The Fort Island roadway

Stabroek News
July 20, 2001

A GIS press release dated July 16, 2001, referred to the Government's "development thrust to protect [Fort Island] as a historical site." It reported Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government, Ms Philomena Sahoye-Shury as saying that the Government was "examining the possibility of rehabilitating the main road leading to the Court of Policy and the Fort," and that any rehabilitation of the infrastructure must be maintained and monitored "so that maximum results would be achieved."

Fort Zeelandia on Fort Island is the best preserved Dutch military site in this country. Apart from gravestones, there are only foundations to be found at the Fort Nassau location, some fifty-six miles up the Berbice River, while in the case of Kykoveral situated at the entrance to the Mazaruni River, it is just the archway and again the foundations which have survived the depredations of time. Since it still has standing walls and most important, is within striking distance of Georgetown, Fort Island, if properly managed and packaged, could have potential as a tourist destination.

Unlike either Fort Nassau or Fort Kykoveral, a fair amount is known about the origins of Fort Zeelandia, which was named after the Dutch province of Zeeland. Most of the brick structure which we see today may have been started around 1740 and completed some three years later, the design being supplied by Colony Secretary Laurens Storm van 's Gravesande, soon to become Governor. The parsimonious authorities in the Netherlands were only too happy to accept his drawings, since it allowed them to dispense with the services of an architect-engineer, thereby reducing the cost of the project.

The design which Storm van 's Gravesande favoured, was a lozenge-shaped one, typcial of some of the West African slave forts of the period. The main brick redoubt consisted of two stories, the upper serving as a barracks, and the lower as a powder magazine and warehouse. At a later date, a separate magazine was to be constructed in the south-western bastion of the fort. The redoubt carried a flat roof, so mortars and swivel guns could be mounted on it, and sentries could patrol there.

Unlike its Berbice counterpart of the period which was encircled by wooden palisading, Fort Zeelandia had solid brick ramparts. In a mediaeval touch, a moat with a drawbridge was also provided.

The actual builders of Fort Zeelandia, of course, were the Essequibo slaves who came under levy from both the private and the Dutch West India Company plantations. They not only supplied the unskilled labour, but much of the skilled labour as well. At one time or another, all the Company artisans would have been engaged on the project, and probably not a few of the private ones as well. It was the African/Creole Company brickmakers who manufactured the bricks - at least for the main structure - and it would have been the African/Creole Company bricklayers who would have played a major part in directing how those bricks were to be laid. Then there were the carpenters who inevitably would have made a contribution, and perhaps even the blacksmiths.

For reasons of economy, the West India Company employed few Dutch skilled workers, and was consequently heavily reliant on the skills of its African and, more rarely, Amerindian artisans. (There was, for example, an Amerindian blacksmith employed at the fort at one point.)

While it is commendable that the Government is taking a direct interest in Fort Island, and is to rehabilitate the road, it still has to be borne in mind that this is a historical site, and the roadway cannot be treated in the same way as the streets of Georgetown. The present pathway constructed originally of bricks, was once the main link between the Court of Policy (dating from around 1752) and Fort Zeelandia. In addition, it was flanked by buildings such as the Governor's house and the inn, which no longer stand. Before the heavy-duty machinery moves in, therefore, it would be advisable if the administration were to show their plans to an agency like the National Trust for advice.