Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony, by Matthew Parker
Part historical mystery and part melancholy look at the darker underside of imperialism, this book looks at the origins of Suriname in an English colony established during the chaotic days of the English Civil War and its aftermath. When one hears about lost colonies, there are several ways that a colony can be lost. The colony could have been lost in the sense that colonies were traded among imperial powers after wars, where diplomats would have to gauge the relative worth of a city like New York or Madras against an island in the Caribbean or off the coast of South America. That is one way in which Suriname was lost to the British as a result of one of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century. Additionally, a colony could be lost to time in the way that the forest had swallowed up all remnants of mansions and fields so that nothing remained of the physical culture of the plantations that the English sought to establish there, and in that way as well Willougbyland has been lost, in that very little of it exists except in the memory of historians of imperialism .
This book is a relatively normal size for its scope (a bit more than 250 pages) but is written by someone who does not believe that the reader knows much about the context of efforts by Europeans in the aftermath of discovery to place colonies in the Guianas, which taken at their largest span range from the Orinoco River to the Amazon River, including two independent countries (Guyana and Suriname), one European colony (Cayenne/French Guiana), and parts of two other countries (Venezuela and Brazil). The first part of this book focuses on the discovery of the Guianas and early myths about El Dorado and a supposed large lake that exists in the middle of the territory, about which there is still considerable debate because the interior regions remain so poorly known and so sparsely inhabited except by large and dangerous plants and animals of various kinds. After this the author discusses the political divide between royalist and Roundhead in England as well as islands like Barbados, followed by a discussion of the dissension and spycraft that included noted early woman writer Aphra Behn and a Dutch attack that won the area for them as a result of the Treaty of Breda, and the aftermath of the war for the various people involved, some of whom didn’t make it out alive.
There is a strong sense of melancholy that runs through this book. Part of the reason for that is because the author himself is of resolutely contemporary opinions against slavery, and the economic development of Suriname was heavily dependent on the labor of slaves. To reflect upon the misery inflicted upon people over the course of centuries of oppression is certainly a melancholy one. There is also a sense of melancholy because so much death was focused on a fragile (if cruel) civilization that as left so few traces to the present day. As someone who has often reflected upon the melancholy beauty of ruins which have left little trace of what were once great cities inhabited by worthwhile and interesting people–like that of Colosse in what is now Turkey–I found this book to be one that was a lengthy reflection upon ruins and loss, not only the loss of life but of freedom, wealth, and even the memory that one had lived there. The English colonists whose lust for property and whose interest in slavery caused such misery become figures worth lamenting as well, leading to an overall tone of sadness at a lost age where what was seen as a paradise became a hell.
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