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History of Guyana

It seems the first people to arrive to the lands that Guyana now occupy came sometime between 13,000-7,000 BC. Among the earlier settlers of the region, one group was the Arawaks, who lived off the land as hunters, gatherers, and fishers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, but little else is known about them. Another group, the Caribs lived in a similar manner and again settled along the coast, which they eventually took over from the Arawaks. Both groups were heavily dependent on the Caribbean Sea and both eventually settled the Caribbean islands; in fact the Caribbean Sea is named after the Caribs, who occupied the islands when the Europeans arrived.

There were also indigenous groups of people that lived further inland, however the dense forestation of the region meant travel and communication inland was difficult so contact between these various groups was very limited. No matter the group, these people had very different languages, customs, houses, dress, and lifestyles. The major similarities came in the fact that they all lived off the land.

The first Europeans to arrive to the region came in 1499 as Spain's Alonso de Ojeda likely made a stop on the shore. However, there was no immediate effort to settle or colonize the region as the coasts were swampy, the inland forests were difficult to maneuver, and there seemed to be no immediate source of income from the region. This lack of presence meant there was little effect on the people or the land. The most substantial impact came with the European diseases that killed many of the local people, although it did little to actually change their way of life.

In 1616 the Dutch decided to begin settling the region (officially gaining the territory in 1648 from Spain) as they set up trading hubs, primarily trading with the British and French in the Caribbean as well as with the indigenous people. However most of the locals moved further inland so contact with them was sparse at many times.

The Dutch West India Company ruled this territory for nearly two centuries as they began altering the lands to make use of the swamps along the coasts. Much as they did in the Netherlands, the people built a dike system to create arable lands along the coasts as their trade continued to increase with the addition of new crops and goods to trade.

After making many of the local people work the new found fields in Guyana (which had limited success), the Dutch turned to African slaves to do most of the agricultural work. The slave numbers in the region began to grow substantially as they began to outnumber both the Dutch as well as the indigenous people. The indigenous people generally moved further into the forests, for the most part maintaining their traditional culture, while the Dutch and their African slaves lived along the coasts and rivers.

The differences between these groups were large and over time maintained many distinctions. Many slaves fled into the forests and began new societies as they were labeled "maroons." The Africans also fought Dutch power and their treatment on the farms, causing numerous slave rebellions. The most famous of these being the Berbice uprising in 1763. The leader of this rebellion, Cuffy is now the country's national hero as he nearly took over the entire region. However, the British and French assisted the Dutch and the rebellion soon collapsed.

As the economy grew in Guyana, the Dutch turned to new laborers as they invited people from all countries to settle the region in 1746. Among these settlers were the British who already had a significant presence in the region, many of whom arrived from the Caribbean. This influx of British settlers essentially shifted power from the Dutch to the British in what is today Guyana.

This move to welcome the British and other settlers eventually ended Dutch power in the region. In only a dozen years or so the British outnumbered the Dutch, so when war broke out between the two nations in 1781 the land became a focal point of power. The Dutch maintained control of the region with French assistance, but in 1795 the French took the Netherlands and hence their territories, including Guyana fell under French rule.

At this same time the French were at war with the British took the region in 1796. After shifting hands a few times and much political debate in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars, Guyana shifted to British control permanently in 1814.

The British, like the Dutch before them, faced many of the same labor shortages so they sought slavery to work the fields. However the British Empire had outlawed the slave trade in 1807, although slavery maintained legal. After a few uprisings, slavery was ended in Guyana in 1838. This led to an even more severe labor shortage, while it also drastically altered the culture and economy. Many British land owners had no labor to work and needed a new source of labor, while the former slaves shifted to numerous different regions and industries to work.

Many of the former slaves moved to cities and towns, quickly urbanizing the country, while others bought lands and began farming themselves. The British, seeking new labor, encouraged Portuguese and Chinese workers to immigrate. While these people did immigrate, they also preferred the cities as the farms remained undermanned. This led to the encouraged settlement of indentured Indian laborers, although most of these people then stayed in the region after their term had ended, leading to a large Indian population.

This transition and rapid ethnic change in the country forever altered the country's cultural and social dynamics. The country shifted from rural to urban while it became very ethnically diverse. The rural areas became home to British landowners and Indian workers, the cities became a hodge-podge of Afro-Guyanese, Portuguese, Chinese, British, and others leading to a growing middle class and diversifying economy. In the forests, the indigenous people continued to live fairly unaffected by all of these groups who were tied to the coast.

Despite the growing diversity and changing economy, the British minority still controlled the political situation in the region. This led to calls for greater freedoms, rights, and powers within the government, especially from the Afro-Guyanese population, which also made up the majority of the population. This eventually led to some representation in the government, beginning in 1891, although many of these Afro-Guyanese weren't actually eligible to vote, so the power still remained in the hands of the British.

The tensions between the groups, most particularly between the British and the Afro-Guyanese, rose. This led to greater organization in both the political and social spheres as trade unions were formed and greater rights and pay were demanded. These demands and changes continued with the end of World War I, when Britain ended indentured servitude, hence ending the influx of Indians to Guyana.

With these changes and demands there was a growing divide among the people. Although Indians were no longer arriving as indentured servants, they made up the largest ethnic group in the country by the 1930s. However this group wasn't politically or socially active as they viewed themselves simply as Indians living in Guyana. The Afro-Guyanese believed this land was their home and had the right to rule it. They also lived a lifestyle much more in line with that of the Europeans as they truly adopted European culture, which was in contrast to that of the Indians.

These political and social changes were slowly accepted by the government as they formed the Moyne Commission, which oversaw many of these issues. As these new freedoms were gained the people began to form a more independent identity and by the end of World War II many people began seeking independence.

As the people became politically aware, they also became very aware of their vast differences. Just as the people were divided ethnically and culturally, so too they became divided politically with a primarily Indian party and a primarily Afro-Guyanese party. When elections took place the vote was essentially divided between these two groups.

Although political struggles existed from the late 1940s, the country didn't experience many of the difficulties some countries face when adopting general elections for the first time. Power shifted a number of times and parties slightly altered their policies to gain more votes. All the while, it became clear that independence was inevitably, the only question was when, and the answer was in 1966.

Immediately after independence, few incidents occurred, perhaps because the people were divided enough to prevent a dictatorship, but got along well enough to prevent war. The greatest challenges the government faced came in small localized rebellions, including one led by the indigenous people in the country's southwest. The country also moved rather quickly to a more socialist system, cutting off relations with the United Kingdom and forming closer ties with Cuba in 1970.

By the mid-1970s this peaceful state was unwinding as the party in control began to consolidate power and corruption began to rise. As political parties began to align to fight the increasing corruption, a re-settled cult from San Francisco living in Jonestown, Guyana committed mass suicide in 1978 (more than 900 people died), bringing the country and their politics to the international stage, especially since many suspected the government had ties to the cult.

This international observation put the political scene under a microscope as corruption slowly disappeared, although power shifts were slower to develop. By the late 1990s many of the leaders at the time of independence, including those of every major party began retiring or passed away, leading to a new generation of politicians and a new dynamic in the political realm.

Today the country is still divided ethnically, although on a cultural level the dynamic is changing. The indigenous population is still fairly isolated in the forests and most of them seek freedom from the central government, which they don't believe represents them. Many of the Afro-Guyanese continue to live in the cities and have adopted a very European-styled life. The Indians are still more rural, but many of them are also moving to cities for work. The few British and Portuguese who call the region home also tend to remain in the cities, living a similar lifestyle to the Afro-Guyanese, although these Europeans tend to have more money and fall into the upper class from an economic viewpoint.

This page was last updated: February, 2013