Atlantic History Berbice in the Atlantic World
Marjoleine Kars
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0388


Berbice was a small colony in northeastern South America. Along with Suriname, Essequibo, and Demerara, Berbice was colonized by the Dutch. The four contiguous colonies were located on the so-called Wild Coast, the area between the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers. Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo were captured by the British in 1803. The were ceded by the Dutch to the British in 1814 and collectively became British Guiana in 1831. At independence in 1966, the country became known as Guyana. Berbice was first colonized in 1627, some 70 miles up the Berbice River as a private patroonship, or hereditary fief, granted by the Dutch West India Company to Abraham van Pere, a merchant from the province of Zeeland. Aided by Native Arawak (Lokono) and Caribs (Kali’na), colonists initially focused on Native trade and farming tobacco. Over time the Van Peres developed a few sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans and Amerindians. In the 1670s, Amerindians and enslaved Africans rose in rebellion against the Dutch, who used divide-and-conquer tactics to pull apart the coalition and enlist powerful Natives on their side. With Native help, a tiny European minority managed to make chattel slavery of Africans a viable enterprise. Early in the eighteenth century, the Van Pere family sold the colony to a group of investors in Amsterdam who formed the Society of Berbice. The “Company,” as it was known, henceforth ran the colony. Under its government, Berbice grew rapidly, though it remained small and underdeveloped. Plantations, strung along the Berbice River and its tributary, the Canje River, focused on growing coffee, cotton, and cacao. Only on “company plantations” did enslaved people grow sugar. On the eve of a massive slave rebellion that began in 1763 and lasted more than a year, Berbice counted at most 350 Europeans and 4,500 to 5,000 enslaved Africans spread over 135 plantations. The rebellion devastated the colony, which only continued thanks to massive loans from the Dutch government, which the Company never repaid. Tired of bailing out private companies, the Dutch government took over management of the Wild Coast colonies in 1795. After the British takeover, Berbice briefly thrived. While the historiography of Suriname is well developed, we still know little about the other three Wild Coast colonies, though change is in the air. Attracted by rich and unexplored records, historians have begun to study the nature of Dutch colonialism in the area, the history of African-descended people in Berbice, and Dutch-Native relations. Much work remains to be done.

General Overviews

Hartsinck 1770 and Netscher 1929 are classic works on the Dutch Wild Coast colonies. Both contain lengthy sections on Berbice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They rely exclusively on European sources and their perspective is extremely dated, yet they contain much useful information. Thompson 1987 is the most recent overview of Guyanese history. Several works provide a wider Atlantic context for the history of Berbice. Goslinga 1971 and Goslinga 1985 were long the only modern overviews, but they have been superseded by Klooster 2016 and Klooster and Oostindie 2018, which provide more inclusive perspectives and feature up-to-date scholarship. Hoonhout 2020 focuses on the Dutch in Essequibo and Demerara yet contains much that is relevant for the study of Berbice.

  • Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast 1580–1680. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971.

    Long the authoritative work on the topic. Should not be relied upon anymore without consulting more modern works.

  • Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas, 1680–1791. Assen/Maastricht, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1985.

    For a long time the only overview of the Dutch in the 18th-century Caribbean, the book is now largely supplanted by others.

  • Hartsinck, Jan Jacob. Beschryving van Guiana, of de Wilde Kust in Zuid-Amerika. 2 vols. Amsterdam: G. Tielenburg, 1770.

    Jan Jacob Hartsinck (b. 1716–d. 1779) had close ties to plantation owners in Berbice and to the authorities that ran the colony. He relied on much primary material and provides useful details, though his views on race and white supremacy render his interpretations suspect.

  • Hoonhout, Bram. Borderless Empire: Dutch Guiana in the Atlantic World, 1750–1800. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvfxvb8n

    Wide-ranging book about the history of Essequibo and Demerara that has much relevance for any student of Berbice.

  • Klooster, Wim. The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501706127

    Narrative and analysis of the brief multicultural “moment” when the Dutch, who counted many foreigners among them, with the help of Native allies, briefly sat atop an “empire” in the 17th-century Atlantic.

  • Klooster, Wim, and Gert Oostindie. Realm between Empires: The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680–1815. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501705267.001.0001

    Provides a broad overview of the activities of the Dutch in the 18th-century Atlantic. Touches on Berbice.

  • Netscher, P. M. History of the Colonies Essequibo, Demerary, and Berbice. Translated by Walter Roth. Georgetown, Guyana: Daily Chronicle, 1929.

    Originally published as Geschiedenis van de koloniën Essequebo, Demerary en Berbice, van de vestiging der Nederlanders aldaar tot op onzen tijd (’s Gravenhage, The Netherlands: Nijhoff, 1888). Based on extensive archival research, this book is still a useful reference for any student of Guyana, though its perspective is outdated.

  • Thompson, Alvin O. Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Guyana, 1580–1803. Bridgetown, Barbados: Carib Research, 1987.

    A comprehensive older overview of Guyanese history that provides a strong focus on Native people and people of African descent by a Guyanese historian who has written extensively on Guyana’s history, slavery, and race relations.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.