“Wild Coast – Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge” by John Gimlette (London: Profile Books, 2011, 2012)
It’s a book about the “Three Guianas” in the north-east of South America, the former British colony Guyana
(the former Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana
(an overseas department of France
). The author read a ton of books about these places and then spent considerable time in them to research this book, so it is quite in-depth, but also quite specialized. Much of the older history was of less relevance to me, but still gives it all a good grounding and context – especially that of slavery and the plantations. More importantly, from my special perspective of dark tourism, were the modern history bits. I got the book years before I eventually made it out there myself, namely when I first probed the possibility of a trip there, but had to postpone. But I had begun reading this book and got hooked.
And I loved reading it … until I got to page 82, that is. This was at the end of the section about Jonestown
(highly intriguing!) when the vague idea of maybe opening the site of the tragedy up for ‘dark tourism’ was dismissed as absurd and dark tourists collectively labelled “the chronically morbid”. How dare he?!? Is this that typical arrogance of a journalist? (Except he isn’t even a journalist, but a London barrister with a sideline career as a freelance author.) Does that mean it’s OK for him to travel there for a week and investigate the site itself, but if anybody else would do so it’s “chronically morbid”? Why should his interest in Jonestown be noble and justifiable, but any other traveller’s same interest in it merely “morbid”? Or is this just that typical “moral panic” reflex
once the term ‘dark tourism’ is thrown in? Anyway, I admit that after that I stopped reading and tossed the book in a corner. It was only when I was making concrete plans for a trip to the Guianas, which I undertook in August 2019, that I resumed reading it. I restarted where I had left off, and later also reread his accounts of Jonestown
, biting my lips when I got to that defamatory section about dark tourism. I haven’t brought myself to forgiving him that, but have to concede that the rest of the book is pretty good. There’s certainly enough valuable insights in it to make it practically indispensable reading for anybody thinking about travelling to these remote countries – or for anyone with more than a passing interest in this rather little known part of the world.
There’s a slight bias towards Guyana
, which is given about half the book’s pages and five chapters, while Suriname gets three and French Guiana just one.
It kicks off with the chapter about Georgetown
, the Guyanese capital (the chapter is entitled “The Town of George”), into which much of the general historical background is woven, followed by said chapter about Jonestown
(“The Town of Jones”). After that comes a highly intriguing (also the book’s longest) chapter about the Rupununi
, in the deep south of the country with a very different character and separate history. Then it’s into the wild inland
for the final two Guyana
chapters, including one centred around the Berbice
slave revolt of 1763 and its aftermath. As this happened when this part of the Guianas was still under Dutch control, it makes for a good link to the second country covered in this book: Suriname
Like presumably most people, I had known precious little about that country before, so this was extremely illuminating reading, which was also very useful in preparing me for my own trip there. The first sub-chapter, entitled “Good Morning Suriname” (in obvious allusion to that movie about the Vietnam War
with Robin Williams) covers the author’s overland (and river-crossing) travels from Guyana to Suriname
, and again much historical background is woven into this first part about the country. The second chapter is about its pretty capital Paramaribo
and more history, old as well as contemporary. The same applies to the third Suriname
chapter, about “the Hinterlands”, featuring plenty of insights into contemporary Suriname and its complicated politics and sociology as well as yet more older history. This is also the second longest chapter of the book.
The final chapter is about French Guiana
, or “Guyane
”. Unsurprisingly the history of the place as an overseas penal colony plays a major role as do the most famous names associated with it, Alfred Dreyfus and Henri Charrière (author of the book “Papillon”). Somewhat annoyingly for me Gimlette sprinkles lots of quotes in French into his narrative in this chapter quite often without providing translations, obviously assuming that (naturellement!) everybody has to understand French. Well I don’t know much French and so there were several bits where I just had to shrug my shoulders and skip them. But anyway, the chapter is still insightful, including bits I hadn’t known about French Guiana yet, e.g. the fact that in 1977 large numbers of Hmong refugees from Laos were settled here (apparently it was part of the fallout from the Vietnam War
There is one more chapter in the book entitled “Epilogue”, but is really about the final part of Gimlette’s journeys in the Guianas, starting still in French Guiana but also popping across to the Brazilian part (once called Portuguese Guiana), now within the province of Amapá.
A short afterword adds a few updates, changes that have occurred between the journey of the author and the book getting published. This included the astonishing return to politics of Suriname
’s former dictator Desi Bouterse. The book is rounded off by a list of sources, acknowledgements and an index.
All in all
, despite a couple of minor gripes, and one rather massive one (see above
), I must say that I found this book very good – and certainly of immeasurable worth in preparing for my own trip to the Three Guianas. In the countries themselves I often heard it mentioned too, everybody I had contact with in Guyana
seemed to have read it, also some in Suriname
. A few had some issues with the details here and there but the general consensus was that Gimlette has done a pretty good job of bringing insights into the exotic lands to the wider world outside. And that’s a damn good achievement, I think. So the book can only be recommended – but I still do not forgive its author for so offhandedly (and clearly ignorantly) dissing dark tourism …