I have a feeling I might be getting too old for this. I set off from London last month to visit (and therefore tick off) another two countries, both in northern South America. This was sandwiched into a trip to the United States and then augmented with a side hustle to the British Overseas Territory of Anguilla for work purposes. Friends messaged me to say that they didn't really understand my itinerary. I replied that I wasn't sure I did, either.
The Caribbean is a curious place, where the sun has never quite set on the European Age of Empire. From Anguilla and drinks with the Governor, I caught a ferry to Saint Martin/Sint Maartin (French and Dutch), then a flight to Curaçao (Dutch) and finally to Suriname (formerly Dutch). There were once three Guyanas in South America: British, Dutch and French. The first two long ago became independent, but France clings on.
There was a feel of the Deep South in Paramaribo, the atmospheric capital of what was once Dutch Guyana. It has a striking ethnic mix – the largest single group are Indians, descendants from indentured labourers during the colonial era – and an interesting, complex history. On Good Friday, I visited Fort Zeelandia, a hotchpotch of French, English and Dutch rule. Outside stands a statue of Queen Wilhelmina, who abdicated from the throne of the Netherlands in 1948.
The British swapped what is now Suriname with the Dutch for what was New Amsterdam and what is now New York City. The Dutch got the better deal, for while New York and the American colonies were lost in 1776, Suriname lasted another two centuries under European control. Today its capital feels safe and relatively orderly. One can eat and drink well, perhaps on account of the number of young tourists from the Netherlands.
Getting out was less straightforward than it ought to have been. There were flights to Georgetown, Guyana (my next stop) but they were expensive and unreliable. Instead, I paid $60 for a local bus company to take me from my hotel to the border ferry crossing at the unattractively named South Drain – a 4am start. After a four-hour drive, there was an interminable wait for a ferry ticket and then immigration.
This always makes me nervous, and indeed there was a problem. Unconventionally, I'd been allowed to enter Suriname without paying an 'arrival fee' and therefore also lacked an 'entry' stamp. I'd been told at the airport to get both once I reach Paramaribo. Being Easter weekend, however, acquiring a stamp was impossible on account of the immigration office being closed, though I had managed to sort the arrival fee online.
The border officer at South Drain was unimpressed by my account of two failed attempts to acquire the stamp. He referred the matter up to his 'superior officer' who couldn't have cared less, although it made for an anxious wait as the ferry prepared to depart. I sat nervously with a German tourist who had overstayed his pre-acquired visa; he had the audacity to suggest that our misdemeanours were of a similar sort.
Once cleared, we both boarded a greasy, noisy old car ferry and chugged over to Albina, in what was once British Guyana. For some reason, this felt reassuring, perhaps on account of it being the only South American country where English is the official language. No visas necessary here. From there, another driver took me and three other passengers to Georgetown. Two of the three were Guyanese-Americans (of which there is a sizeable group), who were back home visiting relatives.
At first sight, Georgetown is an unattractive place. A previous visitor described it as a 'great civic shambles', to which one might add stinking piles of rubbish. This wasn't helped by an intensely dry heat which made Paramaribo seem tolerable. Yet on further exploration, the capital of Guyana revealed itself as an architecturally rich yet crumbling colonial capital, where virtually all the main public buildings are made from wood. The New York Times
called this, cleverly, 'Tropical Victorian'. One example I saw is thought to be the oldest extant Presbyterian church in South America.
The Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VIII) stopped in Georgetown during a 1920's Caribbean cruise. Even then it felt neglected. The system of Indian indenture had recently been abolished, which meant there was a shortage of labour exacerbated by enormous increases in world prices. Demerara sugar was still much in demand, but there weren't enough people to process it.
The Crown colony of British Guiana became the independent Commonwealth Realm of Guyana on 26 May 1966, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. The late Queen had visited in February 1966 and opened the Queen Elizabeth II National Park, now Guyana National Park. Her cousin, the Duke of Kent, was her representative at the independence celebrations a few months later and gave a speech from the throne at the fine parliament building near the sprawling central market.
Unusually, the new Guyanese constitution provided for the country to become a republic after 45 months via a majority vote in the House of Assembly. Exactly 45 months after independence, Guyana wasted no time in bidding farewell to the Oueen of Guyana (although she returned as Head of the Commonwealth in 1994). The early years didn't go well, and 70,000 Guyanese headed to London, many of them thriving educationally. They became, among other things, politicians (Bernie Grant, Trevor Phillips and Baroness Amos, soon to play a role at the coronation) and performers (Eddy Grant and Leona Lewis). As the travel writer John Gimlette observed: 'The sheer breadth of their talents speaks volumes for the depth of Guyana's loss'.
There was a curious epilogue to all of this outside the Supreme Court building in Georgetown. There stands a statue of Queen Victoria, dynamited and missing her nose and left hand. Originally unveiled to mark the Queen Empress's Golden Jubilee in 1887, in 1970 it was moved to a quiet corner of the capital's botanical gardens. But then in 1990 the city's mayor decided to restore this relic of the realm to its original position outside the court. To say that this divided opinion would be an understatement. In 2018, the statue was attacked again, this time with red paint, of which there was no trace when I visited. Other parts of the world might be tearing down statues, but not in this intriguing corner of South America.
David Torrance is a writer and historian