Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, but English has been the official language for less than half the time Europeans occupied the country. The Dutch language was the main medium of communication for 232 years, from the time a group of Dutchmen sailed up the Pomeroon River and settled there, to 1812 when English replaced Dutch as the language used in the Court of Policy (Parliament). To this day, hundreds of villages have retained their original Dutch names like Uitvlugt, Vergenoegen and Zeeburg. Some present-day Guyanese have names like Westmaas, Amsterdam and Meertens. No Guyanese citizen or visitor can escape visible and other reminders of our Dutch predecessors.
The ruins of a brick fort can still be seen on a little island where the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers meet. The original fort was a wooden structure built around 1600 by some Dutch traders who called it Kyk-over-al or "See-over-all" because it provided a commanding view of the three rivers. From 1627 the fort was controlled by the Dutch West India Company, a Holland-based organization which was vested with the power to establish colonies and which monopolized Dutch trade in the New World. The Company appointed Adrianetz Groenewegel as its first Commander to administer Kyk-over-al. The wooden fort was replaced in the 1630s by a brick structure which also served as an administrative centre.
Guyanese farmers and consumers should know that it was Commander Groenewegel, along with his counterpart Cornelis Goliat of Fort Nova Zeelandia in the Pomeroon River, who introduced orange, lemon and lime trees to the country from Southern Europe. They also brought in sugar-cane plants and plantain suckers which the Company's sister-organization, the Dutch East India Company, had initially obtained from the East Indies.
Another notable landmark which continues to attract tourists to Guyana is the Dutch fort Zeelandia on Fort Island in the Essequibo River. This brick fort, which still retains its main features, was built in 1743. The man responsible for its construction was Laurens Storm van Gravesande. As it turned out, Gravesande played a major role in Guyana's early development. He arrived first at Fort Kyk-over-al in 1738 to serve as Secretary to the Commander, Hermanus Gelskerke. Together, they decided to move the capital of Essequibo downriver to Fort Island in order to have ready access to more fertile land. Gravesande was appointed Commander (Governor) of Essequibo in 1743, following the death of Gelskerke.
Shortly after Fort Island became the capital, many Dutch planters relocated to the lower banks of the Essequibo River. They continued to cultivate cotton, annatto (a red dye which fetched a high price in Europe), citrus, coffee, ground provisions and sugar-cane. Gravesande encouraged planters of all nationalities to take up land under his jurisdiction with tax-free concessions and other generous benefits. Englishmen rushed in from the West Indian islands and, together with Dutch newcomers, were granted parcels of fertile land along the East Bank of the Essequibo River, the West Coast of Demerara and then along both banks of the Demerara River. It didn't take long for estates to cover the Demerara landscape.
In 1750 Gravesande and his son Jonathan travelled to Holland and were received warmly by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. Jonathan was appointed the first Commander (Governor) of Demerara while the older Gravesande became Director-General of Demerara and Essequibo. Jonathan chose Borsselen Island in the Demerara River as his capital but died early, in 1761. Laurens Storm van Gravesande resigned as Director-General in 1772. He died three years later. The early Dutch planters laid the foundation for Guyana's sugar industry. They started cultivating sugar-cane on a small scale around 1636 near Kyk-over-al. With the passage of time sugar became the most important and profitable crop. The sugar industry has endured to this day as one of Guyana's main foreign-currency earners.
In the 1740s, when Dutch sugar planters moved their estates from Kyk-over-al to other locations towards the coastal belt, they had to spend large sums of money and organize an army of manpower on sea defence, drainage and irrigation. The Guyana coastland is six feet below high-tide level and is vulnerable to flood-water from the sea. In addition, the planters had to combat water draining down from the highlands behind their estates and were threatened with flooding every rainy season. Faced with this dual agony, the Dutch planters devised a system of water control that is used up to this day.
They built a sea-dam at the front of their estates and a backdam behind the estates. To keep out water from the surrounding undrained lands they built side-line dams. They dug canals alongside the side-line dams to collect excess water from the estates through a network of smaller trenches. These side-line canals flowed towards the sea-dam where kokers or sluices were erected to control the outflow. Today, kokers stand like sentinels at strategic points along Guyana's low-lying coastal plain, offering round-the-clock protection to people, animals and property. The original sea-dams were later reinforced with concrete sea-walls. While the Dutch were masters at digging canals, they also built Guyana's main roads. Each planter was legally bound to build a public road in front of his plantation. Planters were also responsible for maintaining the roads. Failure to carry out road repairs could result in the forfeiture of a planter's entire estate.
Did the Dutch planters create Guyana's infrastructure and early market economy by themselves? Without the labour of African slaves sugar-cane and other large-scale crops could not be planted and harvested, canals could not be dug, sea-walls and roads could not be built. The first batch of African slaves arrived at Fort Nova Zeelandia on the Pomeroon River from Angola in 1658. By the time the Dutch were finally forced to relinquish Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice in 1803, Africans accounted for the majority of the population. There were 110,000 Africans in Guyana, according to a census taken in 1817, i.e., seventeen years before the abolition of slavery and the introduction of Chinese, Portuguese and East Indians. While the system of slavery should never be condoned, it is useful to remember that the Dutch handed down a remarkable legacy in the form of wonderful human beings who now call themselves Afro-Guyanese.
More than 195 years after the Dutch surrendered to the English, one can still see groups of adventurous and enterprising Guyanese retrieving and selling never-ending quantities of Dutch bottles. The Dutch planters used to drink wine and beer freely at breakfast, lunch, dinner and late into the night. As many plantations stood on the banks of rivers, empty beer and wine bottles were simply thrown into the rivers. In other estates these bottles were discarded any which way. Dutch bottles are in great demand among tourists in Guyana, and brave youths continue to dive in the Essequibo, Demerara, Berbice, Canje and other rivers to search for these precious souvenirs.
Present-day Guyanese are more educated and enlightened than their nineteenth-century forefathers. East Indians, Portuguese and Chinese never laboured for Dutch plantation owners. Despite that, among the superstitious of all races, a Dutchman jumbie (ghost) is still believed to haunt many villages. And, according to folklore, Dutch jumbies are far more terrifying than other varieties of ghosts. Some people will avoid passing near old Dutch cemeteries at mid-day or midnight, fearing that "Dutchman go hold" them.
In life and in death, in the past and the present, those Dutch pioneers who made a whole country out of bush and swamp have left an indelible impression on us all.