At the beginning of the 1650s, wrecked by plague and civil war, England was in ruins. Yet shimmering on the horizon was a vision of paradise called Willoughbyland.
When Sir Walter Raleigh set out to South America to find the legendary city of El Dorado, he paved the way for an endless series of adventurers who would struggle against the harsh reality of South America’s wild jungles. Six decades later, when a group of English gentlemen expelled from England chose to establish a new colony there, they named the settlement in honor of its founderSir Francis Willoughby.
Located in the lush landscape between the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, in what is now Suriname, Willougbyland experienced one of colonialism’s most spectacular rises. But as planters and traders followed explorers, and mercenaries and soldiers followed political dissidents, the one-time paradise became a place of terror and cruelty, of sugar and slavery. A microcosm of the history of empire, this is the hitherto untold story of that fateful colony.
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About the Author
MATTHEW PARKER spent part of his childhood in the West Indies. He has written for many national newspapers in the UK, contributed to numerous TV and radio programs, and lectured around the world. His bestselling and critically-acclaimed books include Monte Cassino, Panama Fever, The Sugar Barons, and Goldeneye, examining the importance of Jamaica in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels.
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England's Lost Colony
By Matthew Parker
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Matthew Parker
All rights reserved.
'EVERY MAN'S LONGING'
'There is a way found to answer every man's longing'
SIR WALTER RALEGH ON GUIANA
At the beginning of the 1650s, England was in ruins – wrecked, impoverished, grief-stricken. Before the final victory of Parliament over the King in the Civil War some 80,000 soldiers had perished, out of a population that probably numbered fewer than 1.5 million males between the ages of sixteen and fifty. In all British history, only the First World War killed a larger proportion of the country's population. Another 100,000 men, women and children had perished from disease or hunger in besieged, often plague-ridden towns. Survivors had gone mad from shock and grief.
At the end of the war, crippled soldiers and beggars wandered everywhere, and many towns were shattered. A huge amount of the nation's wealth had already been expended – from Oxford college plate, to the shoes and bedding of the very poorest – but the end of fighting was followed by a period of serious slump, drastic price rises, heavy unemployment and deep hunger. At the same time taxes were almost seven times higher than they had been in the 1630s. To increase the misery still further, an intense period of cold set in after 1650, the deepest chill of the mini ice age.
But for the farmhand, slaving in the freezing rain of a Lincolnshire field, or the small-time tradesman, shivering in a garret room in a desolated town, there was an intoxicating fresh possibility. England had a new colony far away, in a place of 'Eternal Spring', as one report read, where the blissfully warm air was fragrant with the scents of oranges, lemons, figs, nutmeg and 'noble aromaticks'. The soil was 'luxuriant', producing trees of all types and in vivid colours, which 'appeared like nosegays adorn'd with flowers of different kinds'. This rich land teemed with 'strange rarities, both of beasts, fish, reptiles, insects, and vegetables, the which for shape and colour are wonderful.'
Living here – it was reported – were primitive peoples, happy to trade their plentiful gold, silver and pearls for trifles. For a good-quality knife, you could have ten times its value in tobacco or cotton, raw or woven into hammocks. Even better, they were extremely welcoming and friendly to the English, whose coming, they believed, was the fulfilment of a prophecy to rid them of Spanish oppression. Diseases? So rich and healthy was this region that locals lived up to one hundred and twenty years old. What's more, their women were the most beautiful in the world, as well as 'lascivious' and all 'nakedly expos'd to every wanton eye.'
This vision of paradise was called Willoughbyland, after its founder, and it was situated in Guiana in what is now Suriname, on the north-east coast of South America, about halfway between the great Amazon and Orinoco rivers.
Francis Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham, had fought for both sides in the Civil War, defecting to the Royalists in 1648. But most recently he had got himself appointed governor of the Caribbean islands and from his fastness in Barbados, the richest West Indian colony, had declared allegiance to the King just as the Royalist cause collapsed at home. He was soon thrown off the island by a victorious Parliamentary fleet, but not before he had prepared an exit strategy. At the surrender of the Royalist force at the Mermaid Tavern in Oistins, Barbados, in January 1652, it was agreed that Willoughby's fledgling settlement on the Suriname river, established on his orders and at his own (enormous) expense, 'shall be by him enjoyed and kept without any disturbance either of himself or those that shall accompany him thither.'
It was a settlement on the wildest, furthest frontier. While the mouths of the Orinoco and Amazon had been explored and settled by the Spanish and Portuguese respectively, the 900-mile space in between the two great rivers remained dark and unknown. Indigenous people called it Guiana, 'The Land of Many Rivers'. The Dutch referred to it as de Wilde Kust, 'The Wild Coast'. Early English explorers had labelled it 'Drownded Land', and almost lost count of the number of rivers reaching the sea along its coast. One reported fourteen, another forty. In fact, there are hundreds, carrying huge torrents of water out of the jungle, where up to three metres of rain falls each year. The largest are the Essequibo, Berbice, Suriname, Maroni and Wiapoco (also known as the Oyapoc). Although dwarfed by their giant neighbours, the Orinoco and Amazon, by European standards they are still vast; the mouth of the Essequibo river is almost as wide as the English Channel.
Behind the muddy, mangrove-choked shoreline lay deep swamps, and then thick forest of astounding vigour, size and strangeness. The French, when they came, called the Guiana interior l'Enfer Vert, 'Green Hell'. Far inland rise ancient flat-topped peaks. As the great rivers tumble off this high plateau they create massive, spectacular waterfalls.
In 1652, to the adventurous from the Caribbean islands or from home in England, the fledgling colony of Willoughbyland on the Suriname river offered freedom and independence – both religious and political – as well as exotic commercial and sensual possibilities. Willoughby himself gave further encouragement over the next three years, offering free land and cheap loans to new settlers and generous deals for indentured servants. Willoughbyland, declared its founder, was 'the sweetest place that was ever seen; delicate rivers, brave land, fine timber'. His advance party had stayed five months without anyone suffering so much as a headache, he wrote. Instead, they had enjoyed the pure air and water, and five meals a day from the plentiful 'fish and fowl, partridges and pheasants innumerable.'
Other parts of the West Indies offered enticing prospects to adventurers or exiles from England, particularly after sugar production had been established at the end of the 1640s. But Guiana had a special magic. Unlike the islands, it represented a huge expanse of land, most of it undeveloped, unexplored, unknown and mysterious (as, effectively, much of it remains today). One explorer described it as a virgin country, 'that hath yet her Maidenhead ... never entered', a place untainted by the sins of the modern world. For Milton in Paradise Lost, it is an Edenic paradise, 'still unspoilt'. Indeed, Guiana had for some years been a byword for exotic eroticism, fertility and undiscovered riches. Shakespeare's Falstaff calls Mistress Page, a wealthy and sensual woman he intends to seduce, 'a region of Guiana, all gold and bounty'.
And it was gold or, more exactly, stories about it, that had first opened up the Wild Coast, and now offered the new settlers of Willoughbyland a tantalising prospect: that deep in the virgin jungle lay unimaginable riches in the form of a golden city, El Dorado.CHAPTER 2
'What do you not drive human hearts into, cursed craving for gold!'
VIRGIL, THE AENEID
It was Sir Walter Ralegh who had established a fascination in England with Guiana. Fifty years before the settlement of Willoughbyland, Ralegh had written The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana; with a Relation of the great and golden city of Manoa, which the Spanish call El Dorado. The book was the result of a journey made by the author to promote a new English imperial adventure in South America, motivated by the quest for the golden city of El Dorado. It was the publishing sensation of its time, widely translated and frequently reprinted.
Ralegh writes of a fabulous city somewhere in the hinterland of Guiana, called Manoa, standing on the shore of a large lake, Parima. He even provided a map with lake and city clearly delineated. The ruler was called El Dorado, 'the Gilded One', because of the ritual of covering him with gold dust before he bathed in the lake, and this soon became the name of the imagined city. Ralegh located this site on a high plateau beyond the coastal jungles of Suriname, but never actually found it. He did, however, claim to discover mountains, 'thorough-shining, and marvellous rich'. Guiana, he announced, 'hath more abundance of gold than any part of Peru.'
El Dorado's origins go back to the very earliest European exploration of the Americas. On 31 July 1498, on his third voyage, Columbus, having been dangerously becalmed mid-Atlantic, landed on the southern coast of Trinidad to pick up much-needed water. He spent the next two weeks exploring the Gulf of Paria and the majestic delta of the Orinoco. Noticing that the river discharged fresh water far out into the ocean, he correctly surmised that he had found a great continent. He described the land as 'the loveliest in the world, and very populous'. Contacts with the indigenous people were friendly, and they 'came out in hordes to the ship, and many of them wore pieces of gold at their breasts ... I spared no effort to find out where they obtained them.' He learnt, by means of signs and gestures, that the precious metal came from 'a high land, no great distance to the West', but across hard terrain made dangerous by cannibal tribes and venomous creatures.
The following year, under orders from the King of Spain, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci sailed in search of this new continent, reaching the mainland somewhere on the Suriname coast. They were amazed by the size of the rivers and the huge clouds of silt that muddied the sea for leagues out from the shore. They did not see any inhabitants until they reached the Orinoco delta. Coming across indigenous dwellings on stilts over the mud flats of the river mouth, they called the area 'Little Venice' or Venezuela.
During this first rush of Spanish exploration, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who had sailed with Columbus, landed in what is now Brazil and then headed north, discovering the Amazon – which he thought might be the Ganges – before he too sailed along the Guiana coast. But low-lying mangrove swamps offered no obvious haven for further exploration of the interior. However, following a practice started by Columbus on his first voyage, local people were taken – willingly or not – back to Spain to learn Spanish so as to serve as interpreters on subsequent expeditions.
Everywhere in this region, the explorers came across rumours from locals of a golden city on high land deep in the interior of northern South America. A version of this story inspired the first inland exploration of South America by Europeans. In Darién, where Vasco Núñez de Balboa had established control and a small settlement, reports were heard of a place called Dabeiba, where there was believed to be a temple built entirely of gold. In 1512, Balboa led a search party up the Atrato river and then across land to within sight of the Andes. The following year he led a new expedition south-west which, though it produced no golden city, made him the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. Soon ships were launched and Spanish explorers and soldiers were pushing south along the coast towards Peru.
In 1520 Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés marched into Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital in Mexico. Confronted with the impressive buildings, great towers and fabulous treasures, 'Some of the soldiers,' one reported, 'asked whether the things we saw were not a dream.' So there was now a thrilling new inspiration for explorers: beyond even the most unpromising-looking coasts there might be mountains hiding kingdoms and advanced cities of unimagined and highly plunderable wealth.
During the following decade, Spanish settlements were established on the north coast of South America close to the Andes mountains. El Dorado, it was believed, was somewhere on a high plateau inland, directly to the south. This inspired, during the 1530s, a rapid process of discovery and conquest. The first expeditions were undertaken by German explorers: the Spanish King Charles V had granted Venezuela in virtual pawn to his German banker, the Welzer. On their orders, two separate expeditions set off south from Coro. Both were in the field for nearly three years, and lost three-quarters of their number to hostile indigenous people, disease or hunger.
But the golden city of El Dorado remained frustratingly out of reach. As the German explorers pressed forwards, the phantom goal seemed to retreat before them. According to local guides, relaying folk memory or myth, or just keen to have the Europeans off their patch, it was always round the next bend of river or just over the horizon.
In November 1533, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro entered Cuzco, completing the military conquest of the Incan empire. Gold and silver started pouring out of Peru, stimulating rather than assuaging the appetite for further conquests.
And so, in April 1536, an expedition set off from Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, hoping to find gold, of course, but also to investigate a route to Peru along the river Magdalena that would avoid the time-consuming crossing of the Panama isthmus. In command of 800 men was Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, a magistrate only recently arrived from Spain. A year later, he reached the foothills of the Andes with only 200 men surviving. There they came across sophisticated trade goods such as salt and textiles, alerting them that a superior civilisation might be close.
The stories told to the explorers often included details of how the inhabitants of El Dorado, like the Incas, were more 'civilised' than others – they wore clothes and lived in towns and cities. Most likely the rumours originated from the Musica people, a relatively sophisticated federation of clans on the high Colombian tableland around what is now the site of Bogotá. As per the El Dorado stories, their tribal chief did indeed have himself covered with gold dust, and, as an initiation rite, dive into a highland lake.
De Quesada fearlessly marched into the Musica realm and brought them to battle, entering their capital after defeating the army of the senior chief. Here they found much gold, including intricately worked pieces. But it was not El Dorado, the city of gold, and did not even have any rich mines, since the Musica obtained all their gold in trade. From prisoners they learnt that El Dorado did exist, but it was to the east.
The same story had been heard in Peru – that across the Andes was located a sophisticated civilisation in control of rich mines. The continuing search for this city, and consequently the exploration of the continent, thereafter moved from east to west.
New expeditions eastwards from the central Andes included that of Gonzalo Pizarro, the younger half-brother of Francisco. Francisco desired that Gonzalo should 'conquer such another land as [he] himself had found, and become governor of it'. On Christmas Day 1539, he led 340 Spaniards and some 4,000 press-ganged indigenous people east out of Quito. Second in command was his nephew Francisco de Orellana. But by the time they had left the mountains and entered the vast, soggy Amazon basin, 3,000 locals and 140 Spaniards had either died or deserted.
Pizarro now ordered the construction of a small brigantine, which Orellana was to take with fifty men on a river heading east; his instructions were to explore and then return with news. But when the river joined another flowing quickly east, a combination of the difficulty of returning against the current and the mutinous nature of the men persuaded Orellana to continue. Hostile tribes were fought off as the river received more and more tributaries and grew to a majestic size. Eventually, in August 1542, they reached the Atlantic: Orellana had completed the first known navigation of the entire Amazon river. Meanwhile Pizarro had staggered back to Quito, with only eighty men making it alive.
More northern expeditions chasing the El Dorado 'will-o'-the-wisp' eastwards suffered similar attrition, though without the compensation of Orellana's spectacular exploratory achievement. One, led by another German, Philipp von Hutten, set off from Coro in 1541 and soon found itself in 'a very sterile and pestilential land, with very few natives'. Starvation drove the men to eat ants, which caused them to suffer a strange ailment that turned them a sickly orange. 'Those afflicted grew desperate for salt and would seize any old piece of sweat-soaked clothing to eat it ... Their hair fell out, and in its place emerged a pestilential scabies from which they died.'
Excerpted from Willoughbyland by Matthew Parker. Copyright © 2015 Matthew Parker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: Suriname River, 2014,
One 'Every Man's Longing',
Two El Dorado,
Three Ralegh and the 'Beautiful Empire of Guiana',
Four The Heirs of Ralegh,
Five Ralegh's Last Voyage,
Six Francis Lord Willoughby,
Seven 'A Brave Land',
Eight 'A Peculiar Form of Government',
Nine The Restoration: 'A Tumbling and Rolling World',
Ten Repression and Revolt,
Eleven Aphra Behn, Agent 160,
Twelve Sugar, Slavery and Oroonoko,
Thirteen The Return of Willoughby,
Fourteen War and Ruin,
Fifteen Astrea and Celadon,
Sixteen The Fall of Fort Willoughby,
Seventeen Victory and Anguish,
List of Illustrations,
Select Bibliography of Printed Sources,
Also by Matthew Parker,
About the Author,