The Guyana-Suriname boundary dispute, 1627-1969
By Arlene Munro
October 17, 2002
Guyana is the only English-speaking nation on the continent of South America.
It received its independence from the British in 1966. Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname are her immediate neighbours. When Guyana became a nation in 1966, it retained the same borders that the British had controlled. However, Suriname is claiming the forested region which lies between the Kutari and New Rivers. The area is about 6,000 square miles.
According to international convention, a river that lies from its source to its mouth within one state should be viewed as a national river. The state in which it lies has full control over it. However, other rivers may lie partly within the state and these have been designated successive or non-national rivers.
Finally, there are rivers which form the boundary between two or more states. These rivers have been termed boundary rivers.
The Guyana government bases its claims on maps which were printed in British Guiana in 1913 and 1924 which placed the boundary between the two colonies along the thalweg (deepest channel) of the Corentyne. This boundary was recognised by the Dutch in the early 1930’s.
The Suriname government contends, however, that the Corentyne River is a national river. In 1967, the government of Suriname stated that in a treaty signed in 1799 between the Dutch and the British all of the territory west of the Corentyne river was ceded to the colony of Berbice and the border was the left bank of the Corentyne from its mouth to its source. The Suriname government claims that the Corentyne is a national river which lies within its territory and not a boundary river.
An examination of the history of the boundary issue is necessary. When the Dutch West India Company gave Abraham van Pere permission to colonize Berbice in 1627, no boundaries were demarcated. However, in 1662 twelve years after Suriname was colonized by Lord Willoughby, Charles 11 of England gave him a charter delineating the western boundary of that colony one mile west of the Coppename River. Five years later, in 1667, Suriname was ceded by the English to the Dutch. In the 1680’s Van Pere of Berbice and Cornelis van Aersen van Somelsdyk, the governor of Suriname, decided that Devil’s creek, situated west of the Corentyne River, would be the boundary between their plantations and colonies. However, there is no record of this agreement and it is not binding because it was not ratified by the authorities in the Netherlands. The legality of their agreement was questioned by Governor Van Batenburg of Berbice in a despatch sent to the Directors of Berbice in the Netherlands in 1794. It was also questioned by the owners of plantations in Berbice.
On receiving a reply from the Directors of Berbice, Governor Van Batenburg decided that the western bank of the Corentyne river would be the boundary of the colony of Berbice. He accepted the Willoughby charter which set Suriname’s boundary one mile west of the Coppename river.
In 1796, Britain gained control of the colonies of Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice. In 1799, an agreement was signed between the Governors of Suriname and Berbice. It stated that the entire west coast of the Corentyne would belong to Berbice while Suriname would retain the post on the west bank of the river and the islands in the Corentyne river. Suriname refers to this agreement to support its contention that the Corentyne is a national river and not a border river. It is claimed that “where a state possesses a river, and cedes the territory on the other side of it, making the river the boundary, that state retains the river, unless there is an express provision for the relinquishment of the rights over the soil and jurisdiction over the bed of the river.”
However, the agreement did not specifically state where the boundary would lie between the two colonies. Some historians contend that the agreement was not a boundary demarcation per se.
In 1814 Demerara-Essequibo and Berbice were ceded to Britain and in 1831 were united into a single colony British Guiana. In 1841, the British government employed Sir R.H. Schomburgk to survey the boundaries of British Guiana.
Schomburgk explored the Corentyne river and discovered the Kutari and Curuni rivers which united to form the source of the Corentyne river. Consequently, Schomburgk drew a map showing the Kutari river as the source of the Corentyne.
For the rest of the nineteenth century Schomburgk’s map was used as a model by Dutch and English cartographers.
In 1871, Barrington Brown, a geologist, discovered a river to the west of the Kutari river which he named the New River. He measured the Kutari river and found that it was 75 yards wide. When he measured the New River it was 272 yards wide.
Brown concluded that the New River was larger than the Kutari and that the latter was just a branch. However, he drew a map showing the Kutari as the source and the New River as a tributary of the Corentyne.
W.L. Loth published a map of Suriname fixing the New River as the source of the Corentyne in 1899. On October 3, 1899 the Arbitral Tribunal on the British Guiana-Venezuela boundary dispute made a statement to the effect that the Guiana border ended on the eastern side at the source of the Corentyne River called Kutari. The Dutch authorities objected to this declaration. They claim-ed that Barrington Brown’s pronouncements shows that the New River should be regarded as the source of the Corentyne and should be considered the boundary instead of the Kutari river. Lord Salisbury of the United Kingdom declared in 1900 that for years the Kutari river had been accepted as the boundary by both the Dutch and the English. He stated that it was too late for the decision to be changed.
In the twentieth century the debate continued unabated. In 1929, the Dutch became more determined to exercise jurisdiction over the entire river because geologists felt that there was the possibility that oil existed in the Corentyne River. During talks with the Dutch the British requested that the Kutari be identified as the Southern line of the boundary and that Guyanese receive certain rights as users of the rivers. However, although a draft treaty was prepared, it was never signed because war broke out in Europe.
In 1962, the Dutch asked for negotiations for a new draft. They once again requested the cession of the New River Triangle to Suriname. They asked that the boundary be drawn down the middle of the river.
Just before independence was granted to British Guiana the Dutch and the British held discussions about the border issue. British Guiana continued to claim the New River Triangle. Lord Walston who represented the British government stated:
“on the New River Triangle Her Majesty’s Government maintain very firmly their sovereignty over the territory of British Guiana as defined by its present frontier.” Therefore, when Guyana became independent she retained the same borders.
In 1967, the government of Guyana discovered that the Suriname government had sent a land survey party into the New River Triangle. The Surinamese land survey party was ordered to evacuate. The government of Guyana had not permitted the government of Suriname to conduct a survey in the New River Triangle. The two governments agreed that Suriname would not enter the New River Triangle again.
Subsequently, Suriname occupied the New River Triangle without the permission of the government of Guyana. A camp and an airstrip were discovered by a Guyana Defence Force patrol in August 1969. The Surinamese soldiers fired at the Guyanese, but the latter prevailed and the Surinamese were forced to flee across the border. The Guyanese soldiers discovered a well-furnished camp which could accommodate 50 men.
The government of Guyana sent letters of protest to the Netherlands and Suriname about this violation of Guyana’s territorial integrity. Subsequently, a military outpost, Camp Jaguar, was established in the New River Triangle. Since the 1970’s there has been no incursion into the New River Triangle. The governments of Guyana and Suriname have maintained fairly harmonious relations since 1975 when Suriname received her independence from the Netherlands.