Kaieteur News – (A Review of David Granger’s Laurens Storm van’s Gravesande: His life and times in Essequibo and Demerara)
Laurens Storm van’s Gravesande was a towering figure of the Dutch’s presence in the colonies of Essequibo and Demerara.
According to David Granger, in his monograph – Laurens Storm van’s Gravesande: His life and times in Essequibo and Demerara – Gravesande served as Secretary for the Dutch West India Company, the principal colonizing and governing authority in Guiana.
He became the Commandeur of the Essequibo between 1743 and 1750 and was appointed Directeur-General in 1750, making him a man of unparalleled standing within the then colonies of Essequibo and Demerara, for the next 20 years.
Prior to his joining the West India Company, he was said to be a hot-tempered youth who had enlisted in the Dutch army. His prospects in military life appeared promising but he opted to serve as the Company Secretary in the colony of Essequibo.
Laurens Storm van’s Gravesande has been lionized by historians. Sister Noel Menezes, for example, credits Gravesande for having a vision for the development of Demerara. She argues that he recognized that if Demerara was to flourish it needed an injection of new life and funds. It was through Gravesande’s instrumentality, she says, that English planters from Barbados were invited to settle on the island of the Essequibo and the Demerara River.
A.R.F. Webber said he was “a man of action and strength of character.”
C. A. Harris and J.A. J De Villiers designated him as “a pioneer of empire.” The latter claimed that it was under Gravesande that Essequibo reached the ‘apex of its prosperity’ and the development of Demerara commenced.
Vincent Roth, writing in Kyk-Over-Al (Vol.2, No.7, Dec 1948) lists Gravesande as his top choice for the man who has left the greatest mark on the country’s history. Roth credits Gravesande with the development of Demerara.
He says: “…Storm van’s Gravesande, the doughty founder of the Colony of Demerary, the Dutch Commandeur-General of the Two Rivers who, with his headquarters at Fort Zeelandia (Fort Island), had the vision to see the possibilities of the smaller but deeper river to the east of the old colony of Essequibo. There is not the slightest doubt that, due to his encouragement, both private and official, was due the start and rapid development of the youngest of the three Guiana colonies to the position of first importance in the subsequently combined British Guiana. But for him, Demerara might possibly today be but another Mahaica, a small Mahaicony, a small settlement acting as a province of the principal area of the territory, Essequibo.”5
Raymond Smith described him as “… a man who must rank as the greatest in the colonies’ history.”
These ‘assessments,’ coming from such authoritative sources, are hardly ever expected to be contested. But history must always be approached with a critical eye and Granger’s approach to history has always been critical and clinical.
David Granger set out to investigate the man behind the myth. He questioned whether these laudatory statements were reflective of van’s Gravesande’s complete character. He interrogated the work and achievement of van’s Gravesande in five policy areas – economy, indigenous peoples’ relations, defense, exploration and administration.
Granger’s analysis is thorough and balanced. He does not fall victim to the stereotypical caricature, which projects an image of colonialism as being devoid of development or progress. Neither is he ensnared in the ‘great man’s theory of history’ which characterizes so much of recounting of the history of that period. Granger examines both Gravesande’s achievements and failures, sedulously.
Granger has mined both primary and secondary sources in undertaking this fascinating appraisal of Gravesande. Among the rich vein of sources consulted were:
British Guiana Boundary Arbitration with the United States of Venezuela. Appendix to the case on Behalf of the Government of Her Britannic Majesty. Vol.11 – 1724-1763 (1988);
C. R. Boxer’s, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800. (1965);
R. Netscher’s History of the Colonies: Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice: From the Dutch Establishment to Present Day. (1888);
Alvin Thompson’s Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Guyana: 1580-1803. (1987); and
A.R.F. Weber’s, Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana. (1931).
Granger admits that one of the limitations of his analysis is that much of the recorded history of the colonies, during this period, was compiled from dispatches issued by Gravesande himself. Granger has been able, in spite of this, to interrogate this history and to emerge with a balanced perspective, which neither detracts from Gravesande’s achievements nor disparage him as a reviled figure. The following extract sums up the balance, which Granger was able to achieve:
That Gravesande, in reality, was neither the brilliant success he has been made out to be by some writers, nor was he a corrupt and incompetent Commandeur. He was beset by numerous external and internal problems, but he carried on Dutch rule through a dangerous period. Gravesande justly deserves some acclaim for not leaving the colonies in a precarious condition. Equally, he deserves some censure for his errors and for not doing more to leave them in a prosperous state.
Gravesande’s contribution to the delimitation of the country’s borders, however, is one area in which sufficient credit is not accorded. The Arbitral Tribunal of 1899, which settled British Guiana’s boundaries, more or less followed the Schomburgk Line, which, generally, accorded with the area, which Gravesande treated as encompassing the colony of Essequibo.
Gravesande, despite Granger’s expansive, but less than effusive, assessment remains an imposing figure in the country’s history – one who should not be relegated into oblivion. But since the writing of history should aim to be as accurate and truthful as possible, this book contributes to the authentic history of Dutch colonization of Essequibo and Demerara.
It remains, more importantly, a constant reminder to students and readers alike that they should be open to questioning historical conclusions. History should always be studied with a critical eye as David Granger does.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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