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The first Europeans to colonise Guyana were the Dutch who arrived at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In 1579, the European provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Zutpen, which were all ruled by Spain, joined together to form the Union of Utrecht. Sometime later, the union referred to itself as the United Provinces (of the Netherlands). In 1581, this union of Dutch speaking people declared its independence from Spain. The war which broke out between Spain and the United Provinces continued until 1648, with an interval of partial truce from 1609 to 1621.

Up to the time of the declaration of independence, no Dutch sailing expedition had been made to the South American coast. However, by 1592 interest had developed and an Antwerp merchant, William Usselinx, had begun to advise merchants of possible enterprises on the American continent.

The Dutch, during their war of independence against Spain, also attacked Portugal which had been united with Spain in 1580, since both countries had the same king. Portugal had many possessions in the East Indies, so the Dutch sent expeditions to attack them there.

Cabeliau's voyage

The first known Dutch expedition to the coast of Guyana was led in 1598 by the sea-captain, Abraham Cabeliau. He noted between the Corentyne and the Orinoco Rivers, the following rivers: "Berbice, Apari, Maychawini, Maheyca, Demirara, Dessekebe, Pauroma, Mrauga, Wayni." (These are known today as Berbice, Abary, Mahaicony, Mahaica, Demerara, Essequibo, Pomeroon, Moruca and Waini).

Cabiliau did not enter the Essequibo River because he was told by some Amerindians he met that there was nothing available to be traded at that location. However, he did some trading with Amerindians on the Barima and Amakura Rivers before sailing up the Orinoco as far as San Thomé to look for the gold mine that Raleigh had written about. He also traded with Amerindians there as well as with others in the lower Orinoco. In his report, he described the Orinoco River and the South American coast as far as the Maranon River (or Amazon River) as still unconquered. He also stated that the Caribs were able to resist incursions by the Spaniards who could only be found in the area of the Orinoco River.

Cabeliau's voyage was very shortly after followed by the voyages of many other Dutchmen.

By the truce of 1609, the Dutch were prevented from trading in "places, towns, ports and havens" held by the King of Spain. On the other hand, Spain recognised the right of the Dutch to trade in the countries "of all other princes, potentates and peoples" who were willing to trade with them, without any interference from the King of Spain, his officers, subjects or dependents. By a secret Article agreed upon between the Dutch and the Spanish, this right was understood to include the region of the West Indies.