Here are two things you might not know about Suriname, as the lost colony of Matthew Parker’s title is known today. It boasts the largest ants in the world; and in spite of a widely held belief that it lies somewhere in the South China Sea, it is in fact on the northeast coast of South America.
Europeans have been interested in this particular corner of South America since 1498, when Columbus encountered indigenous people during his exploration of the Orinoco delta. They were wearing gold ornaments that, they told him, came from ‘a high land to the west’. That was enough. Within a year or two the Wild Coast, as it was called, became one of the main starting points in the European quest for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold that was thought, on the slenderest of evidence, to lie on a plateau deep in the interior. Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese and Dutch all set off into the jungles of Guyana with high hopes, only to fall victim to malarial fevers or the poison darts of hostile Arawaks. On one expedition in the 1560s only twenty-five came back out of a force of two thousand. ‘The reports are false,’ said a survivor. ‘There is nothing on the river but despair.’
Failures like this did nothing to stem the tide of European speculation, as Parker’s fascinating narrative makes clear. The early history of the Wild Coast, which occupies the first sixty-odd pages of Willoughbyland, makes for a complicated story, but Parker tells it well, negotiating his way through the labyrinth of competing expeditions and invasions with a laudable clarity of purpose. He gives a vivid account of the experiences of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose own quest for El Dorado cost him his son and his head, and offers colourful details of the early attempts at settlement. The Dutch established a short-lived trading post in the area in about 1613. They gave way to a small French colony, which thrived for a couple of years in the 1630s before the colonists fell out with the natives ‘and were all cut off in one day’. Around the same time a group of Portuguese Jews settled upriver in an area still known as Jewish Savannah, while some English adventurers created an outpost at Marshall’s Creek, the southernmost of the twenty-four English colonies established along the eastern seaboard of the American landmass all the way up to Newfoundland.
But Willoughbyland really comes into its own with the arrival of the man for whom the lost colony was named. Born in about 1614, Francis, fifth Lord Willoughby of Parham, was, like many 17th-century Presbyterians, a lukewarm supporter of Parliament in its struggle against Charles I. In 1647 his lack of commitment to the Good Old Cause led to him being impeached for treason by radicals in the Commons, at which he rather swiftly changed sides and fled to the West Indies, where in 1650 the Royalist outpost of Barbados elected him governor and proclaimed Charles II king.
These were exciting times in the Americas, with English colonies squaring up to fight each other or – more often – refusing to commit to king or to Parliament and hoping the Civil Wars would keep their distance. In 1651 Willoughby began to explore the idea of establishing a settlement on the Wild Coast as a last refuge for Royalist exiles, in case the worst came to the worst and a Parliamentarian force showed up to take Barbados. When the fleet did arrive the following year he was deposed as governor, but at least he was prepared. Ordered off the island, he and his fellow Royalists decamped to the banks of the Suriname River, which had already been reconnoitred by an advance party. There they founded Willoughbyland and began a profitable business growing sugar and exporting rare wood to Europe.
Willoughby himself spent little time in the colony that bore his name. He preferred England, going home almost immediately. Once there, he involved himself first in the various abortive Royalist risings of the later 1650s and then, after Charles II’s restoration, tried to persuade the king to confirm his ownership of the colony. When he did eventually return in November 1664, he was greeted by a disgruntled planter who hacked off two of his fingers with a cutlass in an attempt to decapitate him – an act that can hardly have helped to persuade the proprietor of Willoughbyland to make his home there. He was off again as soon as he had recovered from his wounds.
Parker evokes the miseries of life on the edge of things in the 17th century and gives an excellent account of how the Royalist nature of Willoughbyland was diluted after the Restoration, as disaffected Parliamentarians began to drift in from England and the West Indies, along with apolitical fortune-hunters, who were still intent on finding El Dorado. ‘All the Country was made to be going on this Golden Adventure,’ reported one visitor. Rejecting the doctrinaire ideologies of some other Anglo-American colonies, the planters who formed Willoughbyland’s elite agreed on a freedom of worship beyond anything to be found in England or in most of the other American colonies, welcoming Jews, Quakers and other dissenters. The book contains a rich cast of characters, too, presided over in spirit by the absent and digitally challenged Lord Willoughby, including William Byam, the ineffectual Royalist governor of the colony, the republican tobacco planter George Marten, brother of the notorious regicide Henry Marten, and the spy, playwright and mistress of self-invention Aphra Behn, who turned up in Willoughbyland in 1663 for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
By the time Behn left, shortly before the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, the colony’s days were numbered. In July 1666 its founder set sail from Barbados, intent on recapturing St Kitts from the French; unfortunately it was the start of the hurricane season and he was never seen again, though his couch washed up on the beach at Montserrat. Willoughbyland fell to the Dutch the following year. Although the English retook it within months, Charles II decided he really wasn’t all that bothered about keeping it. The Dutch could have it. We got New York in return – the better bargain, one feels. Nevertheless, the lost colony’s short, eventful life makes for a gripping read. Willoughbyland is popular history at its best.