A Fort for Fort Island

Being a former colony, it should be of no surprise that there are forts in Guyana. Given the size of the country, there aren’t as many as one would expect, though – only three. One of them is Fort Zeelandia which is located on the creatively named Fort Island. This island lies in the northern part of the Essequibo River. I was able to visit it as part of a day trip on the river and it was an interesting glimpse into the military side of Guyana’s colonial history.

First impressions upon arriving onto the island were not good. I am definitely one to extol the virtues of isolation but this place looked like it could spawn Guyana’s version of the Peacock Family. It didn’t help that it started to pour as soon as we reached the island; however, as it is with rain in tropical countries, it wasn’t long before the sun came back out. Wandering around the island, taking care to stay on the paths since beyond them was untamed grass containing who knows what, it was evident that not many people live here. The guide confirmed this by saying once there was a sizable population but over the years, people have been leaving for the mainland. Homes here are beautiful but rundown and there is definitely an air of “what happens on Fort Island, stays on Fort Island”…and not in the fun way.

Our first stop was the Court of Policy Building, built around 1752. It is the oldest non-military structure in the country. Oddly enough, photos were forbidden inside. No one could explain why, not even the guard who insisted on implementing the rule. During its heyday, the Court served several simultaneous functions – store, church, court, and seat of government. Today, none of that history remains except a tiny museum (consists of old photos and explanatory text as well as various items found in the area) and the tombs of three Dutch officials. There are no ghost stories here, which is unfortunate as it is the perfect place for some. I feel like I should suggest this to the Guyanese tourism board – we foreigners love our ghost stories!

Fort Zeelandia was the next stop on the walking tour of Fort Island. It is a brick fort and it is rather small – only about 15mx20m. Despite its size, it was an important part of the Dutch’s defensive strategy in keeping control of the Essequibo area, in maintaining the interests of the Dutch West India Company, and in protecting the colonial planters. Fort Zeelandia was built in 1743 as a replacement for a crumbling wooden fort built in 1726. The new fort was built using slave labour and it took several years to complete. The fort’s name comes from the county of Zeeland in the Netherlands, the area from which many of the settlers hailed.

The interesting thing about the fort is its shape – it is a lozenge shape. It is two stories tall, the lower being the warehouse and powder house, and the upper being where soldiers lived. Not sure how I would have felt about living on top of a powder house… The grounds are well kept, there is one remaining cannon to admire, and one has the opportunity to wander around the fort (though the upper floor is gone). We were warned, though, to keep away from areas that are enclosed as those tend to be the hidey-holes of creepy-crawlies looking for relief from the sun.

If you’re ever in this part of Guyana, do check out Fort Island. It’s a little break from the jungle, it’s a small glimpse into the country’s colonial past, and it’s a fantastic location to film The Peacock Family Resurfaces. If anyone decides to make this show/movie, I call dibs on a cameo!

4 responses to “A Fort for Fort Island

  1. How bizarre that you couldn’t take pictures inside the policy building, too bad the guard wasn’t more lax about it.

    The lozenge shape of the fort seems to be translated into the window shapes as well. And I too would not have felt safe sleeping over the powder house. I know a lot of forts have them way off to the side, I wonder when that started? I suppose after enough soldiers were blown up while sleeping…

    Were many of the homes in your pictures actually in use?

    • some of them were but we were told that slowly over the years, people leave for the mainland. makes me wonder if there will be a revitalization project – if you have a boat, could be a cool place to live!

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