History of the Republic of Guyana

The Guyana-Suriname boundary during the colonial era.

Back to History Page

Read also The Guyana - Suriname Boundary: A Historical Review | Reports by Sir Robert H. Schomburgk

For most Guyanese the problems with Suriname over the CGX rig must have come as something of a surprise. While they have probably noticed Venezuela's sabre-rattling in the west from time to time, the boundary in the east must have seemed comparatively quiescent by comparison.

However, this is not the first time that Suriname has encroached on Guyana's territorial space, and an older generation will recall, for example, that her nationals entered our New River Triangle in 1967, and her military in 1969 (see Sunday Stabroek, July 16). So what is the origin of the problem with our eastern neighbour? Today we bring you an outline of the colonial background to the dispute on the Corentyne frontier.

Willoughby's grant
In one of those little ironies with which history is replete, Suriname began as an English colony, and what is now Guyana as a Dutch one. Founded by Lord Willoughby in 1650, Suriname (in another little irony of history) was swapped by the English in 1667 for the Dutch colony of what is now New York.

At the time when that happened, Berbice, Suriname's immediate neighbour to the west, was under the control of the Van Pere family. The fact that the two territories were Dutch from 1667 onwards did not mean, however, that the issue of the boundary became irrelevant, since they were both in private hands and under the control of different patrons.

At the time that Abraham van Pere had obtained his grant to the lands of Berbice from the Dutch West India Company in 1627, the colony's perimeters had not been specified. Such was not the case with the charter eventually given by Charles II of England to Lord Willoughby and Lawrence Hyde twelve years after Suriname's foundation. This stated that the western boundary of that colony on the coast would run for one mile west of the Coppename river. This waterway, as most people are aware, is to the east of the Corentyne river, and well within Suriname's modern jurisdiction. What is worth noting, however, is that it was the dimensions of the land as described in the Willoughby charter which was ceded to the Dutch in 1667.

Devil's creek
The Willoughby charter notwithstanding, some time during the 1680s, Van Pere of Berbice and the Governor (and part owner) of Suriname, Cornelis van Aersen van Sommelsdijk, made an agreement of some kind about the limits of their respective territories.

No document recording this pact has ever been found, and we only know about it from secondary sources written many years later. The division point they agreed on appears to have been a swampy savannah area bounded by sand, called the Broad Water. It was located some miles inland between the Berbice and Corentyne rivers, and at one time, so the Dutch historian JJ Hartsinck (1770) tells us, it carried a boundary post on its western bank.

The boundary on the coast was apparently at Devil's creek, nine miles distant from the present-day New Amsterdam, around where Borlam village is situated. The creek dried up a very long time ago. However, to introduce an element of confusion into the issue, Hartsinck mentions that the English erroneously called the Corentyne itself 'Devil's creek'.

Be that as it may, this was an informal agreement which had no legal force, since it was never given the imprimatur of the relevant authorities in the Netherlands.

The 1799 agreement
Nothing much further was heard about the boundary until more than a century later, after the Berbice planters started occupying the lowest reaches of the river, and then began spilling onto the coastland on either side of the estuary. Inevitably, some planters sought land on the coast between the Devil's creek and the Corentyne from the directors of the company which owned the colony.

The Governor of Berbice at the time was Abraham Imbyze van Batenburg, and in response to a 1794 communication requesting clarification about the colony limits from the directors, he adopted the position that the minimum extent of the colony of Berbice was the west bank of the Corentyne, while given the Willoughby charter, Suriname's land could not extend further than one mile west of the Coppename river. Neither side, therefore, owned the territory between the Coppename and the Corentyne. In addition, he said, Van Pere and van Sommelsdijk had acted ultra vires, and their agreement had no legal status.

The town of Paramaribo (circa 1770). Fort Zeelandia,
somewhere in the compound of which the 1799 agreement
was probably made, is on the right of the picture.

The problem was, of course, that the government of Suriname regarded the stretch between the Devil's creek and the Corentyne as coming under its jurisdiction, and in 1795 J F de Frederici, the Governor of Suriname, wrote Imbyze van Batenburg informing him that he would be granting land to Surinamese planters along the said length of coast. The two sides could not achieve concord on the matter, and before it could be resolved in the metropolis, war in Europe intervened.

In 1796, the British seized Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, and three years later they added Suriname to their Guiana complement. Despite this, the conquerors left both Imbyze van Batenburg and Frederici in place in their respective colonies. Suriname had already started granting lands on the west coast of the Corentyne, but the change in owners perhaps prompted Berbice's governor to try once again to reach accord with his Suriname counterpart.

Imbyze van Batenburg travelled to Paramaribo in December 1799, and as popular lore would have it, the two governors hammered out a deal in a congenial atmosphere, their discussions facilitated by the consumption of an unspecified quantity of genever, or Dutch gin.

The details of the new arrangement were confirmed in a letter from Frederici, and these were subsequently published in Berbice in the form of a Proclamation on January 20, 1800.

For current purposes, the most important clause in the agreement was that the west bank and west coast of the Corentyne river were to belong to Berbice, although those planters already holding lands between the Devil's creek and the Corentyne were to be left in possession of the same. The islands in the river were to go to Suriname, and the post on the west bank was also to remain under the latter colony's control. (It did not survive very long thereafter.) In addition, it was stipulated that Suriname inhabitants who had been given passes to trade with the Indians in the river, should not be prohibited from continuing their traffic.

Cornelis can Aersen van Sommeldijk,
Governor of Suriname who made an arrangement
about the border with his counterpart in Berbice

The agreement is as important for what it did not say, as for what it did. And it did not say exactly where the boundary lay, and who had sovereignty over the river. In fact, it is clear that the framers never intended it as a boundary settlement. This notwithstanding, Suriname has maintained that it is this agreement which places the boundary on the western bank of the Corentyne river.

The fact that the islands in the Corentyne went to Suriname, for instance, does not indicate that the whole river was intended to be under that territory's jurisdiction. As has been pointed out by several writers, this clause lends itself to quite the opposite construction, since if the whole river was to be Surinamese, there would be no need to specify that the islands should go to Suriname. The same argument applies to the provision allowing traders who had been issued passes by the Governor of Suriname to continue trafficking with the Indians along that waterway. If the whole river was meant to be Surinamese, there would be no need for this clause at all.

In a general sense, before the 1930s the authorities on neither side behaved as if the Corentyne were a purely Dutch river; they operated as if the boundary was in midstream. It was under the draft treaty which was under discussion for much of the 1930s (see below) that the whole of the Corentyne up to the low water mark on the western bank was to go to Suriname. As will be seen later, however, that treaty was never signed.

Governor J F de Frederici of Suriname, who

hammered out a deal with Abraham Imbyze van Batenburg
of Berbice while they drank gin together

Articles of Capitulation
Both sides recognized that the 1799 agreement was essentially a provisional pact which would have to be subject to the ratification (and possibly revision) of the appropriate authorities in the metropolis. Whether approval was obtained both from the Netherlands and Britain has not yet been clarified beyond all reasonable doubt. As it was, however, the colonies got caught up in the whirlwind of the Napoleonic wars, and in the course of their changing hands, the agreement acquired legitimacy.

In 1802 both Suriname and Berbice found themselves back under Dutch control, while by 1803, Berbice (although not Suriname) had reverted once more to the British. The Articles of Capitulation which ceded the colony on the last-named occasion gave official recognition to the 1799 agreement, with all its imprecision.

The British took back Suriname in 1804, and it was not until the Convention of London ten years later that the shuttling of colonies between the two powers came to an end. Under that convention (confirmed by the Treaty of Paris) Suriname alone was returned to the Dutch, but in doing so the negotiators passed up the opportunity to define its western limits with exactitude.

In 1831, Berbice was merged with her sister-colony of Essequibo-Demerara to form British Guiana, which then inherited the Corentyne frontier question.

At the time Imbyze van Batenburg and Frederici sat down in Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo tossing back their glasses of genever, no official had any idea about the course of the Corentyne in the deep interior, let alone where its headwaters were to be found. It wasn't really a matter of great consequence to the two governors, of course, whose primary concern was the plantations on the coast.

Robert Schomburgk, who was employted by the
British Government to survey the boundaries
of the then British Guiana

With the opening up of the interior under the British, however, the authorities began to evince a concern about the limits of their territory. In 1840, therefore, the British Government commissioned the German-born Robert Schomburgk, who had already explored the interior for the Royal Geographical Society, to undertake a boundary survey and produce a map, copies of which were to be sent to neighbouring states who could then raise objections, following which the British would respond.

In 1843, Schomburgk was ready to explore the Corentyne, and the Governor of British Guiana wrote to his counterpart in Suriname inviting him to send a Commissioner to accompany the geographer, so Schomburgk's findings could be discussed for the purposes of any future boundary negotiations and possible difficulties averted.

The Governor of Suriname declined this invitation because, he said, he had not been furnished with instructions from the Netherlands, he was not aware of any dispute over this border, and he doubted that the exercise would have any impact on difficulties that might arise in the future.

As it was, therefore, Schomburgk explored on his own, and after following the course of the river, found the Kutari and its branch the Curuni which he declared to be the source of the Corentyne.

Drawing up his map accordingly, his cartographic work formed the basis for all the maps drawn up by both the British and the Dutch for almost the remainder of the century.

While it was now clear that the Kutari formed the boundary between the two colonies in the interior, the question of the sovereignty of the river throughout its length, of course, still had not been finally settled.

Barrington Brown
It was Charles Barrington Brown of Kaieteur Fall fame who in 1871 was to provide the initial fuel for a later Surinamese objection. In the course of a geological survey of the Corentyne, he came across what he called a "new river" to the west of the Kutari and which, he said, was fully twice the size of the latter.

For all of that, Barrington Brown was not to claim that this New River was the main source of the Corentyne; in fact the map issuing from his survey still recorded the Kutari as the chief source.

Furthermore, some later geographers found themselves in disagreement with Barrington Brown on the matter of the Kutari river. There was the American, John Ogilvie, for example, who in 1913 maintained that the Kutari was larger than the New river, and most important, Dr Yzerman, a Dutch authority later to be quoted by a Dutch Minister of Government, whose view was that the basin of the Curuni was greater in extent than that of the New river. On these grounds, he said, the Kutari-Curuni had to be viewed as the main tributary of the Corentyne.

Another large affluent of the Corentyne named the Lucie river was found by Kayser, a Dutch naval surveyor in 1910. This one, however, flowed into the main river on its eastern side, and, as has been pointed out by Sir Shridath Ramphal writing when he was Attorney-General, the Dutch have "so far not asserted that the Lucie is the real Corentyne and all the rest a tributary..."!

British Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury,
who answered the Dutch protest of 1899

1899 Arbitral Award
On October 3, 1899, the arbitral tribunal sitting in Paris announced its award in the matter of the boundary between Venezuela and what was then British Guiana. With reference to Suriname, it stated that the terminus of this country's eastern border was at the source of the river Corentyne, called the Kutari.

The Dutch were angered by the presumption of a tribunal mandated to deal with the question of British Guiana's western boundary, pronouncing on its eastern one, and they fired off a formal protest. The New river, they said, should be considered, "the main river and... the border between British and Dutch Guiana." It was their first official statement of their claim to what is now known as the New River Triangle, although they seem to have forgotten it again almost as soon as it was made. However, it was in this year that the first Dutch map showing the New river as the boundary between the two territories was published.

The British answered the Dutch protest on August 7, 1900. The reply, a well-known one, was penned by Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Secretary of the time, and it ran in part as follows:

"Even assuming... that a prima facie case for reconsideration of part of the boundary were hereafter to be made out, Her Britannic Majesty's Government would contend that, as a matter of international convenience and courtesy, a definite and always easily ascertainable boundary, which has been accepted in good faith by both parties, published to the world for fifty-seven years, and in no way challenged during that time should not be upset by geographical discoveries made long subsequent to the original adoption of the boundary and by theories so uncertain as those which are held to determine the true source of a river...

"Therefore, Her Majesty's Government... feel unable, for the reasons explained, to enter into an argument with regard to the true source of the river Corentyne as affecting the boundary which has been long established to the satisfaction of both colonies."

It is a statement which still has resonance one hundred years later.

Dutch acquiescence
For well into the twentieth century, Dutch officialdom was acknowledging the Kutari as the boundary - including the Dutch Foreign Minister, who told his Parliament in 1913 that the border was formed by the Kutari-Curuni in its upper reaches. In other words, it represented a de facto boundary recognized by both sides.

This position was reiterated by the Minister for the Colonies in 1924, 1925 and 1927 in the Dutch Parliament. On the second of these occasions he made reference to the issuing of balata licences by the British authorities in the New River Triangle, an act, which it might be added, constituted the exercise of sovereignty in the area. His statement in 1927 is subject to no ambiguity:

"... since about a century England has as a matter of fact had the disposal of the territory between the New river and the Curuni-Kutari... As we now have boundaries which have become historical and which do not trouble us at all [namely, the Kutari-Curuni] our claims are not particularly strong. It would therefore appear to me that should this matter be discussed with England the Netherlands' standpoint would be weak..."

The matter was to be discussed with Britain not all that long after this statement was made.

Fixing the trijunction
We are inclined to consider that the discovery of oil in the Corentyne basin is a fairly recent ocurrence. It is not. The possibility that oil could be found in that general area had been raised as early as the 1920s, and thus in 1927 the Dutch had made an unofficial overture to the British with regard to the settling of the boundary.

The official proposal came in 1929, however, as a consequence of the work of the Brazil-British Guiana Mixed Commission. The latter was about to embark on the laborious work of demarcating their common frontier according to the provisions of the King of Italy's award of 1904. As such, therefore, both Brazil and Britain required the assistance of the Dutch in order to establish the convergence point of the three territories.

The Netherlands Government was duly informed of the Mixed Commission's work, and was invited to take part in the establishment of the Suriname-Brazil-British Guiana tri-junction point. The Dutch responded in an aide-memoire of August 2, 1929, in which they proposed that the two governments should seek a final resolution of the entire boundary, and not just the tri-junction point.

Discussions thereby started, with the Dutch putting forward proposals which were rejected by the British. By 1931, however, the two sides were prepared to conclude a treaty along general lines which the British had suggested. This meant that the Dutch Government would relinquish its New river claim in favour of a Kutari frontier while the British would concede the whole Corentyne river to the Dutch at the low water mark. It was the agreement over the Kutari which was to clear the way for the laying of the tri-junction marker.

In February 1932 the British put forward more detailed proposals involving recognition of the longest branch of the Kutari as its principal course, and its source as that point when it could "no longer be traced on the ground as a defined channel."

Subsequently, the Dutch were to propose that the boundary should follow "the path Trombetas-Cutari from its extremity on the Cutari leading over a rock, by Farabee called 'Farogle' till the point of contact with the Brazilian frontier." The British were agreeable to this if the source of the Kutari did not lie on the watershed, or if its determination turned out to be a matter of great practical difficulty.

In 1936, the work began under the direction of Vice-Admiral Kayser, Chief Commissioner for the Dutch on the one side, and Major Phipps for the British on the other. Eventually the Commissioners agreed that the East Kutari was the longest branch of the river (there were four branches over 30 kilometres long), and the tri-junction point, sited on the watershed, was then fixed on a rock outcrop at the source of the Kutari.

Barrington Brown (centre), who said the

New river was larger than the Kutari

The story has a little coda. Kayser sought to insert a clause in the report that if it should be discovered thereafter that the river named by the Commissioners the 'Kutari' was not identical with that which Robert Schomburgk had called the 'Kutari', then Robert Schomburgk's river should form the boundary instead.

The two Commissioners consequently met together armed with their copies of the brothers Schomburgk. (Robert Schomburgk was the geographer who had been granted the commission by the British Government to survey the boundaries of the colony, while his brother, Richard, was a botanist who sometimes accompanied his brother on his journeys.) While Phipps had a copy of Robert Schomburgk, Kayser was only equipped with Richard Schomburgk's somewhat abbreviated account of his brother's findings. The end result of poring over the texts was that Kayser conceded that the Kutari located by the Mixed Commission was indeed Schomburgk's river.

On July 9, 1936, therefore, Phipps informed his superiors that the tri-junction point had been signed by all three Commissioners, and that the minutes of the Conference, which had also been signed by Kayser, included a statement that the latter was now persuaded that their Kutari river equated to Schomburgk's Kutari river.
Thus did the Netherlands willingly co-operate in the fixing of the tri-junction point, in so doing acknowledging the Kutari as the boundary in the Corentyne's upper reaches.

The Corentyne river mouth
In addition to the laying of the tri-junction marker in 1936, two pillars were also placed at No 61 village on the west bank of the Corentyne to mark the starting point from which the territorial sea would be divided, in the expectation that the treaty whose general outlines had been agreed would be signed.

The pillars at the mouth of the Corentyne were the originating point of a line ten degrees east of true north which projected out across what was in those days a very limited territorial sea. The line was not intended to apply to the continental shelf, because in the pre-war days that had not yet become a consideration where international maritime law was concerned.

The treaty, however, which had been more or less finalized by 1939 was never signed because the Second World War broke out. However, this ten degree line is the one which Suriname is now claiming, and on the basis of which she maintained her right to evict the CGX rig.

After the war, the matter of the boundary came up for discussion again, although when almost the same 1930s draft was considered in 1949, the Dutch were no longer prepared to entertain it.

But international maritime thinking was by this time taking into account considerations involving the continental shelf.

In a letter published in our issue of June 18, Mr Cedric Joseph described how the international convention on the continental shelf of 1958, established that "when the continental shelf is adjacent to the territories of two states, and in the absence of agreement, the boundary should be determined by the application of the principle of equidistance from the nearest points of the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea of each state is measured."

He went on to relate how only four months later, in August 1958, the Netherlands sent an aide memoire to the British proposing that the division of the territorial seas and continental shelf should be defined in accordance with this principle of equidistance.

The British agreed. And, continued Mr Joseph, in a draft forwarded to the Netherlands in 1961, Britain was prepared "to concede the 010 degree line so far as the territorial sea was concerned..." This would have taken the ten degree line out for a distance of six miles, after which the principle of equidistance would have been applied.

The Dutch countered with a proposal of their own in 1962, which involved the ceding of the New River Triangle to Suriname, and a thalweg (mid-point of the deepest channel of a river) as the Corentyne river boundary. In fact, as Mr Joseph pointed out, this turned out to be "rather generous to the Netherlands case." Where the maritime border was concerned, they proposed that the ten degree line should begin where their suggested thalweg and the mouth of the river met.

A later draft put forward by the British in 1965, which effectively would have applied the equidistance principle througout the length of the territorial sea and across the continental shelf was also rejected by the Dutch.

The originating point of the lines discussed in colonial times is associated with the western channel at the mouth of the river. If the boundary of the river runs along the middle, or a different channel is chosen as the thalweg in the estuary, then the originating point changes and moves east.

The principle of equidistance as established in the international convention on the continental shelf of 1958, has also now been enshrined in the International Convention on the Law of the Sea. This requires that where there is no agreed maritime boundary, then a principle of equidistance should be applied. And this is precisely what Guyana has done. Where the removal of the CGX rig is concerned, Suriname has no case.

(Published by Stabroek News July 23rd. 2000)

July 2000. guyanaca.com -guyana.org