While ‘The Guianas’, being modern Guyana (British Guiana), Surinam (until 1975 a Dutch colony) and French Guiana, had from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries been famed for their slave-plantation economies, during the 16th century, Europeans were obsessed with the region for entirely different reasons. The interior of the Guianas was rumoured to be home to ‘Lake Parime (or Parima)’, on whose shores was located the legendary city of ‘El Dorado’ built of an incalculable amount of gold. Many expeditions were launched to find El Dorado, perhaps most notably that led by Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1595, but all proved fruitless (as El Dorado and Lake Parime did not exist). The myth of El Dorado in the Guianas likely arose from the fact that (modest) amounts placer gold were often found by the indigenous peoples in the interior, and upon learning this, Europeans misunderstood (and greatly exaggerated!) the sources of these finds.
During the heyday of the sugar-slave economies in the Guianas, the colonial regimes showed little interest in prospected for gold in the interior, a region covered by incredibly dense jungles, rapid-filled rivers and often rugged mountain plateaus. The region was not only close to physically impenetrable, but hosted tropical diseases that could wipe out entire expeditions, while many of the indigenous peoples were (perhaps quite understandably) less-than-welcoming of outsiders. In fact, vast sections of the interior had never even been visited by Europeans, let along properly reconnoitred.
The progressive abolition of slavery in British Guiana (phased in 1834-8), France (1848) and Surinam (phased in 1863-73) caused an economic crisis in the region, as the anchor industry lost its source of labour. While British Guiana and Surinam decided to import indentured labour from India and China, partially alleviated the shortfall, the fact remained that the Guianas needed to diversify their economies if they hoped to have a chance of prosperous futures.
Beginning the 1860s, the authorities in British Guiana, Surinam and French Guiana turned to gold as a possible solution to the colonies’ economic woes. They authorized expeditions into the interior, to locate viable transportation routes and to identify promising locations for gold prospecting, if not exploiting some gold deposits directly. Subsequent expeditions were endeavoured by private figures, who sometimes simultaneously held government mandates. Just enough gold was found in all three colonies to encourage and sustain cautious further exploration, but no ‘bonanza’ was discovered that would inspire a gold rush. As such, during the late 19th century, gold came to supplement the economies of the Guianas, as opposed to being the hoped-for new anchor of prosperity.
Enter Willem Lodewijk Loth: Gold Prospector and the First ‘Modern’ Cartographer of Surinam
Willem Lodewijk Loth (1844 – 1916) was a leading figure in Surinam for over 40 years, from the 1870s onwards, and the preeminent promoter of gold exploration in the Guianas. He was Surinam’s foremost mapmaker, as well as holding various cabinet-level offices on the Governor’s Executive Council. Born in Paramaribo to a long-established Surinam family, he was the son of Daniel Jacob Loth (1799 – 1892), a successful merchant. After training, Loth became a licensed land surveyor in 1863, and over the coming years executed innumerable cadastral surveys across Surinam.
Loth was an ardent believer that the gold industry could, and should, be developed into a major component of the economic profile of Surinam; it was something of personal passion. He led many pioneering and fruitful gold prospecting expeditions into the colony’s vast and mysterious interior and lobbied the colonial authorities and external investors to open new gold concessions and to fund enterprises. He also served as something of a guide and mentor to other gold prospectors, not only in Surinam, but in neighbouring British and French Guiana.
Loth’s tireless industry led Surinam’s governor to appoint him to his cabinet. While serving as the Director of Public Works, he oversaw a road building boom, and as the Administrator of Finance, he stabilized the colonial budget.
From the mid-1880s until 1905, Loth served as the Surveyor-General of Surinam, a role for which he was exceptionally well qualified. Over the years, he made several important regional maps of Surinam which were published in Amsterdam, including a map of the critical corridor between the Suriname and Saramacca Rivers, Kaart en doorsnede van het terrain tusschen de rivieren Suriname en Saramacca over de lijn in September en October 1877 ; a map of cross-section of terrain between points on the Surinam and Marowijne Rivers, Kaart en doorsnede van het terrein tusschen de Brokopondo stroomsnelling in de rivier Suriname en de Pedrosoengoe vallen in de rivier Marowijne (1876); a fascinating expedition map into the deep interior of the colony, Kaart behoorende bij het verslag van eene reis naar de Lawa, tot het verkennen van het terrein tusschen die rivier en de Tapanahoni en dat tusschen de Toso- en Sarakreeken, gedaan van Januari-Mei 1892 (1893); and a fine map of the capital, Plan van Paramaribo (1904).
The apogee of Loth’s cadastral / regional surveying was the Kaart van Suriname naar de opmetingen van J.F.A. Cateau van Rosevelt en J.F.A.E. van Lansberge, aangevuld tot 1898… (Amsterdam: J.H. de Bussy, 1899), the first ‘modern’ map of Surinam, showcasing the entire colony, with its settled areas predicated upon the latest scientific surveys,
Seeking the New El Dorado: The Present Map in Focus
Loth’s most intriguing, well-known, and controversial (please see below) work is the present Kaart van Guiana, Engelsch, Nederlandsch en Fransch. The map was executed by Loth in 1888, predicated upon the best available surveys, including many conducted personally by the surveyor-general, while the gold concessions and prospecting information was gleaned from official records (including those from Loth’s office). It provides by far and away the most comprehensive and accurate overview of the early gold industry in the Guianas. The map was commissioned by Surinam Governor Hendrik Jan Smidt (in office, 1885-8), who like Loth, was an enthusiastic proponent of the gold industry. The map was printed, in 1889, in a usually beautifully technique of colour lithography by the Amsterdam house of J.H. de Bussy, with the various colonies shown outlined in their own vibrant hues, with the coastlines adorned with something akin to blue frosting.
The map showcases the Guianas with a highly impressive degree of accuracy for the time. The coastal areas and some of the major interior river valleys are depicted with assuredness, while highlands are expressed by hachures. All towns and villages are shown, while in Surinam many surveying lines are marked and labelled with their date of execution, while in the legend, to the right of the title, it is identified that ‘Telegraaf en Telephoon’ [Telegraph and Telephone lines] are marked by red lines with stations.
However, many areas of the deep interiors of each of the colonies are still unsurveyed, and in some cases completely enigmatic, as a large section of Surinam is labelled as ‘Onbekende Wildernis’ (Unknown Wilderness), while the ‘Nieuwe Rivier’ (New River) in southeastern British Guiana is shown to have only been explored relatively recently, by C.B. Brown, in September 1872. Notably, the vast amount of territory in eastern British Guiana that is disputed with Venezuela (and it still contested today!), is shown bounded by a yellow line, labelled ‘Grens van Demerara volgens de Venezuelanen’ [Border of Demerara according to the Venezuelans], with ‘Demerara’ being the name of the relevant part of British Guiana.
Most importantly, the wealth of gold prospecting information is described in the legend, with the conspicuous, yellow-shaded tracts being ‘Perceleen ten behoeve van de goud-industrie in concessie gegeven’ [Plots given in Concession for the Gold industry], while the concessions marked with red rectangles are held by ‘Bekende rijke placers’ [Famous Wealthy Placer Miners].
In Surinam and French Guiana one can see a massive concentration of gold concessions in horizontal bands running across the mid-interior, which in French Guiana are labelled as the ‘Zone aurifère Schisteuse’ [Shale Gold Zone] and ‘Zone aurifère Gneissique’ [Gneissic Gold Zone]. The gold mining activity in British Guiana is confined to the tributaries of the Cuyuni River, in the northeast, in territory that was disputed with Venezuela.
While based upon accurate information from the best sources, the depiction of the gold activity of the map was clearly meant to have a propagandist purpose, in addition to its practical applicability, as Loth wanted to show that Surinam and French Guiana had vibrant gold industries, ripe for new investment.
Additionally, the map features 4 fine cartographic insets. In the top centre are finely detailed plans of all three of the colonial capitals, ‘Plan of the city of Georgetown [British Guiana]’; and the ‘Plan van Paramaribo [Surinam]’; and ‘Plan de la ville de Cayenne [French Guiana]’, each with a key labelling 26 sites. In the lower left corner, there is an inset depicting the southernmost part of British Guiana which lies off the main map, ‘Zuidelijke grens van Demerara’ [Southern Boundary of British Guiana].
The Controversies Surrounding the Map
While everybody agreed that Loth’s present map was a lovely masterpiece that featured much new and valuable information, it featured details that ‘struck a nerve’ for both Dutch and British stakeholders, making it one of the most controversial maps of its era.
Surinam’s boundaries with both British Guiana and French Guiana in the essentially unsurveyed deep interior were long disputed (and remain so today!). The Dutch claimed that the boundaries of Surname in both its far southern corners should flare outwards, taking in territory that would otherwise belong to British and French Guiana. Conversely, The British and French claimed that Surinam’s corners should fall inwards, so giving British and French Guiana the disputed territories.
Critically, the present map shows the southern corners of Surinam’s boundaries, with British Guiana and French Guyana, as tapering inwards, such that it seems to deny the Netherlands’ maximal boundary claims against its neighbours. Here Loth, as a native colonial, was merely expressing the borders as the informal ‘lines of control’ as agreed amongst the locals in each colony. However, the leading lights in The Hague, most of whom had never stepped foot in South America, felt passionately that all Dutch maps should only show Surinam’s most extreme territorial claims as being a reality. Loth was careful to ‘correct’ this ‘error’ in his 1899 general map of Surinam.
If that was not enough, the present map also annoyed the British colonial establishment, as Loth, in their opinion, seemed to minimize the scope to the gold mining industry in British Guiana (which is here shown as being quite limited, confined to the Cuyuni River area), while greatly exaggerating the extent of the gold activity in both Surinam and French Guiana.
When reviewing Loth’s gold map of the Guianas, the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, which often voiced the sentiments of the British colonial establishment, wrote:
“This map contains all the latest information with regard to Guiana. The boundaries as claimed by the British and Venezuelan Governments are clearly laid down. The positions where gold is believed to exist are indicated, from which it will be seen that by far the greater quantity is supposed to be in French Guiana, and the least in British, which is indeed represented as being entirely devoid of auriferous deposits, except in the case of the region now in dispute with the Government of Venezuela. Much, however, of this information is misleading, as though gold may be found in the places indicated, there is no reason for believing it to exist in sufficient quantity to pay for its extraction in anything like the large areas represented on this map. Plans of Georgetown, Paramaribo, and Cayenne are given as insets, and telegraph lines are indicated. The map is neatly drawn, and is on a sufficiently large scale to be useful for the purposes of general reference. (Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol. 11 (1889), p. 402).
The Royal Geographical Society may have had a point, although they seem to have gone too far in their criticism. Objectively, Loth seems to have omitted many of the gold concessions that the authorities had granted to private prospectors in British Guiana. However, the charge that he had exaggerated the gold activity in French Guiana seems to be incorrect, or at least overstated, as significant prospecting ventures were indeed being endeavoured there. The gold information in Surinam is assuredly accurate, as it comes from the official records overseen (and in some cases personally collected) by Loth himself, in his role as Surveyor General of Surinam.
While a matter of speculation, perhaps Loth intentionally underrepresented the extent of gold activity in British Guiana, as the prospecting ventures there competed with the Dutch and French endeavours for investment. There tended to be only limited cooperation between the Dutch and British gold venturss, while there was extensive Franco-Dutch collaboration. Loth, who had major stakes in gold operations in Surinam and French Guiana perhaps did not want his map to give his Anglo rivals a free PR bump!
A Note on Rarity
The present map is very rare, it seems that it was only issued in a small print run for those interested in the gold industry in the Guianas, while the survival rate of such large maps generally destined for the tropics is quite low.
We can trace 6 institutional examples of the map, held by the Bibliotheek Universiteit van Amsterdam; Leiden University Library; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Library; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (2 examples), while we can trace only a single sales record for another example from recent years.
Despite Loth’s enthusiasm, the gold mining industry in all three of the Guianas largely remained of limited scale, falling far short of being the bonanza that was hoped and envisaged. The extreme nature of the topography and climate ensured that large-scale prospecting and gold exploitation was extremely difficult, if not impossible, in most places, even where sizable gold deposits were identified. Usually, gold extraction was limited to whatever could be extracted by small work gangs, and then carried by canoe or by foot out of the jungle. Some exceptions were the decent-sized gold concessions developed in northwestern French Guiana by the famed prospector Paul Isnard, while the first proper mine in British Guiana was established, in 1904, at the Peters Mine, on the Puruni River, in the interior to the southeast of Georgetown. However, for much of the 20th century gold revenues merely supplement colonial incomes, as opposed to being a gamechanger the Guianas.
However, in recent years, improvements in technology and transportation, combined with high gold prices, have allowed all three of the Guianas to develop large, modern industries, playing major roles in their respective economies. In Guyana, many very productive small and medium size gold finds are being exploited, while the Peters an Omai Mines are large productive operations. Today, gold represents around 64% of Guyana’s foreign exchange, 15% of its total economic output, and employs 12% of its workforce. In Surinam, the gold industry has taken off, anchored by the Rosebel gold project, in the north of the country, that is one of the largest gold producers in South America. The Montagne d’Or Mine, in northwestern French Guiana, is the colony’s largest and most productive gold source, with estimated reserves of 5,370,000 troy ounces.
However, the gold industry in the Guianas is increasingly controversial, as its operations pose a grave danger to one of the world’s richest and most fragile ecosystems. It seems to be one of the many showdowns between economic development and saving the planet.
References: Leiden University Library: 163 C 35; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Library: LL.10227gk: 670/od/1889; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin: Kart. R 15675; Bibliothèque nationale de France (2 examples): IFN-53245506 and SG Y B-293; OCLC: 71510627, 494807059; C. KOEMAN, Bibliography of Printed Maps of Suriname 1671-1971 (Amsterdam, 1973), no. 81; P.L. PHILLIPS, Guyana and Venezuela Cartography (Washington, D.C., 1898), p. 768; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol. 11 (1889), p. 402.