23 July 2016

Willoughbyland: a strange English colony in South America

I actually read The Spectator’s review of Matthew Parker’s book Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony (Windmill Books, 2015) before I'd ever seen the book. But perhaps reviews are useful like that; they whet an appetite that the reader may not have even been aware of. The story started off with the fact that by the mid-C17th, almost every English attempt at settlement along the wild North East coast of South America/Guiana had failed. One of the last colonies had collapsed in 1627 when the colonists were massacred.

In the meantime Francis 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham (1614–1666) was one of the best connected Englishmen in the House of Lords. He inherited the title from his father and older brother, but he was also the grandson of John Manners 4th Earl of Rutland on his mother’s side. And in 1628 Willoughby married Elizabeth Cecil, the daughter of Edward Cecil, 1st Viscount Wimbledon.

The Civil War was a terrible time for everyone, but at least Baron Willoughby did well. Once he declared himself for the Royalist cause in early 1648, Willoughby was promoted to Vice Admiral under the Duke of York. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and seeing that life at home would be miserable, Willoughby set sail for Barb­ados, which had declared itself Royalist.

Willoughbyland: England’s Lost Colony 
by Matthew Parker,
published by Windmill Books in 2015

Willoughby’s timing was excellent. The first Europeans who came to Suriname had been the Dutch traders who visited that wild coastline. It was really only in 1650-2 that permanent settlement seemed likely in Suriname, under Governor Lord Willoughby of Barbados. The governor used his own money to equip a small fleet of ships with enough guns and equipment to settle a new colony. Will­oughbyland, as he called it, consisted of c30,000 acres, 50 plantations and a fort. By the time 12-15 years had passed, there were c1,000 plantation owners; the lands were worked by 3,000 African slaves and native Indians. The first settlers planted cotton and tobacco, and harvested native timbers.

Was Will­oughbyland meant to be a Utopian settlement, where the settlers would be bound by a single political or religious vision? The New Australia Colony in Paraguay, for example, was based on a shared belief in their socialist brotherhood of Anglophones; no divorce tolerated, no alcohol tolerated and no blacks allowed. Fruitlands was a Utopian agrarian commune est­ab­lished in Harvard Mass that did not recognise the purchase of land. The land would be redeemed only when the members yielded their individual rights to the Supreme Owner.

Willoughbyland aka Suriname is marked in red

Initially I had thought Willoughbyland was a utopia. With England in ruins from the Civil War, people had started to look abroad for space and freedom. But no, it was just another European colonisation plan, complete with slavery, a land grab and an exclusive focus on growing crops that would be useful to Britain. But the air was clean, the beaches gorgeous, the fruits exotic and the soil fertile

The most common ailments were the French Pox, malaria and alcohol poisoning. And some colonists were chewed to death by tigers, snakes or poisonous eels. But for most of the planters, their enormous profits made up for an occasional dead relative. Willoughby­land grew good quality sugar and exported products that Europeans really needed eg tobacco, honey, wax, drugs and cotton. The colony was looking like Paradise.

The Dutch fleet arriving off the Suriname coast

Matthew Parker even found London newspaper references to the colony eg "Surynam is coming to the highest probability of being the richest and healthfullest of all our foreign settle­ments. A government inspector declared it England’s most hopeful colony anywhere in the world" (May 1662). 

After Willoughby poured a lot of money into the settlement, he returned to Europe to attract new settlers and to raise money for the colony. He remained away from Suriname for another ten years. So we have to explain why the settlement thrived, even though the driving force behind its original settlement was thousands of ks away.

Plantations had covered both banks of the Suriname River, attracting more colonists who eagerly arrived on ships; the numbers grew from 600 in 1654 to 4,000 eight years later. Everyone was welcome wherever they came from, and society became accidentally democratic. Brasilian Jews arrived, attracted by religious freedom which was granted to all the settlers by the English. [Jodensavanne Community acquired internal autonomy and built a wooden synagogue for itself in 1665, towards the end of Willoughby's life].

Willoughby survived the Cromwell years, and after the restoration of his beloved King Charles II in 1660, he was appointed to a director­ship in the Caribbean - Governor of Barbados, ad­ministering the colonies at St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat.

By the time Willoughby returned to the islands, in 1664, his original colony was rich, but immoral and on the downward slide. Most of the workforce had been English, supported by Amerindians. But once slavery received royal sanction on Suriname, the number of slaves outnumbered the settlers. Willough­byland was changing into a place of cruelty. Matthew Parker suggests that the replacement governor, William Byam (1623-70), had used the restoration of King Charles II to bolster his own power base. Democracy was no longer be tolerated, the scheduled elections were cancelled and Byam started locking up anyone who opposed him.
Francis 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham 

During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, Willoughby set sail again, this time moving in on the Dutch island of Tobago in July 1665. In July 1666, an English fleet of warships left Barbados to recapture St Kitts from the French. Almost the entire fleet was destroyed by a hurricane, killing Gov Willoughby who had left big estates in Barbados, Antigua and Suriname to his two surviving children.

Willoughby’s death at sea in August further depressed morale. So when a Dutch fleet from Zeeland arrived at the Suriname River in February 1667, the English defenders of Fort Will­oughby quickly surrendered. Willoughby’s brother tried to capture Suriname’s fort back. And although he succeeded, it was by then too late. The Treaty of Breda had been signed. Carrying off what­ever they could, the English used a scorched earth policy to destroy their own estates as they left. In the chaos, many slaves escaped.

This was the end of Willoughbyland’s brief exist­ence (16 years), given to the Dutch in exchange for their colony New Amsterdam, later called New York. (Suriname or New York? Tough choice). In the end the author acknowledged that Willoughbyland made little impact back home, and was soon forgotten. Unfortunately for the colony's slaves, slavery in Suriname was not abolished by the Netherlands until 1863!


bazza said...

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it's difficult to take on board that a proposed socialist state condoned slavery! A lack of a moral basis is a sure road to the fall of states and empires.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


totally correct. Of course the entire idea of European colonisation in a distant continent was itself problematic to us moderns. But given the catastrophic loss of life from battle and from disease in the recent Civil War, we might have expected a much more moral perspective on the type of society that would be established in Suriname.

"Surynam is coming to the highest probability of being the richest and healthfullest of all our foreign settle­ments. A government inspector declared it England’s most hopeful colony anywhere in the world". Not for everyone, apparently!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, So fascinating to learn about Willoughbyland. Somehow the general trend of its history from idealistic to nightmare does not come as a surprise. The name seems familiar to Northern Ohioans because of the local and charming small town of Willoughby (not to mention the Twilight Zone episode in a more surreal town of the same name).

Ex-pat said...

Byam was a piece of work :(

Hels said...


why does a new society, settled in hope, end up in despair? Is it because the country they colonised was so difficult (climate, vegetation, poisonous animals, antagonism of the indigenous residents), more European settlers left than arrived? Was it because the head of state (!) started off as a democratic leader but inevitably changed into a mini dictator? It was always so heartbreaking.

Re North Ohio, I wonder if your Dr Willoughby was a descendant of my Baron Willoughby, 150 years later.

Hels said...


The book "Lieut Gen William Byam - an Exiled Royalist" was written by Dr Alastair Lack and might be useful. Unfortunately the material comes from Byam's diaries in Surinam in 1667 and may not be unbiased. Aphra Behn's analysis of the deputy-governor of Surinam, on the other hand, was one full of loathing. And may also be biased.

The only images I have seen of Byam in the Americas depicted him as violent and anti-black.

Alex Men said...

Thanks so much for sharing this awesome info! I am looking forward to see more postsby you!

Hels said...

Alex Men

strange story, isn't it. Another unusual story you might enjoy is "Do the Scottish People have Links to Ossetia?" which appears in the blog Life in Russia. https://hague6185.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/ossetias-connection-to-scotland/

Hels said...

I have added a link to the earlier post called "Jewish Dutch architecture in Suriname".