Essequibo and Other Border Issues: Venezuela’s Territorial Losses to Imperialist Powers Through the Centuries (Part 1)

Saheli Chowdhury, Orinoco Tribune, December 1, 2023 —

With the Venezuelan consultative referendum on reclaiming the Essequibo territory from Guyana just around the corner, one may wonder what it is about and why it is being conducted now. Venezuela has been accused of intending to carry out imperialist expansion and attempting to control the petroleum resources of a “foreign territory.” We are being told that Venezuela is trying to steal Guyanese territory and Guyanese oil. This hypothesis may seem plausible to many, even though Venezuela has no history of imperialist expansion in its republican life of over two centuries. It is precisely this lack of historical context that may lead unscrupulous observers to form ideas such as “Venezuela is a proto-imperialist power,” or a “wannabe imperialist power,” trying to impose itself on “smaller,” and “less powerful,” neighbors. Therefore, it is essential to look at the history of the dispute, and how it reached this point.

Essequibo dispute: the origin
Possibly the most serious border issue in Venezuela’s history, the Essequibo territorial dispute originated from the British Empire’s expansionist project in South America. Having lost its colony in the north of the Americas in the 18th century, the British Empire focused on creating a counterpart in the south from the early 19th century onwards, in order to maintain its hegemonic control in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Out of this ambition was born the colony of British Guyana, through which Britain unilaterally annexed the Venezuelan territory of Essequibo, a part of the Venezuelan Guayana, and the Tigri region of Suriname, then a Dutch colony.

British Guyana originated around the same time that Venezuela became independent. Before that, during the Spanish colonial period, Venezuela had extended up to the borders of Dutch Guyana, which reached the left bank of the Essequibo River. As such, until the early 17th century, the territory—later known as Dutch Guyana—was also a part of the Spanish Empire, which lost the region to the Dutch in its inter-imperialist rivalry with the Netherlands. However, the borders between the colonies of the two empires were not established definitively until 1777, when the Captaincy General of Venezuela—the administrative entity within the Viceroyalty of New Granada, though independent of it—was created. Even after that, as the Venezuelan Essequibo and Guayana regions were sparsely populated and Spanish imperial power there was weak, the Dutch continued their incursions into Venezuela.

This “status quo” changed in 1814 when, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Kingdom of Holland—which was on the losing side—was forced to cede the majority of its Guyanese territory to the United Kingdom, and was allowed only to keep Suriname. In 1815, the British Empire announced its recognition of the 1777 borders, considering the left bank of the Essequibo River as the eastern frontier of Venezuela and the right bank of the river as the western margin of British Guyana; however, Britain never honored this arrangement. Even as early as 1822, when Gran Colombia—comprised by the territories now known as Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador—still existed, its ambassador to the UK, José Rafael Revenga, under Bolívar’s orders, presented a complaint regarding British incursions in the Essequibo, but the matter did not proceed further in the British Empire. During the 1930s, the British Empire started expanding its territory into the sparsely populated and barely monitored Venezuelan Essequibo, without care for the consent of its neighbor, even though Venezuela continued to consider the 1815 borders as the legal frontiers recognized by both sides.

Then, in 1840, the British Empire committed a “scientific fraud,” to unilaterally annex the Venezuelan Essequibo, a tactic that it would continue to apply in other latitudes to dispossess other countries of their territories. The Royal Geographical Society of London named a German botanist and geographer, Robert Hermann Schomburgk, to be ostensibly responsible for delimiting the territory of British Guyana; in reality, the goal was to secretly steal as much territory for the British colony as possible. Schomburgk, eager to receive British citizenship, did more than what was asked of him: he incorporated into British Guyana the whole of the Venezuelan Essequibo, a good slice of the Venezuelan Guayana, and took the northern border of the British colony up to Point Barima and the mouths of the Orinoco River, thus cutting off Venezuela’s access to the Atlantic. He also stole a good chunk of Suriname from the Dutch, and thus expanded the eastern limits of the British colony. It should be noted here that according to British records, the Essequibo region was so abandoned by the Venezuelan government of the time that they only found out in 1841—after Schomburgk had left for England—that it no longer belonged to Venezuela.

As Venezuelan historian Vladimir Acosta wrote, Venezuela lost its easternmost territory because it “did not occupy it in terms of population… It seems that Venezuela never understood that when confronting an ambitious neighbor, border territories have to be defended not only with previously agreed rights or treaties, or, if necessary, with weapons, which is the most problematic and least advisable, but above all with something else that, besides being fundamental, is much simpler: simply with population, occupying them in peace in anticipation of any future threats,” Acosta notes. “An unoccupied or barely occupied foreign territory is a temptation for any neighboring country experiencing population expansion willing to occupy it, or for any colonialist or imperialist power wishing to do the same for ambition, rivalry, or geopolitical interests.”

In the case of Britain, it was the latter, as its occupation of Venezuelan territory not only expanded the empire itself, but also provided it with closer access to Trinidad, which was under British occupation at that time. The seizure of the Venezuelan Essequibo thus provided the British Empire unimpeded access to the Caribbean and the Atlantic, essential for continuing its hegemonic control of the area.

Venezuela’s other territorial losses
At this point, it may be appropriate to touch briefly on other territorial losses that Venezuela suffered at the hands of multiple imperialist powers over the centuries. Long before the Essequibo incident, Venezuela, as a Spanish colony, lost two important groups of islands to two different European colonial powers. Although Venezuela was not responsible for the loss in either case, as it was subjugated under Spain at the time, it was Venezuela that was ultimately the loser in terms of both territory and maritime potential.

In the 16th century, new colonial powers arose in Europe, such as Holland, France, and Britain, powers that developed strong naval forces and began confronting the older colonial powers of Spain and Portugal. Over the next two centuries, the Caribbean, which earlier was the main power center of the Spanish Empire, turned into a warzone for claiming control over the islands, sea routes, and even the continental landmass. The Caribbean waters and islands became a real hub for pirates and slave traders, and even today, some of those same islands function as tax havens for the modern-day pirates—the millionaires and billionaires.

This rise of piracy and wars reached its height in the 17th century, when France and Britain seized control of most of the Caribbean islands—the majority of them were smaller ones, but Britain managed to grab one of the largest: Jamaica. As for Venezuela, in 1634, a fleet of Dutch pirate ships seized the island group of Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba—historically part of Venezuelan territory, but neglected by Spain—and the Spanish Empire did nothing to protect it. Holland used the islands as its “base of operations” for smuggling and their slave trade; Curaçao in particular became an important center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To this day, the islands remain under Dutch occupation, but these days they are referred to by the euphemism “overseas territories” of the Kingdom of Netherlands.

The other maritime loss that Venezuela suffered, as a Spanish colony, came at the hands of the British Empire, when it seized the island of Trinidad in 1797. Spain had neglected Trinidad and did not care to populate it, similar to what it had done in the Essequibo. At the time of the British invasion, there were a handful of Spaniards on the island, which was mainly populated by indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and some French immigrants. The Spanish governor of Trinidad surrendered without a fight, and Spain did nothing to recover the island. What was worse, in 1802, was that Spain signed the Treaty of Amiens with Britain, recognizing British dominion over the island, and leaving Venezuela out of the equation entirely. Britain added Trinidad to Tobago, turned it into a new colony in the Caribbean, and populated it with enslaved Africans, as well as bonded laborers from India and Africa in later years. Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain in 1962, and Venezuela has never demanded the return of Trinidad from the sovereign country.

Even as an independent state, the Republic of Venezuela went on losing territories, not only in the east in its confrontations with colonial Britain, but also in the west. With the dissolution and fragmentation of Gran Colombia, both Venezuela and Colombia, the two largest countries to emerge from it, squabbled over defining the binational border. The Michelena-Pombo Treaty, signed between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela in 1833, divided the disputed Guajira region into two almost equal parts for each party. However, the Venezuelan parliament was claiming more territory in the region, and therefore rejected the treaty. The border problem continued over the next 50 years, during which time Colombia went on claiming more territory in the Guajira as well as the llanos (plains). Multiple bilateral negotiations produced no result, until finally, in 1883, Spain—the former colonial ruler of both nations—arbitrated the issue in favor of Colombia, and then-Venezuelan President Guzmán Blanco accepted it, providing closure to the neighbors’ dispute.

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