Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker

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Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Newham
Reviewed by Paul Newham
Summary: A superbly well-researched, easy-to-read account of the rapid rise and fall of one of England's first American colonies. What is so impressive about the book is the way Parker uses this story, fascinating in its own right, to explore the broader contexts of social and political upheaval in England in the 17th Century, on-going struggles for supremacy between the major European powers and the triumphs and tragedies of the early colonial ventures in the Americas.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: [www.matthewparker.co.uk Author's website]
ISBN: 978-0091954093

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You may or may not remember much about history from your school days, but one of the key facts you are bound to have been taught is that, by the end of the Victorian era at the dawn of the 20th Century, Britain reigned supreme over the largest Empire the world has ever seen. Matthew Parker's Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony tells, in part, the story of how it all started way back at the very beginning of England's (pre-United Kingdom) colonial adventures in the mid-17th Century. On the face of it quite a specific historical analysis of a failed early English colony in what is now Suriname in South America, what is so impressive about Parker's book is how he manages to spin out a much broader narrative about the domestic and international contexts in which Britain's imperial ambitions were first born.

England in the 1600s was a very different place to the dominant global power the Victorians knew. Torn apart by deep political and religious divisions, it was a century marred at home by civil war, violence, social instability, poverty, disease and hardship. It is against this background that Parker outlines the hopes and promises the New World offered to a nation wracked by civil strife. Over the previous century and a half, large parts of the Americas had been explored and conquered by the Spanish and Portuguese, and the vast wealth they gained by commandeering the natural resources they found, particularly gold and silver, became the stuff of legend. Indeed, Parker begins his narrative with the exploits of Sir Walter Ralegh, who spent a considerable amount of time and money harrying Spanish gold ships in the Caribbean and searching for El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold deep in the Amazonian jungle. But Ralegh was also an early pioneer advocating English settlement in the New World, writing enthusiastically about the beauty and rampant fertility of its jungles, its exotic and abundant flora and fauna, and even about its friendly and 'noble' natives. But he also wrote passionately about how the New World offered something highly sought amongst his countrymen – freedom. His books became best sellers.

For Parker, Willoughbyland represents both the realisation of Ralegh's vision, and the cruel exposure of its contradictions. The colony's founder, the aristocrat Sir Francis Willoughby, was himself a man of many contradictions, switching allegiances more than once between Parliament and Crown during England's bitter Civil War before establishing at great personal expense, and then largely abandoning, his colony on the Suriname river. For the first decade after its establishment in the early 1650s, Willoughbyland seemed to live up to Ralegh's promises of opportunity, wealth, peace and freedom. Ex-patriot planters from both sides in the civil war, Roundhead and Cavalier, laboured side-by-side to clear the dense jungle and create profitable sugar plantations. They traded peacefully with the Arawak natives. Best of all, they existed virtually independent of all meddling from politics of home.

However, life on the Wild Coast, as it was known, was never perhaps as idyllic as it seems. The relentless jungle heat made clearing and managing plantations punishingly hard work. Not all of the abundant animal life in the jungle was so benign – poisonous snakes and spiders posed a constant threat, jaguars stalked the rainforest, piranhas and electric eels infested the rivers and, worst of all, huge mosquitoes and fresh water parasites spread disease. The Restoration of the monarchy in England in the 1660s changed the political balance in terms of who controlled the American colonies, with greater meddling from home re-opening old, bitter rivalries and resentment between the colonists. The peace of the early colony was then further shattered by two events. The first was the arrival of African slaves to work the sugar plantations, creating a two-tier society founded on the brutality of the soon-outnumbered white planters, undermining every sense in which this was a 'free' society. Second, war erupted in Europe between the pretenders to Spanish dominance in the Americas, the English, Dutch and French. This soon spread over the Atlantic, and fleets from each country's navy began to routinely sack the infant colonies of its rivals. After losing and then recapturing Willoughbyland from the Dutch, the English crown finally ceded its only South American possession in 1667 in return for New Amsterdam – quickly re-named New York. Suriname remained a Dutch colony until 1975.

Parker sums up all of the contradictions Willoughbyland exposed in just 16 years of early colonial ambition as follows:

These pioneers brought with them their energy, ambition and dreams of a golden world... These hopes built the thriving, tolerant and cooperative colony of the 1650s. But they also brought with them their greed, their squabbles from home, their appetites and, of course, after a while, slavery... Thus the story of Willoughbyland's rise and fall is a microcosm of empire – its heady attractions and its fatal dangers.

As an historical study, Parker's work is impeccably well-researched, with numerous references to contemporary sources throughout, including those who lived, and in some cases died, in Willoughbyland. He also includes the writings of pioneering female playwright Aphra Behn, who supposedly travelled to Willoughbyland as a secret agent working for Charles II. Her fictional account of Willoughbyland, Oroonoko, has become a literary classic and is cited as one of the first anti-slavery publications. Yet for all the exemplary research into the subject, the book remains a straightforward and enjoyable read, covering a huge range of subject matter in 288 pages without ever becoming cluttered or confused. Overall, this is an excellent book throwing light on a fascinating subject and a fascinating period in history.

For a glimpse even further back into the history of England's colonial exploits, try Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England by James Evans.

Buy Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker at Amazon.com.


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