The Guiana coast was discovered (1498) by Columbus, who did not land there. The legend of El Dorado drew Sir Walter Raleigh to the region in 1595. The Spanish had also come in search of easy wealth, but, finding none, they left the coast open to exploitation by the Dutch, English, and French. The Dutch were the first to settle, but ownership of territory changed hands many times. After the emancipation of the slaves in the 19th cent., labor shortage proved a major problem on the European-owned plantations. It was partially offset by importing Asian Indians and Indonesians.
Overseas department (pop., 2002 est.: 172,000) of France, northeastern coast of South America. It has an area of 33,399 sq mi (86,504 sq km) and is bounded by Brazil to the south and east, by Suriname to the west, and by the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast. The capital is Cayenne. Most of French Guiana is low-lying, with mountains in the south and a swampy coastal plain. The Maroni River forms the border with Suriname. French Guiana's population is mostly Creole. The principal languages are French (official) and creole; nine-tenths of the people are Roman Catholic. Originally settled by the Spanish, French, and Dutch, the territory of French Guiana was awarded to France in 1667, and the inhabitants were made French citizens after 1877. By 1852 the French began using the territory for penal settlement; the penal colony at Devils Island was notorious. French Guiana became a department of France in 1946; the penal colonies were closed by 1953.
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