustrates the fabulous economic incentives and opportunities of sugar production in particular that beckoned settlers and colonists to the South American outpost despite all the difficulties. The lure of wealth, even if on the back of suffering, was going to define the region's history for the next two centuries. Matthew Parker makes a powerful case that Willoughbyland provides a powerful microcosm for what would unfold throughout the Caribbean as 'sugar' and 'suffering' became the bywords for the Caribbean and Atlantic World's imperial experience.

British Empire Book
Matthew Parker
Windmill Books


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