Willoughbyland – Matthew Parker
There is a sub-class of popular history that takes a little known area of the former British empire or an obscure theme therefrom and works it for all it is worth. And the books are generally a jolly good read, provoke the comment, “Good God, I didn’t know that” and then they slide into the sub-conscious rarely to re-emerge unless stirred by a random question in a pub quiz. Giles Milton (whatever happened to him?) was a past master of this genre and it seems Matthew Parker is ready to assume the champ’s mantle.
Willoughbyland is, strangely enough, about Willoughbyland, an obscure British colony on the South American coast in what we now know as Suriname. One of the reasons few of us have heard of it is that as a colony it only lasted 16 years, British occupation ending when the territory was handed over to the Dutch in return for an island called Manhattan. The edifices of British occupation, such as they were, have been eaten up by the jungle. Parker starts his account with a current day description of the area, the strange fauna and flora, the diseases and the ever-encroaching jungle.
There does not appear much to recommend it. It was gold and tales of El Dorado that lured people to that neck of the woods initially. One of the few sports available to the much put-upon indigenous folk of the area was to tell the eager and innocent of untold riches, cities of gold and bottomless mines. Whoever laid claim to the country and all that lay within it would be rich beyond measure and would earn the undying gratitiude of king (or queen) and country. Of course, this treasure trove was just round the next bend of the river, the other side of the mountain or a few miles off. Of course, it never was but the natives probably had a good chuckle before they succumbed to smallpox.
The area was also the beneficiary of lurid and over-the-top recommendations from the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh whose description of the area promised a diamond mountain and headless men. Some gullible souls were persuaded to make a fist of it but every attempt to colonise the area by the middle of the 17th century had failed, usually with the loss of all hands. The English Civil War prompted another wave of adventurers, keen to escape the economic turmoil the conflict had brought, some of whom were royalists and some more radical and disappointed by the failure of the Levellers to make their mark. Areas such as the northern coast of South America became attractive as these people sought space and freedom.
Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham, had flip-flopped during the war between the Royalists and Parliamentarians – probably like many – and by 1651 was in Barbados ready to defend it on behalf of the Royalists. He possessed what became Willoughbyland and staked much of his personal fortune in developing the colony. But Willoughby, who returned to England shortly after the establishment of the colony, becomes a rather peripheral figure in what is the tale of the colony.
At first, all was well. By 1662 the population had grown to 4,000 and everyone was welcome – there was even a Jewish enclave – and the place was the epitome of democracy in practice. Plantations were grown and a town, Torarica, sprang up. But this Eden was doomed to failure and what hastened its downfall, according to Parker, was the introduction of slavery and the wider consequences of the Dutch war with England in the mid 1660s.
Parker tells a fascinating tale which has a range of eccentric, if not picaresque, characters, a dose of espionage, treachery aplenty and insights into the day-to-day existence in what was once one of the more successful English colonies at the time. A good holiday read.