Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2017
304 pp.; $26.99
Were North America's original thirteen British colonies the first ones relinquished by their mighty mother country? Most Americans probably smugly believe that's the case. However, as Matthew Parker shows in Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony, there was at least one precursor. Over a hundred years earlier, in the seventeenth century, Willoughbyland (named for its founder, Sir Francis Willoughby), located in what is now Suriname on South America's northeast coast, was a prosperous colony that the English ceded to the Netherlands through the exigencies of national and international realpolitik. I suspect that most Americans--and I daresay most Brits--don't know Willoughbyland's peculiar history. But it's a story worth pondering.
In the sixteenth century, gold was the incentive for the earliest European explorers of the vast territory between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers that included what would become Willoughbyland. The region's indigenous people called this vast territory Guiana ("the land of many rivers"), and the explorers were Spaniards eagerly searching for El Dorado, the reputedly dazzling City of Gold. They were inspired by Indian folktales and the very real wealth the Spanish discovered in the defeated Incan and Aztec empires. Many of these expeditions came to bad ends, which was inevitable since El Dorado didn't exist. Nevertheless, the legend continued to encourage quests even in the twentieth century. See David Grann's excellent The Lost City of Z.
The impetus for Willoughbyland's English origins was Sir Walter Ralegh--courtier, adventurer, scientist, Queen Elizabeth Is favorite (for a while)--who publicized in England the alleged existence of gold in Guiana. (This is not the place to discuss the orthography of his surname; I use the book's spelling). In 1595 Ralegh, in his forties, led a hundred men up the Orinoco River looking for El Dorado. As the mission proceeded, he made notes about the indigenous tribes he encountered, and, unlike most exploration commanders of that era, he insisted that his men treat the Indians they encountered with respect. (Long incensed by the ruthless marauding of the Spaniards, the Indians were appreciative.) Of course Ralegh's expedition failed to find huge quantities of gold but his 1596 book about his mission--a mix of serious reporting on the people and tribal customs he observed and nonsense...