Spanish Ideas of a Western Frontier

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In 1781, during the American War of Independence, the British captured Essequibo-Demerara and Berbice from the Dutch. During the period of their occupation, the British surveyed Essequibo along the coast to a point beyond the Barima and inside the Great Mouth of the Orinoco. A map was drafted by the officer in charge of this expedition and was later published in London in 1783. A note on this map showed the western boundary of the colony as the Barima River but which was shown in the position really occupied by the Amakura.

In 1782, the French seized the colonies from the English, and in the following year when peace was established, they were handed back to the Dutch. At that period, the French were allies of the Americans who were fighting their war of independence against the British. The Dutch remained neutral during the American War of Independence but supplied the Americans with goods and, as such, were regarded as friends of the French.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century there was much discussion among Spanish officials as to the measures to be taken to protect their frontier between the Orinoco and the Cuyuni.

In 1787, a Spanish missionary in the Orinoco region, Fray Thomas de Matraro, wrote to Don Miguel Marmion, Governor of Guayana, that "where the Cuyuni and the Yuruan join, there is a convenient site to build a strong house or fort to stop the passage of the Indians so that they might not go to Essequibo, and to prevent the entry of the Dutch to these Missions and savannahs."

In a Report dated the 10 July 1788, Marmion, after setting forth "the destitute, miserable and backward state of the province", outlined a scheme for the further settlement of the lands upon the frontier. He considered that the south bank of the Orinoco from the point of the Barima, about 60 miles inland to the Curucima Creek, being low lying and swampy, should be disregarded as useless. He also proposed that the frontier should run along this creek along the ridge of the Imataka Mountains to the south-south-east to the Cuyuni River; and from there to the Mazaruni, and then to the Essequibo. The report added that the frontier should then follow the Essequibo to its source.

Marmion explained that the Dutch traversed the Cuyuni in canoes and thus carried on their traffic in slaves and in other merchandise and products of the country, and that there was no obstacle to prevent them coming in and going out every time they wished to inspect the Spanish possessions. He urged the Spanish authorities to settle the savannah region on the upper Cuyuni as this would stop the Dutch, who had already occupied the Cuyuni, from continually extending their colony.

Nevertheless, he recognised that, however desirable, the settlement of the frontier could not begin nearest to the boundaries of the Dutch possessions on the Cuyuni. This was because of the expense and difficulty of transporting cattle, provisions and other necessaries to such a distance, and by the difficulty in finding colonists who would be willing to settle in new lands which were remote and devoid of communication.

Marmion, no doubt, treated the junction of the Uruan and the Cuyuni as the limit of the Spanish territory in that direction. He considered that by holding the mouth of the Uruan, the Spaniards would secure not only all the territory which they then held but all they could hope to settle. (These areas in the upper basin of the Cuyuni were later to be awarded to Venezuela by the Arbitral Tribunal in 1899).

Up to the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish control of the district to the east and south of the Orinoco was literally confined to the sites of their actual settlements and Missions. There was very little occupation of outlying territory to the east of the river, and there was no attempt to develop the resources of the country by the opening of mines, the felling of timber, or by fishing and hunting. Such enterprises did not fall within the scheme of the Missions, and the poor relations between the Spanish missionaries and the Amerindians outside their Missions, in any case, would have rendered them impossible.