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History This Week No. 2006/16

While the Spanish are believed to have been the first Europeans to have sailed along the Guiana coast, it was the Dutch who established the first permanent settlements with the erection of trading posts and forts.

Fort Kyk Over Al

In the early 17th century, with the founding of the Dutch West India Company (DWIC) a number of colonists from the province of Zeeland established a settlement on a small island, approximately 1.5 acres in size, at the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers where a small fort, perhaps the smallest Dutch fortification ever built in their overseas empire, armed with a few guns, was erected.

This fortification came to be known by the descriptive name, 'Kijkoveral' (see over all), based on its location.

The first Commandeur of this fort whom we know of, was Jacob Canijn (1624-1627). The island appears to have passed through a precarious period of existence until 1657 when a new Commandeur was appointed by the DWIC.

In the 1650s there was a rapid transformation of the riverbanks of the Essequibo as plantations were established. Under the auspices of the DWIC enslaved Africans were imported from the West Coast of Africa to fulfil the labour requirements for the success of the plantations.

In 1666 the island was captured by the English, but it was recaptured from them and later regarrisoned by the Dutch. In the 1670s under the administration of Commander Hendrick Rol, the fort became a beehive of activity and soon became too small for the increasing number of civil servants and others employed by the company. According to a visitor in 1672, Fort Kyk Over Al was described as a two-storeyed brick structure approximately 20m x 20m, complete with a powder magazine inside the wall.

As the Dutch continued to establish plantations down the Essequibo River, it was evident that there was need to relocate the centre of Dutch administration of the colony of Essequibo to a location closer to the river mouth.

In 1708, the fort was seized and plundered by three French ships manned with approximately 300 privateers who plundered everything in sight and held the colony at ransom. Antoine Ferry, the French privateer Captain, entered an agreement with the Dutch Commandeur in 1710 for the return of the fort to the Dutch. This was accomplished when a total of 50,000 Dutch guilders payable in enslaved Africans and an additional 300 guilders each in meat and provisions were paid to the French. In that same year a proposal had been made for the erection of a new fort closer to the mouth of the Essequibo River. Vlagg-eneiland (the present Fort Island) was selected as a possible location, as there was already a military outpost there. However, the construction of a new fort meant an additional expenditure for the company, which inevitably led to a delay.

In 1716, owing to the crowded state of the island, the Dutchmen relocated to 'Huis Nabij' (Nearby House) which was built at Cartabo Point at the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers. Here a house for the Commandeur and other officials was constructed. From 1718-1739 Cartabo Point remained the centre of Dutch administration. Though the fort had outlived its purpose, it was still occupied by a few soldiers.

In 1748 most of the buildings at Kyk Over Al were demolished and according to Hartsinck, some of the bricks were used for the erection of a sugar mill at Plantation Duynenburg.

During the territorial dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela in 1897, some doubts were expressed as to the original builders of the fort. In the circumstance excavations were undertaken to collect samples of the bricks from the ruins and the lowest courses together with the keystone of the archway over the door.

Archaeologist JM Baart noted after reviewing he pictures and the samples of the bricks taken that, "the wall depicted on your photo is definitely not Spanish masonry. The Spanish brick used in the 17th century is flatter. In view of the colour of the brick and its measurements it relates to masonry from the Dutch period between 1650-1750."

Fort Zeelandia

The commandeurs of Fort Kyk Over Al had from the beginning of the 18th century insisted that the centre of Dutch administration should have been relocated closer to the mouth of the Essequibo River to protect against enemy invasion.

In the circumstances an engineer, Leslorant, was sent from the Netherlands in 1726 to "construct horn work with wooden redoubt and a strong palisade on the northern point of Vlaggeneiland, later Fort Island." To relocate the seat of government from Cartabo Point necessitated more than just a fort. Accommodation for the commandeur and his staff, suitable lodging for soldiers and other infrastructure were needed.

In August 1738 the newly appointed secretary of the DWIC, Laurens Storm Van 's Gravesande, reported that the wooden fort which had been built was in a state of disrepair and and could never be effectively used for protecting the Dutch interests in Essequibo.

Gravesande proposed that a new fort be built of brick, which he offered to make in the colony over a period of two years.

The proposal was favourably accepted, and in 1740 the construction of the fort commenced in earnest under the watchful eyes of Gravesande.

Bricks were made on the spot, and trass and mortar, though available in Esse-quibo, were imported from Barbados. Enslaved Africans were supplied by plantation owners, and a substantial portion of the fort was completed in 1743. The administrators of the DWIC were notified by Gravesande in April 1744 that the new fort was now completely finished except for the crown work. The new fort was christened Zeelandia in honour of the settlers of Zeeland.

The fort is believed to have been designed in accordance with the lozenge-shaped forts which were constructed along the coast of West Africa during the 18th century. According to one description, the fort was a square building, provided with 18 or 19 guns, with four ramparts, inside of which were three covered mason redoubts, having flat roofs with embrasures, serving for barracks for soldiers and a powder magazine.

In the end Fort Zeelandia never witnessed any major warfare as was envisioned by the Dutchmen. It was captured by Captain Day of Admiral Rodney's forces on March 6, 1781 without opposition, and later in 1782 by the French who remained until 1784 when the Dutch resumed control. In 1796 the fort was all but abandoned and left in a state of ruin, as focus shifted to the expansion of plantations along the fertile banks of the Demerara River.

Fort Nassau

This fort was erected some time after Berbice was settled by a private merchant, Abraham Van Pere, in 1627. Very little is known about the fort itself or the activities at the settlement, other than the fact that it successfully repelled an English attack in 1665. However, an account by Adrian Van Berkel in 1670 indicates that the colonists dwelt on their own plantations rather than at the centralised settlement. There seems to have been very little there other than a fort with a commandeur's house and its accompanying citrus groves.

According to Hartsinck the fort was rebuilt under the direction of Commandeur Lucas Coudrie in 1684. Its outer perimeter comprising bullet-wood palisades measured 200 feet square, and it was protected by twelve small cannon to the side of the river and two on the northern side. Inside was a brick building 100 ft x 50 ft, accommodating the council chamber and the church, while the lower floor served as a guardhouse and storeroom.

To the south of this edifice were a mess-kitchen, stables, cooperage and two smithies.

This fort and its settlements appear to have had a precarious existence as it was reported that French privateers plundered and held it to ransom in 1689 and again in 1712.

After a group of Dutch merchants redeemed the colony from the French, a new fort seems to have been constructed, possibly some time in the early 1720s. Reports in the 1730s noted that the fort was dilapidated and in want of repair. Some repairs were undertaken, but the fort was completely destroyed by the Dutch who set it on fire before they fled down river during the 1763 slave uprising.

After the suppression of the rebellion a fortified zone called the New Retrenchment was created around the Lutheran Church, which was a little way upriver from the original fort. In the 1770s proposals again surfaced for the construction of a permanent fort, and some brickwork was laid, bit with declining fortunes and the invasions by the English and later the French in the years 1781-1784 nothing was accomplished. In 1785 the decision was taken to abandon the Fort Nassau area, and the residents of the settlement subsequently were relocated to the present town of New Amsterdam.

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