A fort with a view: Kyk-over-Al

Nicholas Laughlin braves the heat as he goes in search of Kyk-over-Al, the ruined Dutch fort that is one of Guyana's most storied historical sites

An ordinary day in Bartica. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinDown the Mazaruni, the biggest tributary of the Essequibo. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinPumpkins at Parika Stelling. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe Dutch fort Kyk-over-Al’s only surviving arch. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThirsty in Bartica. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

On a concrete wall above the stelling at Bartica, in bold black and red letters, someone had painted an appeal to public morals. But the final line had been worn away by the rain, and the message trailed off ambiguously. “What’s the Rush? Maybe everybody is thinking about Sex but not everybody is doing it. Why not wait! You can have . . .”

We clambered from the speedboat up the wooden stelling — the Dutch word for a wharf, still used on the coasts and rivers of Guyana. The little blue-painted huts of the Bartica market came right to the edge of the river. It was mid-morning, and the market was crowded with women shopping, men pushing barrows laden with vegetables, dogs hovering anxiously near the butchers’ stalls.

An hour before, we had pulled away from the stelling at Parika, near the mouth of the Essequibo, thirty-five miles downstream. The speedboat, laden with sixteen passengers and three crew, had extricated itself from the knot of river-traffic, swept past the ferry being loaded with bales of cargo, and pointed its bow south. At its mouth, the Essequibo is more than ten miles wide, with three main channels divided by islands, but up-river it narrowed to a mere three miles. Along the banks, small houses and lumber yards gave way to mangrove, then thick forest. Finally a plume of smoke appeared, then a line of colourful buildings like dots in the distance.

Bartica is a small, busy town of maybe eight thousand people, with an orderly street grid, a hospital, a school, and a nearby Benedictine monastery, all situated on a sort of promontory where the Essequibo, Guyana’s biggest river, is joined by its biggest tributary, the Mazaruni. Three miles up, the Mazaruni is in turn joined by its own most important tributary, the Cuyuni. At the confluence of these three great rivers, Bartica is sometimes called the “gateway to the interior”.

For more than a century, it has been the last outpost of “civilisation” for miners, loggers, missionaries, and explorers heading into Guyana’s remote forested north-western region. In the early twentieth century, during Guyana’s modest gold rush, it grew into something of a boom town, with saloons and brothels springing up to service hard-working, hard-living “pork-knockers”, as gold and diamond prospectors were once called.

But Bartica’s history stretches even further back, to the earliest days of European colonial contact with this part of South America, and we had come in the hope of visiting one of the oldest surviving relics of that time: Kyk-over-Al, the ruined Dutch fort in the mouth of the Cuyuni.

But first we had to find another boat.

In a semi-official-looking hut at the top of the stelling sat a man with a huge ledger. We asked him where we could catch a boat to Fort Island.

“Talk to my friend Carter. Carter! Some persons looking to hire a boat.”

Carter was a tall, serious-looking man wearing a red baseball cap.

“To go to Fort Island and come back? Ten thousand.”

Ten thousand Guyanese dollars: about US$50. Clearly some bargaining was called for. “Too much. We’ll stay in Bartica” was our opening gambit, and we strolled away through the market. Carter followed, explaining that boat fuel was expensive, boat captains in high demand.

The price nudged down, but not enough. “No, thanks.” We climbed a rickety staircase to a little restaurant above a general goods store, and ordered orange juice. Ten minutes later Carter reappeared in the doorway. Had we reconsidered? Had he?

Half an hour later, a deal was struck. In return for a “special rate” we would detour to a nearby settlement, to deliver another batch of passengers with all their morning shopping.

 

The Guianas, the region of South America between the Orinoco and the Amazon, fascinated European adventurers. A century after Columbus sailed past, Walter Raleigh explored this coast, feverishly searching for the route to El Dorado. But the Dutch were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement here. In the early seventeenth century, a party of Dutch colonists sailed up the Essequibo and a short way up the Mazaruni, and chose a small island for the site of a star-shaped fort. Armed with a few guns, it was first named Fort Ter Hoogen, but soon its nickname, Kyk-over-Al — “see over all” — took over. Offering admirable vantage over the three river highways, Kyk-over-Al became the effective capital of the Dutch Essequibo colony.

From here, Dutch traders penetrated far into the interior, developing commercial relationships with the indigenous Amerindians. By the 1650s, sugar plantations stretched along the banks of the Essequibo. On the promontory where Bartica would be built was a plantation called Vryheid.

In 1666 — the year of the Great Fire of London — English forces managed to capture Kyk-over-Al. A trio of French ships did the same in 1708. Both times the Dutch recaptured it. In 1716, Kyk-over-Al was bursting at its seams and a roomier site on the nearby river bank was developed. Eventually, as Guyana’s fertile low-lying seacoast was reclaimed by Dutch engineers, the focus shifted north, and in 1748 most of Kyk-over-Al was demolished, its bricks used to build a sugar mill at a plantation downstream.

The Dutch administration was moved to the east bank of the Demerara River, to a settlement called Stabroek. Later, the English would rename it Georgetown. And for eighty years the forest reclaimed the one-time capital of Dutch Guyana.

In 1829, the Church Missionary Society established a station in the north-west, the better to proselytise the Amerindians. As the Dutch had done, the missionaries liked the advantages of the Essequibo-Mazaruni confluence, and on the former Vryheid plantation they established Bartica Grove. By the end of the century, Bartica, having dropped the “Grove” and forgotten its spiritual origins, was on the verge of becoming a minor gold-rush boom town.

Kyl-over-Al also enjoyed a return to relevance: during the 1897 boundary dispute between Britain and Venezuela, its ruins were excavated in an attempt to prove the antiquity of the Dutch settlement. The keystone of the fort’s surviving arch, it’s said, was removed and taken all the way to London for examination, then transported back across the Atlantic for careful replacement.

 

We returned to the stelling and found Carter’s boat, and headed off round the promontory and into the Mazaruni. The confluence of the rivers was a vast expanse of water, rimmed on three sides by low river banks. It felt as if we were putting out to sea. A couple of small islands rose from the “bay”.

Had the history of Guyana taken a slightly different turn, this might today be the site of the country’s capital city. Bartica’s situation rivals for grandeur any of the world’s great harbour cities: San Francisco, Hong Kong, Sydney.

Twenty minutes later, we approached a small, nondescript island. From behind a couple of trees a brick arch emerged, familiar from dozens of photographs.

We docked at a long jetty. There were flowering shrubs, and a big mango tree, and someone had recently cut the weeds and vines that covered the low rise. There, behind a hibiscus bush, was all that remained of the once-crucial outpost. The red-brick arch was perhaps ten feet tall. The much-travelled keystone once sported a coat of arms, but centuries of rain had worn the carving down to a few lumps. The sun beat down relentlessly, and the river, swollen by August rains, oozed silently by.

I’d like to report that we had some kind of epiphany as we walked around the arch, some unexpected historical insight. But the heat was overwhelming, and after nearly four centuries the Kyk-over-Al arch was well-practised in keeping its secrets.

It was too hot even to talk. On our way back to Bartica, Carter stopped at Baracara Island, a little sandspit in the Mazaruni just big enough for a beach-house and a few palm trees, so we could swim in the Coca-Cola brown river water. Across the river macaws circled and called. Kyk-over-Al, maybe a mile behind us, felt hopelessly far away.

The western sky was darkening and glowering as we returned to the Bartica stelling. Thunder hummed down the river. At the first market stall a woman sold us cups of sweet, milky coffee and freshly fried plantain chips, while her husband made a still-life in his vegetable barrow, arranging bundles of string beans, eggplant, cabbages, with the deftness of an Impressionist. A cow lumbered past. Two men clutching beer bottles started arguing loudly, hurling baroque obscenities. The rain came with a roar, and Bartica hunkered cosily down.