One of our surprises in Guyana has been its earliest colonial history, which happens to be Dutch. Why did we never learn anything about Guyana in school? The Dutch were the first Europeans to establish settlements, forts and plantations in this region and stayed for two centuries before the colonies became British. You’d gather that does deserve some attention, wouldn’t you?
Of course, our colonial history isn’t something to be particularly proud of but that doesn’t make it a reason to exclude it from textbooks, does it? On the contrary. And so we took up the opportunity to fill in the gaps during our journey here.
One day turned out to be particularly interesting and educating, thanks to a local guy called Ray who lived in Parika. He offered us a boat ride to some places with Dutch history.
Court of Policy
We got into a speedboat with a 220-pk Yamaha engine. At full throttle the boat smacked on the smeary, brown Essequibo River until Ray slowed down, pointing to our right, “Look there it is!” Between the vegetation along the riverbank we spotted parts of an old fort.
Near the jetty, where we got out of the boat, stood a clay brick building called the Court of Policy. This not only served as a court, but also as a store, a church, seat of government, and sales office where the auctioning of slaves to took place.
We studied the three tombstones in what used to be the church. They dated from the 18th century and beneath the stones lay the remains of a barber-surgeon, and an administrator and his son. We were not allowed to take photos but nobody could explain why. The (in)famous words ‘government rules’ closed the discussion. Right.
Down the path that ran across the island stood the fort: small yet impressive. Part of it has been restored. Ray made the islands history more intriguing by saying that according to the story there is a tunnel connecting the fort and Court of Policy, It has yet to be found though.
This isn’t the oldest Dutch fort; Fort Kijk-over-al (‘See-over-all’) was. It was constructed after the Dutch had sailed to Guyana in 1598, and in 1613 had decided to build a permanent and secure home here. Kijk-over-al was built at the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers and the settlement became part of the Dutch West India Company. This fort is now in ruins, and according to everybody we spoke to, no longer worth a visit.
In 1720, as the colony expanded, the Dutch decided to build a new fort downstream, on Flag Island: Fort Zeelandia, and this island became later known as Fort Island. It became the new seat of the Dutch administration. Over the years the Dutch, the English and the French fought over this territory and in 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the colonies were formally ceded to the British.
Dutch Tombs in the Jungle
An important reason why Ray had wanted to take us was because he had stumbled upon graves on his newly cleared terrain in the rainforest. He expected them to be Dutch and wanted us to verify it. From Fort Zeelandia we took the boat, left the Essequibo River and turned into a side arm that sharply curved through mangroves.
We stopped at a camp where two of Ray’s men were clearing terrain. We hiked through the forest using a GPS. Ray was searching for an old trail that at one point in time must have connected plantations with a church. Ray assumed that the graves were located near the church but nothing remained of the latter.
We found the two graves. Flat tombstones with texts on them. Ray had cleaned them recently. Part of the text had faded and with the sun filtering through the foliage it was hard to read them. They were clearly Dutch though.
We could decipher that one belonged to Cornelius Boter from Middelburg who had died at a plantation; we think it said Vredenburg in 1769. Alongside lay Elizabeth Hollander, widow of Mr. Spoor, who somehow was related to Cornelius Boter but how was no longer readable.
We loved doing this! Thank you Ray, for taking us here.