A brief history of 'Vlaggen' Island The former Dutch capital of Essequibo
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
March 8, 2007
Though the Spanish were the first to sail and chart the Guiana Coast it is the Dutch who are credited with establishing the first permanent settlements in Guyana. The exact date of the first Dutch settlement has been keenly debated among historians of that era. Netscher asserts that it is possible that the Dutch may have settled in this region as early as 1590 whilst Hartsinck indicates that they may have settled in the Pomeroon circa 1580.
The Dutch from the very beginning entered into a trade of tropical goods such as anatto, wood and balsam with the indigenous peoples of this region. Unlike their Spanish counterparts they made no attempt to uplift these supposedly godless people with the rays of Christianity. They realized that they needed the cooperation of the Indians if they were to succeed in the vast wilderness of the 'Wild Coast.'
In order to facilitate trade with the Indians the Dutch established crude settlements in remote areas to serve as depots to collect substantial quantities of goods to fill the hulls of their cargo vessels. These settlements, according to Cornelius Goslinga, were nothing more than "wooden shanties" surrounded by earthern palisades to offer some level of protection against a surprise attack by the Indians. Over time these settlements were slowly transformed into more permanent settlements.
Perhaps around 1616 the Dutch occupied Kykoveral, a small island at the confluence of the Mazaruni, Cuyuni and Essequibo Rivers. At some point, a brick fortress, the archway of which can still be seen today, was constructed there. This fort is believed to have been the smallest fortification constructed by the Dutch overseas. It was used as a warehouse, a garrison as well as the house of the Dutch officials, the secretary, bookkeeper and a parson and staff. As the colony of Essequibo slowly progressed small plantations cultivating sugar cane were soon established around this fort.
By 1675 there are numerous reports which indicate a desire to relocate the fort as the area had become too small and congested. In addition many planters had begun to relocate further upriver to more fertile soils. In the circumstances the size and the location of Kykoveral would, the colonists argued, prove ineffective in rendering defence to the colony should an attack occur.
It was not until 1726, however, that work was begun on a wooden redoubt with palisading on 'Vlaggen' (Flag) Island or Fort Island as it is known today, which had been favoured as the location for the new fort for many years. In fact a wooden fort was constructed there in 1687 but it was never used as Van der Heyden, then commander of the colony was not in favour of this location.
Owing to the overcrowded conditions in Kykoveral, the Dutch relocated the parson, a warehouse and the house of the administrator and his staff to an area next to the private estate of Cartabo. Today this area is littered with bricks, and if one looks carefully through the undergrowth foundations of buildings can be seen.
In 1719 Laurens de Heere was appointed as Commander of Essequibo, replacing Van der Heyden, who had been recalled to Holland. He supported relocating the seat of Dutch administration to Flag Island. In response to his demands for this project to be executed A. Leslorant, an engineer, was sent from the Netherlands. He was charged with the construction of the outer portion of the bastion and pallisading of the island. De Heere was unable to complete his project as he died of cancer in 1729. He was succeeded by Hermanus Gleskerke in 1731.
Under the new commander works continued but progress was constrained by a shortage of materials and labour. In 1738 Gelskerke's administration was given a significant boost with the arrival of his new secretary Laurens Storm van 's Gravesande.
Gravesande's dispatches reveal considerable data about the colony during the 18th century. Upon his arrival on August 12, 1738 he wrote that the new fort would never be completed as long as timber was used for construction.
"For when the palisades are set up on one side those on the other side, being rotten, fall over, thus causing tediousā€¦ work, whilst if it was constructed of bricks, which are now being baked here, it could soon be completed. No engineer would be required for I having learnt that art would always exert all my zeal and industry to the utmost extent to further Your Honours' interest without claiming any other reward for my trouble."
Gravesande's proposal was im-mediately endorsed by Commander Gelsskerke. One year later on September 8, 1739 Gravesande wrote that he was pleased that his proposal had been accepted. He indicated that he had excavated some eight feet of earth and found that the soil consisted of "hard firm clay, well able to carry the heaviest masonry"; he reiterated that the "bricks required for the purpose being made here in sufficient quantities, all that is wanted would be lime and cement; the former could be got from Barbados, whence I think it would be more advantageously procured than from home, since it would stand us a only a guilder per hogshead. The cement required for the foundation we would have to send home for."
Before the Dutch could commence their relocation to Flag Island, there was need for the construction of other infrastructure besides the fort. These included a house for the secretary and one for the parson, soldiers' barracks, mechanics quarters, storehouses, etc. Netscher notes that in order to hurry up their construction Gelskerke had personally gone to live there in January 1739, when the house of the commander had been completed. One year later the remaining buildings were completed and Cartabo was abandoned.
In the meantime work on the construction of the fort was carefully supervised by Gravesande. On April 1, 1744 Gravesande wrote that the fort had been completed.
"I have had the good fortune to raise this work up from the very ground with much labour to brig it to completion in one year and a half and in such a state of defence that I am well assured no enemy will dare attack it. It gave general satisfaction to all the colonists who upon the day when I was presented to them as Commander, named the fort Zeealndia." Their satisfaction was so great that they offered me of their own free will to continue furnishing their slaves for the erection of the dwellings and warehouse which I am obliged to have made, which generous offer will enable me to make an end of the work very speedily.
"It has cost me many a night's sleep and many a wetting to bring matters as far as this, for they would newer have progressed so quickly had I not always been present and had everything under my eye, but I have been doubly paid for my trouble by the universal satisfaction of the colonists."
Upon completion the fort consisted of a redoubt of fifty square feet with thick stout brick walls on the inside and the outside filled in with twenty feet of compacted earth. The fort has two stories, the lower serving as a warehouse for provisions and a powder magazine; the upper storey housed the soldiers' quarters as well as a room for the non-commissioned officers and a flat parapet 31/2 feet high, which was equipped with mortars and swivel guns. In addition each storey was finished with 20 portholes with two and three pounders.
Gravesande boasted that no vessel could pass without being exposed to at least three lines of fire. The entire complex of the fort was surrounded by a moat which was furnished with a drawbridge at the land gate. Before the middle of the redoubt overlooking the Essequibo River there was a landing place and a crane that allowed the biggest vessels to collect and discharge materials without the use of an additional craft.
In this long series of dispatches dated April 1, 1744 Gravesande also commented on the need for the construction of a new church. He wrote:
"The congregation that meets here on Sundays for divine worship is now so large that the place usually set apart for it in my house, although 30 feet long and 25 feet wide has become much too small, all the people being unable to find room there, wherefore I take the liberty of asking Your Honour's permission to have a separate building set up 60 feet long and 40 feet wide. It has already long been repugnant to me that the same place in which divine worship is held must often be used for meals or festive gatherings, such use being incompatible with respect due to the place."
It appears that Gravesande received permission and by 1752 his dispatches refer to the completed brick church. The building which was described by one observer as similar to an English barn was used for multiple functions. On Sundays it was used a place of worship and during the week it performed the services of a courthouse and vendue office. According to local folklore enslaved Africans were hanged in this structure, but regrettably the writer has not been able to source any data to substantiate such a claim.
Fort Island's importance declined with the growth of Demerara soon after its establishment by Gravesande in 1746. With the consolidation of British authority and governance after they attained control of the three Dutch colonies in 1803, Stabroek became the seat of government of the United Colony of Essequibo and Demerara.
Fort Island and its structures were neglected. Many of the structures erected by Gravesande were of wood and today none of them have survived. The ruins of Fort Zeelandia and the Court of Policy Hall are the most tangible remainders of this island's glorious past. Today the Court of Policy Hall has been given a new lease of life. After extensive restoration the structure now houses a Dutch Heritage Museum which showcases numerous aspects of the nation's first colonizers.
Visitors to the island if they look carefully can see the brick foundations of many of the houses there today. It is very possible that these may have been the original foundations of the structures built there in the 18th century. Other areas of interest include the Dutch military cemetery which has approximately 20-30 tombstones. Regrettably there are no inscriptions to provide the names of those resting there. The lone inscription is a concrete triangular tombstone which states November 1686.
Guyana has a rich and diverse built heritage but regrettably there are a few persons who appreciate our history. For many persons these buildings represent an impediment to progress which, for some strange reason, is symbolized by concrete monstrosities constructed with the assistance of impaired architects. These structures once erected, as many will have seen, permanently scar the beauty of our landscape.
Over many years the nation has lost its heritage to fires and other disasters but today it appears as if man's wilful actions are the greatest threat to the survival of our cultural heritage. The wilful destruction of the Queenstown Masjid, the selling of our military heritage as scrap iron, the thoughtless desecration of the murals at the Cheddi Jagan Timehri International Airport and the neglect of the old New Amsterdam Public Hospital represent shameful chapters of our history.
Yes, historic restoration is costly, but it is task we must address not only in words but also in action. How many of us have visited other countries and marvelled at their historic sites? John F. Kennedy once remarked that a nation without its history is not a nation at all. Is this what we are to become?