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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S2 E4: Willoughbyland transcript

Listen to our episode on Willoughbyland.

This episode of CTDEA is heavily indebted to Matthew Parker's "Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony." It's a fantastic read with great analysis and top notch storytelling. Generally, I wouldn't rely heavily on one source, but my mum bought me the book and she listens in. Or at least, she SAYS she does…


What was Willoughbyland?

On the North East coast of South America, halfway between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, Willoughbyland was an early English colony, founded in what is now modern day Suriname.

How long did Willoughbyland last?

About 17 years, from 1650 to 1667.

How large was Willoughbyland?

30,000 acres, or 120 km squared, which included a fort and around 200 plantations.

How many people lived in Willoughbyland?

At its peak, at the end of the 1650s, about 4,000 settlers. A diverse lot including English, Africans, indigenous Amerindians and Brazilian Jews.


That sounds like a happy melting pot of cultures.


Yeah. I mean….most of the Africans were slaves and some of the Amerindians were too or they were just killed off by disease, but sure….



What type of government did Willoughbyland have?

Well, since it was technically an English colony, it was a Constitutional monarchy, but this varied over time. At one point it even dabbled in democracy, described by one planter as ‘a peculiar form of government, elective in the people.'

That same planter also described cats as "a peculiar, meowing form of dog."

There was the annual election of a governor from among the planters. The colony had an assembly of twenty-one men chosen by and from the colony's wealthier male landowners, and a six-man council appointed by the governor.

The governor and council administered justice and proposed policies – such as raising money for defence or building a prison – which would then be voted on by the assembly, who would meet every few months.

For most of its existence, Willoughbyland was effectively self-governing with little input from England, which is why we're featuring it. It might not have been strictly a country, but a unique blend of people starting from scratch in a sort-of unoccupied area? It was as good as.

Why would English settlers want to go to Guiana?

The English civil war, which had raged between Parliamentary and Royalist forces, had caused massive damage to the country and killed off a lot of people, including 80,000 soldiers and 100,000 civilians. It had also created poverty, food shortages and disease. At the same time Britain was entering a mini Ice Age.


So English people were falling victim to fiersome Sabre Tooth Tigers and gigantic Woolly Mammoth?


No, it was just nippier.

In the context of this discontent, the prospect of Guiana sounded pretty damn inviting. It was described at the time at the time as the land of "Eternal spring" where fruit was plentiful and "noble aromaticks" made the place smell delish. The soil was "luxuriant" producing an abundance of everything. If you liked places teaming with stuff, Guiana was the place to be. Lots of teaming.: "Strange rarities, both of beasts, fish, reptiles, insects and vegetables, the which for shape and colour."


That doesn't sound like a proper sentence.


It was the seventeenth century.

Thanks to the writings of English adventurer and semi legal pirate Sir Walter Ralegh, Guiana was seen as a New Eden. When searching for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, he'd traveled in Gianna and reported back that it was "the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld." For those not interested in beauty spots, he also spelled out the area's charms differently, saying that the region "hath more abundance of gold than any part of Peru."

There were also, it was reported, friendly, gullible locals who would trade your shiny biro for all the gold, silver and pearls you could fit on a hotel breakfast buffet plate.

"Got your big plate, Alan?"

And of course the women were described as "lascivious" and all "nakedly expos'd to every wanton eye."

Because, if all else falls, the promise of a peek at nudey ladies is always a winner.

Guiana is a land of hundreds of rivers creating muddy, mosquito-ridden mangroves by the coast leading to impenetrable jungle inland, which the French called "green hell," the Dutch: "the wild coast" and early English settlers dubbed: "the drowned lands."

No wonder people promoted the colony went with: "Hey look! Tits!"

So Guyana looked to be this land of promise just waiting for English domination, and not just because it was neither in control of the Spanish to to North or to the Portuguese to the South.

Ralegh had also done a good bit of PR when in the country. The local tribes had already met the Spanish who had apparently dealt with them with "notorious cruelties, spoils and slaughter."

By contrast, Ralegh (who wasn't above a bit of recreational slaughter himself) ordered his men strictly not to take anything without payment and absolutely no sexual assault even though the women were "very young, and excellently favoured, and starke naked."

You can hear a nation of Puritans drooling copiously even now.

This non raping pillaging policy of Ralegh's seemed to make the English look pretty good to the tribal peoples, who naturally preferred it to the Spanish policy of a "what Geneva convention?" free-for-all.

Ralegh had long term goals in mind. He was giving Guiana all these faked 5-star Trip Advisor reviews because he wanted it to become a colony named after him: Raleana.

This scheme fell through when he sent rock samples off to be tested for gold but they came back from the lab boys as worthless. But Ralegh's expedition wasn't entirely so. In 1596 he published an account of the place actually containing lots of useful information covering everything from geography to agriculture to anthropology. But this being Ralegh, he couldn't resist sticking in some tabloid bullshit just to spice things up. He even claimed he had found a tribe of headless men who had "eyes in their shoulders and the mouths in the middle of their breasts."

Either he made this up to sell books or he genuinely encountered them after a particularly colorful pot of Amazon tree frog stew.

But despite the tall tales, this kept English dreams of Guiana alive. But sometimes this promised land didn't seem all that promising. Several efforts to set up colonies were foiled by tropical disease or starvation or mutiny or sailing to the wrong place and getting massacred by irritable natives. This was until Francis Willoughby had a go.

So hang on, who was this Willoughby person?

Francis Willoughby was the 5th Baron Willoughby of Parham. As well as being born into a cushy family, he'd also married a woman called Elizabeth Cecil, who was from a family that were one of the biggest financial backers of English ventures in the Caribbean.

He had fought on the side of Parliament during the English Civil War but wanted to find a compromise with the King and definitely wasn't into the whole "everyone should be equal" leveler thing. A new radical sect in Parliament considered him a reactionary swine and tried to arrest him. He fled to Holland where he switched sides to the Royalist cause before being branded a traitor and having his lands confiscated.

He then fled to the "Charibee Islands" (as the Caribbean was known) where he managed to acquire himself a governorship.

In the late 1640s, relations between Cavaliers and Roundheads in the West Indies were cordial, in fact there was a rule in the Barbados that anyone who even mentioned the ongoing war back home would have to buy those in earshot a turkey dinner.

"Montague, remind me. What is the name of that violent constitutiinal conflict back in the mother country?"

"The English Civil War, wasn't it?"

"Extra cranberry sauce please, old boy."


With the execution of the King in 1649, the truce looked to be on thin ice, but Willoughby patched things up between the factions. But with the threat of a Parliamentary invasion being sent from England, Willoughby armed the island and prepared for the invasion which he effectively lost and had to hand over the governorship.

BUT he had been preparing a Plan B. He had sent 40 men to explore the Suriname River and establish a colony. As governor of the Charibee Islands that had been turned over to sugar and slavery, Willoughby knew there were small farmers just waiting for a new home. Willoughby also planned to make a killing from the new craze for white gold, i.e. sugar cane and thought that Guiana might make a good base for this.

Plus Willoughby also fancied himself a latter day Sir Walter Ralegh, so he planned to find Eldorado, get into a few scrapes and hopefully have a peek at nude ladies.

So in 1651, Willoughby sent a group led by Major Antony Rous to take possession. Rous sent two Indian chiefs to Willoughby who apparently gave permission for an English settlement. Apparently.

After that, regular ships were sent with reinforcements and supplies to keep the colony going. Willoughby finally visited in 1652, when the final victory of Parliament got him booted off Barbados.

When they reached their new home, the settlers seemed completely taken aback by the exotic, tropical land they had discovered. Guiana had 800 species of trees, 1600 species of birds and 300 types of catfish! This incredible, flourishing ecosystem was something that the English had never experienced before.


Meanwhile back in England.


Look ma! A pigeon!


Well bless my soul!



Well bless my soul!

But was life in Willoughbyland all sunshine and lollipops?

But life in Willoughbyland wasn't all sunshine and lollipops. The intense humidity rotted buildings, shoes and provisions. Massive mosquitos swarmed everywhere. Tropical diseases like cholera and dengue fever were relentless. Parasitic worms ate at eyeballs causing river blindness. While snakes bit, scorpions stung and jaguars dragged folk off their front porch and ate their faces off. One settler simply didn't like the frogs, complaining "that a man can hardly hear himself speak, and the croakings of some are so horrid, that do but imagine the latest groans of a dying person and you have it...though there are naked ladies."

It's a testament to the comparative crappiness of life in this era that people could put up with jungle snakes trying to inject poison into them that turned their insides into slush puppies.

They got to work clearing land and starting plantations along the river inland. Willoughby popped in to check on the plantation, but decided to return to England to recover his estates there. Willoughbyland would be Willoughbyless for another 10 years. These were good times for the colony.

Who were the native people of Willoughbyland?

As we've mentioned, Guiana wasn't empty of people when the Europeans got there but, in a smart move, apparently Ralegh had made the English look a good deal better than the Spanish to the local people.

Unfortunately our records of the natives come from English accounts, so we can't expect very impartial or well-informed sources. What we do know is that the English separated them into two distinct (and probably inaccurate) groups: the friendly Caribs and the hostile Arawaks.

The local people who said to be naked (hooray) save for a modesty flap (boooo) except for women who had had several children already (ummmm.)

The people of these lands lived off a diet of cassava bread, fish and game. They were expert fishermen and crackshots with the bow, being able to shoot fruit out of trees. They slept on hammocks on low thatched cottages and rested in open-sided shelters during the heat of the day.

They painted their skin in elaborate patterns with red dye and pierced their nose, lips and ears from which they hung glass pendants or whatever else was shiny and available.

According to one account, they liked fine gardens, drinking and dancing. And who can blame them?

They lived in family groups with a patriarchal head and "captains" of war. High status men could have 3 or 4 wives.

Phil: Imagine having 4 wives.

Ed: I know, right?

FX: Imagine that music….


Hi honeys. I'm home.




Oh. Well that doesn't sound too bad.


No. I thought that was going to end differently.

Men carried bows and arrows, wooden clubs and wooden shields.


Probably to protect themselves for their 3 or 4 wives.



During their frequent skirmishes, captured men would be brutally executed whereas women and children might be taken as slaves and increasingly sold to the English. The English referred to these indigenous slaves as beavers, but were careful not to take slaves from tribes friendly to them. In fact the relentless English demand for labour led to indigenous warriors raiding inland to capture more slaves to meet the demand.

By the way, the English weren't trying to be respectful because they'd joined UNICEF or anything. It's because the native peoples were essential to the success of Willoughbyland. Cassava bread was still a staple and that cassava bread could be poisonous if made incorrectly.

The quote unquote Caribs also made a strong drink fermented from cassava, which one settler LOVED until he found out how it was made. The bread was baked until black then "the oldest women and snotty nose children chew it in their mouths with as much spittle as they can" before spitting it into a jar with similarly chewed potatoes.


I used to work in the kitchen of Bella Italia and we did worse .


Still, it would make you regret your hangover all the more.

"Mate, I'm never going to drink old women's spit every again…5 hours later…. Fermented pensioner flob all round."

The growing colony offered land, religious freedom and the chance of a new life. This is perhaps why it attracted a Jewish community, who had flourished in Dutch owned Recife but had fled when the Portuguese gained the colony. Jews were welcomed to Willoughbyland and enjoyed an incredible level of freedom in a mostly anti-Semitic age. Living far upstream In an area called Jewish Savannah, the Jews of Willoughbyland even built a synagogue in 1654 - one of the first in South America.

The governor and assembly of Willoughbyland even declared that the Jews had "with their persons and property, proved themselves useful and beneficial to this colony." May not sound like much, but in the context of attitudes to Jewish people in the period, this was a 5 star review.

Others who were fleeing new regimes included Royalists in the Caribbean who couldn't abide their new Puritanical Parliamentarian governor.

Meanwhile back in London, Willoughby was promoting his colony still further by offering generous land grants and loans to encourage more settlers. Indentured servants could expect much shorter periods in servitude before getting land plus 33% fewer beating.

Willoughby was also attempting to get himself recognised as proprietor of the colony - which would have effectively given absolutist rule, but he wasn't having much luck with that. What he did manage was to get himself thrown in prison on a few occasions for plotting the return of a monarchy. So, swings and roundabouts I guess.

Anyway, while Willoughby was in and out of confinement, the colony bearing his name was enjoying unfettered freedom. With its annually elected governor and assembly, by 1657 Willoughbyland was enjoying a kind of democratic autonomy, defended by a militia. It was enjoying immense prosperity, producing cash crops such as tobacco, sugar and cotton. Trees and plants were being sold as furniture and medicine. The tobacco of Suriname was considered better quality than Virginia's efforts. Honey, rice and wax were prime products. And let's not forget about those delicious lickable tree frogs.

And with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, its prosperity was to grow further as the new monarch allowed it to trade freely with other countries without tariffs. Plus Willoughby was rewarded for his loyalty and named proprietor, thus establishing his total control. This was at a time when other English colonies were being brought into the Imperial fold with tariffs and trade restrictions. But why did Willoughbyland gain preferential treatment?


Wow! Turns out that Francis Willoughby must have been quite the negotiator.


Sort of. At first his demand of Willoughbyland was rejected by the King's adviser, the Earl of Clarendon. So Willoughbyland said, "I'll share the land with your sons" and Clarendon said, "Oh ok sure. Let's make the colonies tariff free to make sure my lovely lads are super rich."


I see. Taking a leaf out of the best-selling, "The Art of the Bribe."

People were naturally drawn to this rich young colony. And while some were still keen on the "search for El Dorado" not everybody saw the point. With a thriving, mixed agricultural economy and seemingly unlimited land, why bother hiking up stream to get turned into patte by a man with his face in his chest?

And the colony was turning into quite the happening hub.

The capital of Torarica had 100 houses, a government building, a chapel and a large harbour. Hundreds of immigrants were arriving every week from the Carribean. As the Royalists had previously fled to Willoughbyland, now it was the turn of the evangelicals and radicals, who wanted to express themselves freely...and get a sun tan. Back in England, the Clarendon Code was pushing a brutal agenda, cracking down on religious freedom, freedom of the press, speech and basically any kind of criticism.


Did you enjoy your stay, sir?


I didn't much like the King-size bed.


A republican eh? Arrest him!

*Troops hustle in*

But for the time being, Willoughbyland was flourishing. The English government sent someone to report on the colony and his view was favourable. He said:

  • The inhabitants were generous and obliging

  • The country "exceedingly fruitful."

  • The natives were'nt numerous and were at peace in the colony.

  • He thought there would be thousands more settlers in the colony if people now commonly knew about the place.

  • Called it the most hopeful colony in England's empire and saw it as perfectly positioned against the Spanish.

The only negative note, from a Royalist point of view, was how free everybody seemed to be. Willoughby was urged to go and lay down the law, since the colonists had "a liberty in their tongues, pens, and press to sully this colony with a variety of lies."

In short, "FAKE NEWS, PEOPLE."

So in 1663, Willoughbyland was flourishing and free-willed. It was a beacon of liberty and toleration in a repressive world. But could it last?


Because all trade bonuses aside, the restoration of the monarchy put the cat among the pigeons back in Willoughbyland. When Charles II returned as King, he ordered that local authority types should carry on in their posts but now answer to the King. Good idea. Maintaining business as usual makes for a smooth transition of power.

However, in Willoughbyland, it had the opposite effect. The elected governor, William Byam, used the proclamation to say he should be in power until further notice, reasoning that elections would be "a needless and unnecessary charge and trouble to the inhabitants."

Oh yeah? Maybe ask the inhabitants what they think about it, except that's what you're specifically not doing.

To also save them the trouble of having dissenting opinions, Byam also clamped down on political opposition.

William Byam didn't exactly get a good write up, being described at the time as "the most fawning, fair-tongu'd fellow in the world...not fit to be mentioned with the worst of slaves."

Speaking of slaves, let's talk about slaves.

In 1663 the Royal Adventurers company was given a special monopoly to provide African slaves to English colonies. These weren't the first African slaves in the English Caribbean, but these were the first with Royal approval - featuring such respectable backers such as the King and Queen, Samuel Pepys and John Locke.

All these people were now legitimately making lots of money from kidnapping and selling people into slavery. While it's important not to judge people in history by modern standards, it is legitimate to judge people by their own standards. And in that time, plenty of people thought that slavery was immoral and wrong. So there. What a bunch of bastards.

By 1667 at least, there were 3,000 slaves. And that totally changed the character of the place. For one thing, a sense of optimism and industry was replaced by brutality and fear. If transported Africans survived the Transatlantic crossing (which up to a third of each shipment did not) then they had to face a short life of back breaking labour and monstrous cruelty.

And it did nothing for the social cohesion of the colony either. Many small planters had fled the Caribbean islands, squeezed out by the large slave plantations. Now the same seemed to be happening here. Willoughbyland seemed to be turning from a free spirited, independent land of industrious small holders to a tyrannical land where power and privilege was held by the few at the expense is the many.


All right, Corbyn. Get on with it.

A great example of this was the attack by independent minded planterJohn Allin on Francis Willoughby himself.

Allin had arrived in Willoughbyland in 1657 and had done well for himself. He was one of many who saw Willoughby's role of proprietor as a threat to the rights and freedoms of Willoughbylanders, saying, "no subject could be a Lord Proprietor as it infringed on the liberty of the subject."

Being of a fiery temperament, Allin had previously got in trouble both for blasphemy and for injuring a man in a duel. When Willoughby arrived, he rebuffed Allin but also explained that he couldn't meet him in public until Allin's case had been resolved. Not taking well to this, Allin also decided that Willoughby was after his land. Something, as Lord Proprietor, Willoughby had the authority to do.

Allin gatecrashed a service being held in Willoughby's house and slashed him with a knife, before stabbing himself, claiming "I have too much of the Roman in me to possess my own life, when I cannot enjoy it in freedom and honour."

Eventually succeeding in doing himself in, Allin was punished for the crime of killing himself by being sliced, diced and then barbecued "after the Indian style."

Phil: With a sprinkle of cumin?

Ed: And just a squirt of lime.

But despite Allin's Julius Caesar fantasies, he might have had a point. Obviously not a fan of being aerated, Willoughby left the colony in the charge of newly minted Lt General and Deputy Governor Byam until further notice - turning the planters from freeholders to tenants. 200 left Willoughbyland and many threatened to desert their plantations. But Willoughby didn't just bring discontent, his party also seemed to bring a disease, which swept through the colony killing up to a third of the population.

Nice visit, Willoughby.

The other thing to hit the colony with a devastating outcome was the Dutch, who invaded and captured the place in 1667. Now, there was a lot of capturing and recapturing but (after treaties were hammered out) the English traded the area for a colder, less productive place called New Amsterdam, which we now know today as…





What was the legacy of Willoughbyland?

Well, in a roundabout way, it gave the English New York. Which does sound impressive in theory. But it reality this was a far less profitable territory than Willoughbyland. England only held it for 100 years before the Americans went independent.

Willoughbyland was renamed Suriname, which the Dutch held until 1975. So, freed from Willoughby, did Suriname become a prosperous, happy land of hard working freeholders? No. Slavery would not be rooted up, and the colony became a gold mine for the Dutch, but a terrifying place of horrifying place where Africans were worked to death whilst a few landlords lived in luxury.

Willoughbyland had been an early example of how a colony might be done well. True, the English colonists claims to the land were basically nonexistent save for a tenuous invitation by some paid off quote unquote Indian Kings to settle.

And it's not unlike Willoughbyland at its best wasn't destructive. They may have had good relations in general with the local people but they're thirst for labour still led to an unofficial slave trade of peoples from inland cultures.

But at its best Willoughbyland did get close to being the promised land. While warring England could offer nothing to the landless and destitute, Willoughby actually offered a great opportunity for the time. Cheap loans, free land, a shorter spell of indentured servitude and, at the end of that term, the prospect of a new and better life. With it without the fabled cities of gold.

It's true that Willoughbyland's period of democracy and relative independence was an accident of the times. The English government under Cromwell overlooked the place. Willoughby was delayed in being the absolute authority he wished to be. But in that pocket of time, a fiery spirit of independence, tolerance and optimism took root on the Wild Coast.

But it didn't die when the English surrendered Willoughbyland.

In handing over the colony to the Dutch, the English displayed sour grapes by destroying everything. Buildings were torn down and the plantations were dismantled. In the chaos, African slaves fled to the jungles and formed their own communities known as the Maroons.

The Maroons remained an independent force in Dutch Suriname, inciting rebellions, raiding plantations and freeing other slaves - albeit largely female slaves! - eventually winning recognised rights and freedoms. Despite a bumpy and difficult existence, they were a part of a rebellion against the government of Suriname in 1985 and remain a free and proud society to this day.


Hence Maroon 5.



To Maroon 5’s she will be loved

I don’t mind spending every day

In the plantations and trading slaves

Parasitic worms eating my eyes

Scorpion stings and snake bites



Founded a colony in Guiana like

Raleanna but something else

Switched sides from Parliament to Royalist, I

went to the Charibees to find myself.

I sailed for miles and miles to become proprietor.

They wanted democracy but somehow I wanted more.

I don't mind spending everyday

Exporting sugar and importing slaves.

Con some natives and build estates

with nudey ladies and deadly snakes.





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