Brief History
Fort Nassau, Berbice
Fort Nassau, Berbice
Berbice had been a Dutch colony from 1627. Like many colonists, the Dutch had settled along the mouths of river systems to facilitate seaborne travel and trade with the nascent colonies. The River Berbice was just one such river system that interested the Dutch along this stretch of the South American coast although its maritime accessibility would also make it a liability from naval attacks, sackings and capture over the following two centuries. England attacked the neighbouring colonies of Pomeroon and Essequibo in 1665 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. A relief force travelled overland from Berbice to relieve the important fort at Kyk-over-al on the River Essequibo. At this time, England had its own colony in nearby Willoughby in Surinam. Their lack of success in the region during this war contributed to the English agreeing to trade their Surinam holdings for Dutch claims in New York in North America. This may have removed England as a regional rival but it did not deter frequent clashes and raids from the French, Spanish and Privateers over the coming years.

Unlike in Essequibo which built up a sizeable British population after 1740, British interest in Berbice remained slight. This would remain so until Holland joined with Spain and France in fighting the British during the American Revolutionary Wars. Despite being overstretched, the British took the initiative in the Caribbean and environs and seized all three of the Dutch River Colonies thanks to forces under the command of Admiral Rodney in 1781. Britain's hold on the three river colonies was to remain all too brief though as the French launched their own raid against the lightly held British controlled colonies in 1782. Five French warships and soldiers seized Demerara first which compelled the other two colonies to surrender forthwith. A major British naval victory in the Caribbean the following year (Battle of the Saintes) enabled the British to remain in a powerful position in the region and helped bring the conflict to a conclusion. Notwithstanding this victory, the three colonies were still returned to the Dutch as part of the Treaty of Paris.

The French Revolutionary Wars spilled over into the Netherlands and a Batavian Republic was set up in sympathy with the French. As France was in a mortal war with the British, all Dutch colonies suddenly became fair game. The English sent a major naval squadron to the Caribbean in 1796 to hoover up French and Dutch colonies. Berbice duly capitulated on 22nd April 1796. Not only had the British denied valuable products to her enemies, but could sell the products for themselves. Indeed their exports to Britain of cotton, sugar and coffee increased by ten times in just three short years. The British occupied the colony for the next six years. It was returned to the Batavian Republic as part of the Treaty of Amiens ceasefire in 1802 (March 27th). However, the breakdown of this fragile peace saw the colony reoccupied the following year (September 1803). British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar gave her unparalleled control of the seas. French and Batavian ability to retake the colony dwindled.

In 1814, after the first fall of Napoleon, Britain agreed to return most of the colonies that they had seized from the Dutch with the exceptions of her South American colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo (and Cape Colony in South Africa). In many ways, the Dutch planters had become accustomed to trading with the far wealthier British Empire than with the Dutch Empire which was definitely on the wane. Britain also had many more local colonies to trade with and was also a sponsor to the opening up of trade on the South American continent by backing various nationalist and revolutionary movements. Consequently, there was no clamour from the Dutch planters to return to Dutch rule at the end of the Napoleonic wars. They were quite content with the new status quo. The Waterloo hiatus delayed Dutch ratification of this agreement, but on 20th November, 1815 the Dutch formally signed over all legal claims on the lands to the British.

The British administed Berbice separately from the other two colonies until 21st July 1831 when it became a part of British Guiana. Its name was preserved as an administrative county from 1838 until 1958.

map of Berbice
1661 Map of Guiana
1667 Map of Guiana
Dutch (18th Century) Map of Berbice
1763 Map of Berbice and Surinam
1764 Map of Berbice
1783 Map of Berbice
1787 Map of Berbice
1796 Map of Berbice
1802 Map of Berbice
1803 - 1831
Suggested Reading
The History of British Guiana: Comprising a General Description of the Colony
by Henry G. Dalton

Colonising Expeditions to the West Indies and Guiana
by Vincent Harlow

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe