Laurens Storm van ’s Gravesande: Guyana’s greatest governor?

When it comes to colonial governors, many are reviled and few are admired. Their achievements if any might be acknowledged only grudgingly and anniversaries of their incumbency are never celebrated in this country. In the anti-colonial mindset of historians whose forebears were the victims of enslavement and indentureship, there was little to commemorate in the three-and-a-half centuries of mainly Dutch and British occupation.
Despite this attitude, though, the country could have learnt much from taking time to reflect on the tercentenary of his birth, in 2004, of one outstanding proconsul during whose tenure the security of Essequibo was enhanced and the development of Demerara was set in motion. In present-day political lingo, he might even be called ‘The Father of Demerara.’

For one-third of the eighteenth century from 1738 to 1772, Laurens Storm van ’s Gravesande worked for the West-Indische Compagnie − the West India Company − the major Dutch colonising and governing authority in Guiana. He served as secretary (1738-43), as commandeur (1743-50) of Essequibo and then as directeur-general (1750-72) of the two colonies of Essequibo and Demerara.

Much of the historiography of the period poured praise on Gravesande both for his personal qualities and his public performance. The Dutch historian Cornelis Ch Goslinga wrote of his unmatched “ability and vigilance”; Pieter Netscher called him “zealous and faithful”; James Rodway referred to him as one of the “born leaders”; ARF Webber described him as “a man of action, and strength of character”; Alvin Thompson regarded him as “the most eminent Dutch colonial official in Guiana”; and Vere Daly deemed him to be “loyal, hardworking, unambitious for personal gain and devoted to the colony.” By far, the most lyrical tribute was paid by CA Harris and JAJ de Villiers who wrote of Gravesande:

By his untiring energy the desert places were peopled, by his tactical ingenuity the savage tribes were subjected, by his patriotic zeal his envious and bellicose neighbours were kept off.
Non-historians were equally effusive in their praise for Gravesande. Michael Swan called him “… a man who must rank as the greatest in the history of the colony…” and Raymond Smith characterised him as an “energetic and enlightened man, dedicated to the country as few have been since.” Such acclaim should be sufficient evidence of Gravesande’s unparalled performance and of his contribution to the colonisation of Guyana. But that must not preclude a critical review of his regime.

Born on October 12, 1704 in the city of Hertogenbosch in North Brabant Province of the Netherlands to which his family moved, he was the scion of a long line of citizens who had served for centuries on the Council of Delft Zuid. Trained as a military officer from the age of 17 years, he arrived in the Essequibo on May 14, 1738 with his wife, the former Lumea Constantia van Berch-Eyck, and five children. He served as secretary to the commandeur Hermanus Gelskerke who died four years later. It was when he was secretary, in fact, that he undertook the design of the new fort on Fort Island, which came to be named Fort Zeelandia, and the building of which he oversaw. 

As the Company’s chief servant, Gravesande’s policies can be understood best in the context of the changing circumstances and conditions in the Netherlands and the Guiana colonies at the time. Warfare in Europe, the policies of the company, the security of the colonies, the opposition of the colonists themselves and social instability were the most important factors that affected his governorship.

Of these, the most serious was the embattled state of the Dutch Republic, as it then was. The War of Spanish Succession (1702-13) effectively “… broke the Dutch Republic as a great naval power.” This was followed by the War of Austrian Succession (1747-48) in which the Netherlands suffered invasion by the French. Then came the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) in which Dutch seaborne trade was attacked by the English. Afterwards, the fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84) weakened the Republic further. As a result, shipping was reduced and the Guiana colonies could not be supplied with essentials or provided with troops for protection.
As a consequence of that warfare, terrible shortages occurred in the colonies leading to starvation and hardship. Relief came through what was called de kleine vaart, a sort of contraband coastal and inter-insular trade by which, in defiance of the company’s mercantilist policies, Gravesande knowingly allowed local produce to be shipped to the West Indian islands in return for slaves and other goods. But this contraband trade diverted profits from the company and revenue from the colony making the former less capable of supporting the latter. The company declared no dividend from 1735 to 1744 and, in 1755, the directors blamed Gravesande for the “stagnation, high expenses and low output.”
The security of the colonies was also under constant threat. Probably, as a result of the involvement of the Netherlands in European warfare, no ships or troops could be spared for Guiana and Gravesande’s best military response was verbal protest. That may have served, nevertheless, to deter further attacks and, later on, to provide the basis for a case to respond to the territorial claim. Despite his protests, Gravesande’s assertion of Dutch possession of the Barima, Cuyuni, Moruca, Waini and other rivers of the North West were largely of academic significance since he seemed to have already decided to postpone territorial expansion in preference to the intensification of the plantation economy in Demerara.

This period was plagued by social instability and unrest. Lawlessness and crime were rife among the European migrants of various nationalities who had entered the colonies in response to the ‘open-door’ policy. Amerindian tribal conflicts sometimes erupted in the hinterland. Africans rebelled on the plantations mounting a major revolt in 1772. Military mutinies, such as in 1746, occurred occasionally among the few, ill-equipped soldiers. Crime among Europeans and Coloureds became so prevalent that unusually cruel punishments had to be meted out in an attempt to suppress it. There is no doubt that this parlous situation in the colonies was aggravated by the chronic shortages of commodities from Europe, the prevalence of tropical, diseases such as the ‘Great Sickness,’ and the occurrence of occasional famine. In these circumstances, the major features of Gravesande’s governorship − economic, Amerindian relations, security and administration – can be examined for their impact on the development of the colonies.

The single most successful economic policy was the colonisation of Demerara. This was achieved mainly by attracting English planters from the British West Indies, by allowing tax holidays and, most of all, by granting them large, free, fertile lands from 1746. As a result of this policy, plantations in Demerara eventually outstripped those in Essequibo. Demerara’s progress, however, came at a cost. The immediate effect was the relative neglect of the Pomeroon and other rivers of the North West (such as Barima, Moruca and Waini) which Gravesande felt should not be developed until the plantation settlements of Essequibo and Demerara were consolidated. A more serious consequence, to which Netscher called attention, was the presence of a large number of English settlers. They created a climate of opinion which was conducive to the English conquest of the colonies from 1781, less than a decade after Gravesande’s retirement and, probably, influenced the British government’s decision to retain possession in 1814.

The focus of Gravesande’s economic policy on plantations rather than trade had other consequences. Timber extraction in the Pomeroon was curtailed and, instead, wood had to be imported. Plantations became more and more dedicated to a single staple crop for the export trade and, as partly as a result, the long-established internal trade with the Amerindians declined.

The once flourishing fishing industry had to be curtailed after Spanish attacks on the Warrau fishery in the Orinoco; indigo plantations were abandoned; attempts to establish cocoa and coffee cultivation on a commercial scale faltered and the proposed cattle industry never materialised. The withdrawal of the company from trade also had the effect of leaving the way open for unscrupulous private traders and planters. Disputes arose, such as those involving Jan Stock in 1750 and Pieter Marchal in 1755. Conflict between the Caribs and Akawois persisted, one of the worst flare-ups occurring in 1765-68. The Spanish launched reprisal raids against both Caribs (1758-62, ’69, ’70) and Warraus (1767-69) forcing them to flee from their homes.
Gravesande’s emphasis on exploration seemed concerned more with the quest for precious minerals than with the extension of Dutch influence and the acquisition of territory. He personally led one expedition in 1739 and sent at least three others under Nicolaas Hortsman in 1739, Thomas Hildebrandt in 1740 and Englebert Pijpersberg in 1743. They yielded no profit or practical result either in terms of the exploitation of minerals or the exploration of territory which could be settled or cultivated.

In short, the emergent, mono-culture plantation economy mainly in Demerara eclipsed trade, impeded diversification and increased dependency. The colonies had to rely on British North America, the British West Indies and even Spanish Guayana for animals and a variety of foodstuff. In Alvin Thompson’s view, policies such as these “…worked to bring about the underdevelopment of the country…”

Gravesande’s Amerindian policy, as exemplified by the tasks assigned to postholders, included promoting hinterland trade, encouraging friendly relations, mediating in disputes, guarding the hinterland against access by other Europeans and assisting in the apprehension of African runaways. To some extent, this worked well in the short term as was evident in the successful enlistment of Amerindian allies, particularly Caribs, to contain the Berbice Revolt in 1763 and to attack the Spanish in 1750.  He also tried to encourage the Amerindians to accept Dutch justice.  There were, however, frequent frictions between the Amerindians and Dutch traders, generally because of the maltreatment meted out to members of the indigenous nations by the latter as well as by some of the planters. The chief value of the Amerindians eventually came to lie in the conservation of the colonies’ labour by the pursuit of African runaways and maroons and assistance in quelling servile revolt on the plantations.

Gravesande’s tripartite security policy was based on the burgher militia, on Amerindian allies, and on a system of posts and forts. Impressive in appearance, the militia was a passive force in practice, capable only of a slow response to an external military threat against the settled areas. Defence of the colony against Spanish penetration was in the hands of the Caribs, who acquired guns through their participation in the Amerindian slave trade, and who were trained in European battle tactics. This enabled them to attack the well-defended Spanish missions, both Jesuit and Capuchin, in the neighbouring territory, and prevent the advance of the Spaniards into the Dutch sphere.

Posts in the western Essequibo were moved from time to time, but in Gravesande’s day at one period or another, they were located on the Rupununi, Siparuni, Cuyuni and Moruca Rivers. Given the wide expanses of jungle and savannah, these were mere ‘needles in a haystack,’ weak structures made of mud and thatch and lightly-manned and armed. Vlaggen Eiland − Flag Island − in the Essequibo possessed the only strong structure, Fort Zeelandia, and Demerara had only a brandwacht (signal station). These were manned by regular soldiers but their competence was questionable and mutinies and desertions occasionally occurred.

Taken as a whole, these resources were inadequate to repulse any serious military threat, although it was Gravesande’s good fortune that he did not have to face French attacks such as in 1708 before his time, or English attacks as in 1781 afterwards. There were a few Spanish raids, and his main resort in these instances was to send vigorous protests to the Netherlands and, acting on these, the States-General sent formal remonstrances to the Spanish government but these were hardly ever answered. Given the circumstances, however, even these efforts could be construed as having contributed to defining Dutch colonial territoriality.

Gravesande’s administration policy led, most significantly, to the creation of a College of Kiezers, an electoral college for councillors; an Orphan Chamber to administer the estates of orphans, bankrupts, absentees and such like; and a Church Consistory to assist in the rebuilding of the church. By this time, ‘free’ colonists other than company officials, could be appointed to the Raad van Politie en Justitie − the colony’s governing body. Through these organs, Gravesande tried to assert his control by installing his relatives − sons, sons-in-law and wife’s nephews − in key positions in the colony. When his own policies were opposed, he would appeal to the directors in the Netherlands to overrule decisions of the Raad. The hint of authoritarianism and nepotism imparted the complexion of dynasticism to the government of the two colonies. Hence, the commandeurs and commandants of the militia who were his sons and sons-in-law, or the managers of the company’s plantations who were councillors, “dared not dispute or doubt his word.”

As time went by, Gravesande as Directeur-General spent increasingly long periods in Demerara with members of his family and on his estates and away from his headquarters at Fort Zeelandia. In the later days of his tenure, members of the family, including Gravesande himself, acquired large land concessions in Demerara, the capital of which was located at the most unsuitable site of Borsselen Island mainly because of its proximity to the properties of the first three commandeurs who were all members of Gravesande’s family. The imprudent mingling of public duties and private interests and the preferment of his family, together with other issues, alienated him from councillors and colonists alike. Gravesande’s patriarchal rule provoked resentment and sedition among some settlers and called forth reproof from the directors.

In frustration, Gravesande offered his resignation. When he demitted office, the directors took the opportunity to reorganise colonial administration thoroughly, creating new posts, separating territorial jurisdiction, prohibiting close relatives from sitting on the councils at the same time and, in general, preventing too much power from ever being concentrated in one person’s hands.

Despite these shortcomings which must be understood in the context of the difficult conditions of the day, Gravesande contributed to colonial development greatly by attracting new settlers with capital and labour, by augmenting production of sugar, by asserting the territorial limits of the colonies and by attempting to maintain Dutch administrative authority over the European settlers, enslaved African and Amerindian population. His good fortune was that his regime lasted so long that it gave him the opportunity to combine and concentrate all the strands of government as a single policy, into a single period, and under a single person. This created an outstanding pattern of coherence and continuity. During a similar period of the seventeenth century (1641-1670) in comparison, six commandeurs served in Essequibo giving each an average tenure of only five years.
The unmistakable impression is that Gravesande was indeed an inspired proconsul who had a grand vision of the colonies − as an aggregation of plantations, producing staples, peopled by European migrants, Amerindian allies and enslaved Africans under a firm but benign regime, staffed by efficient officials and loyal soldiers and gradually expanding into the hinterland. Such a vision was shattered by the shocks of aggression from rival European states, poor logistical support from the Netherlands and a hostile social climate in the colonies.
Gravesande was beset by numerous external and internal problems, but he carried on Dutch rule through a dangerous period. He justly deserves acclaim for leaving the colonies in a much better condition than he found them and for transforming Demerara from a wilderness into a vibrant colony.

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