At the beginning of the 1650s, England was in ruins – wrecked by plague and civil war. Yet shimmering on the horizon was a vision of paradise: Willoughbyland.
Ever since Sir Walter Ralegh set out in 1595 to claim the ‘Beautiful Empire of Guiana’ for the English crown – and to find the legendary city of El Dorado – adventurers had struggled against the fierce jungle of the Wild Coast in search of their fortune.
Now, in the lush landscape between the great Amazon and Orinoco rivers, a group of Cavaliers, expelled by Oliver Cromwell, had established a new colony named after its founder – Sir Francis Willoughby.
This is the untold story of Willoughbyland’s spectacular rise and fall, set at a pivotal moment in British and world history. Here are the indigenous ‘Indian kings’ and their people, both friend and foe to the new arrivals. Here is Fifth Baron Willoughby himself, like his colony a mass of contradictory extremes. And here is Aphra Behn – later one of the most successful dramatists of the Restoration stage – sent to spy on a man with whom she will fall in love, transforming the fate of this entire enterprise.
In the blissfully warm and fragrant air, these adventurers and exiles found a land of unimaginable freedom and natural beauty. Yet, as planters and traders followed explorers, and mercenaries and soldiers followed political dissidents, it would become a place of terror and cruelty, of sugar and slavery. As Matthew Parker reveals, the history of Willoughbyland is a microcosm of the history of empire, its heady attractions and fatal dangers.