Wednesday 2 June 2021


 Fear not, gentle reader, this is not another escapade into imagi-nations, but a real thing which happened in history, which you might not have heard about. I had not until I picked up a book by the name.

Parker, M. (2015). Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony. New York: St. Martin's Press.

I confess, I probably would not have bought it, but the Estimable Mrs P encouraged me so to do, and she was, as usual, correct in doing so. The book is about, as the name suggests, an eventually unsuccessful colony founded during the Protectorate and lost during the Restoration.

I mentioned before that the Puritans were very interested in tackling Spain, and this had started before the Civil War with the Providence Island Company. Actually, the interest had started before that, with Ralegh and his voyages of exploration to South America and the quest for El Dorado, the famed and fabulous city of gold. Ralegh, of course, failed and was eventually executed for his pains to appease the Spanish government, thus making him a Puritan martyr.

The idea remained, however, and further expeditions were launched, and they found the natives fairly friendly, on account of Ralegh’s decent treatment of them, as opposed to the Spanish. Not much permanent was achieved, however, until Barbados surrendered to the Parliamentary fleet in 1652. It governor, Francis, Lord Willoughby, had managed to declare for the King just before the arrival of Ayscue’s fleet. Willoughby already had a patent for Willoughbyland, however, and it was to there that he and other Royalists from Barbados fled, following up earlier expeditions which traded with the locals and set up a factory.

The result was a small, expanding and, at least initially, flourishing settlement. Guinea was a sort of paradise, mixed with nastily deadly wildlife. The coast was wetland and heavily forested, so much of the European settlement was further upstream, up the Suriname river. The English called the coast ‘drowned lands’. Most transport had to be by boat.

Initially, the crop was tobacco but by 1660 sugar was increasingly and profitably grown. This has social consequences, however, as sugar needs labour and the labour procured was slaves from Africa. At the Restoration Willoughby had secured a number of concessions from the King, including free trade and freedom of religion. In part, this was to keep the colony together, as each political convulsion in the Caribbean, Europe or Britain itself had its impact even in South America, with refugees and freeloaders moving to the margins to hide, smuggle or seek their fortunes.

Other Europeans set up in the Caribbean and South America, of course. Both the French and Dutch had colonies. The Spanish, who had got there first, after all, took a fairly dim view of all of this but were, firstly, not in much of a position to do a lot about it and, secondly, had not themselves attempted to develop the ‘Wild Coast’. Between the Orinoco River and the mouth of the Amazon there were four Dutch settlements, three French and two English, both of the latter, Paramaribo and Torarica in Willoughbyland on the Suriname River.

Once the settlement was established, of course, the planters had enough time to fall out among themselves, which they promptly did. Willoughby was not present, pursuing his interests in England for the most part, and the assembly he left behind divided sort of along party lines – Roundhead and Cavalier – and sort of along lines of interest, who had the best plantations, most money and so on.

Into this rather febrile atmosphere, Aphra Behn (nee Johnson) sailed in 1663, as a spy, sent to provide information on the state of the plantation. She would later, of course, be the first woman in England to earn her keep through writing, with plays, novellas, and poetry to her credit. Her masterpiece was Oroonoko, set in Suriname during the time of her visit. It features a brave and noble African prince tricked into slavery who leads a rebellion, loses the battle against the militia, and is horribly murdered by some nasty English (not all the English are nasty in the novella).

Parker observes, along the way, the Oroonoko said some fairly radical things about blacks and slavery for the time, and, since its publication in 1688, and more specifically the stage production of 1695, it became a central text in the anti-slavery campaign. Behn, of course, was a child of her age, but the use made of the text in the Eighteenth Century is interesting as preparing the way for the Abolitionist movement. The start of slavery in the later Seventeenth Century also contained the seeds of its abolition.

In Suriname things rather deteriorated, and the war with the Dutch was the final straw. A Dutch fleet of three frigates, a yacht, and three smaller vessels left Zeeland at the end of 1666 and arrived off Suriname in February, ahead of the French (who also fancied a piece of the action at the colony). As Parker observes, often an external threat unites people, but that did not happen in Willoughbyland. Slaves and servants were rebellious, Willoughby himself had died, and the planters were divided. The Dutch cruised in a landed 700 men near fort Willoughby which surrendered. Most of the garrison joined the Dutch. On 6th March Willoughbyland was surrendered to the attackers.

That was not quite the end, however. In 1667 the English, under Willoughby’s nephew Henry, despatched from Barbados with 7 men of war, 2 ketches and 2 fireships, along with 850 troops. He first attacked Cayenne (held by the French) and then headed for Suriname. The Dutch, with French assistance, resisted but the English retook the fort. International events overtook the recapture, however, and after the Dutch raid on the Medway, the subsequent peace exchanged Suriname for New Amsterdam.

The subsequent history of Suriname is one of slavery and violence; it became considered a cruel place with rebellions and runaway slaves forming Maroon colonies inland. According to Parker, there is practically no sign of English occupation, although there are plenty of signs of the Dutch. Further upriver there are Maroon villages still, the legacy of rebellion and runaway slaves. Perhaps this is the true legacy of Willoughbyland.

Anyway, at risk of making the post overlong, the possibilities for adventurous wargamers are multiple. There are small-scale fleet actions, European rivalry, small-scale sieges, and other actions, and a background of occasionally hostile natives. Plenty to consider for the wargamer, I think.


  1. Funnily enough I’ve just been reading a bio of Henry Morgan, so contemporaneous to Willoughbyland in the same general theatre, and thought the same thing about wargaming potential.

    1. Yes, interesting 'small wars'. But I'm unconvinced about the fighting power of buccaneers...

    2. I think it’s relative. The chaps they came up against were even less keen.

    3. Fair point; probably representative of most of humanity, really. The outcome was decided on who looked nastiest...