Adrian Tinniswood at Literary Review:
Here are two things you might not know about Suriname, as the lost colony of Matthew Parker's title is known today. It boasts the largest ants in the world; and in spite of a widely held belief that it lies somewhere in the South China Sea, it is in fact on the northeast coast of South America.
Europeans have been interested in this particular corner of South America since 1498, when Columbus encountered indigenous people during his exploration of the Orinoco delta. They were wearing gold ornaments that, they told him, came from 'a high land to the west'. That was enough. Within a year or two the Wild Coast, as it was called, became one of the main starting points in the European quest for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold that was thought, on the slenderest of evidence, to lie on a plateau deep in the interior. Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese and Dutch all set off into the jungles of Guyana with high hopes, only to fall victim to malarial fevers or the poison darts of hostile Arawaks. On one expedition in the 1560s only twenty-five came back out of a force of two thousand. 'The reports are false,' said a survivor. 'There is nothing on the river but despair.'
Failures like this did nothing to stem the tide of European speculation, as Parker's fascinating narrative makes clear. The early history of the Wild Coast, which occupies the first sixty-odd pages of Willoughbyland, makes for a complicated story, but Parker tells it well, negotiating his way through the labyrinth of competing expeditions and invasions with a laudable clarity of purpose.