History of Guyana

Guyana had been peopled for thousands of years before Europeans became aware of the area some five hundred years ago. Guyana's past is punctuated by battles fought and won, possessions lost and regained as the Spanish, French, Dutch and British wrangled for centuries to own and exploit the country. Independence was achieved in 1966. Guyana became a Republic in 1970.


The history of Guyana began before the arrival of Europeans, when the region of present-day Guyana was inhabited by Carib, Arawak, and Warao peoples. The word Guiana probably comes from the Arawak words wai ana which means "(land of) many waters".

Beginnings of European involvement

Guyana's first sighting by Europeans was by Alonzo de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499. Christopher Columbus did not sight Guyana on his third voyage of discovery which started in 1498. The coastline of the country was first traced by Spanish sailors in 1499 and 1500; and during the 16th and early 17th centuries, the search for the fabaled city of El Dorado - forever linked in British minds, with exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh - stimulated exploration of this region.

In 1595 the area was explored by English explorers under Sir Walter Raleigh. Little is known of the first settlements, though they were almost certainly Spanish or Portuguese. The island of Guyana was explored by many famous names, including Jackson, Johnson, Brackenridge's and many more. Soon making Guyana there home

The Dutch period

The Dutch began exploring and settling in Guyana in the late sixteenth century, followed by the British. Both began trading with the Amerindian peoples upriver.

The first known Dutch expedition to coast of Guyana, led by Capt. A Cabeliau, came in 1598.

The first Dutch settlement was established on the Pomeroon River in 1581. The settlers were evicted by Spaniards and Indians, probably in 1596. The evicted settlers retired to Kyk-over-al on the Essequibo River, where the Dutch West India Company established a fort in 1616-1621 in what they called the County of Essequibo.

In 1627 a settlement was founded in the Berbice River by Abraham van Pere, a Flushing merchant, and held by him under a licence (issued 12 July 1627) from the Company. Some historians believe that van Pere was a member of a Portuguese Jewish refugee family. He sent 40 men and 20 boys to settle at Nassau, about 50 miles upriver. Van Pere had a good knowledge of the territory since he had apparently been trading with the Amerindians of the area for a few years before 1627. He later applied his trading skills when he was contracted by the Zeeland Chamber to supply goods from Europe to the Dutch settlements in Essequibo.

At Nassau, where Fort Nassau was built, the settlers planted crops and traded with Amerindians. African slaves were introduced shortly after the settlement was established to cultivate sugar and cotton. The situation was very peaceful until 1665 when the settlement was attacked by an English privateer. However, the colonists put up a strong defence and it left after causing some damage to the settlement.

Between 1675 and 1716 all the cultivation on lands in British Guiana took place upstream. Finding the soil on the coastlands more fertile, the settlers gradually moved down river. In 1741 English Settlers from Barbados and Antigua began to build river dams and drainage sluices in the Essequibo River islands, and later tried to reclaim the fertile tidal marshes in Demerara. Until 1804 there were estates, now forgotten, Sandy Point and Kierfield, on the seaward side of the present seawall of Georgetown.

As attempts at settling inland failed, the Europeans were forced to settle on the coast in the mid-1700s, where they created plantations worked by African slaves. The main crops were coffee, cotton, and sugar, the last of which soon become the main crop. The soil quality was poor, however. The slaves, led by Cuffy, (African Guyanese national hero), revolted in 1763 in what became known as the Berbice slave revolt.

In 1746 colonists from Essequibo and Caribbean islands settled along the Demerara River. In 1773 Demerara was granted a certain degree of autonomy, and in 1784 the capital was transferred there, while Berbice continued under a separate government. This arrangement survived under the British administration until 1832.

The British period

The first English attempt at settlement in this area was made in 1604 by Captain Charles Leigh on the Oyapock River (in what is now French Guyana). The effort failed. A fresh attempt was made by Robert Harcourt in 1609.

Lord Willoughby, famous in the early history of Barbados, also turned his attention to Guiana, and founded a settlement in Suriname in 1651. This was captured by the Dutch in 1667, and though later recaptured by the British, it was ceded to the Dutch at the Peace of Breda.

Britain took the region from the Dutch in 1796. The Dutch took it back in 1802, before being ousted again by the British in 1803. Immediately after the British took possession of Essequibo-Demerara and Berbice they began to implement changes in the administration of the colonies with the aim of removing the strong Dutch influence. in 1806 the slave trade was abolished in the two colonies, as well as in Trinidad & Tobago; final abolition occurred in other British territories during the following year. Regulations were put in place to prevent transfer of slaves from one colony to another, but this did not prevent trafficking in slaves from the Caribbean islands to Berbice and Demerara-Essequibo.

The colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice were officially ceded to the United Kingdom in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1831 they were consolidated as British Guiana.

A further rebellion by ten to twelve thousand slaves in Demerara in 1823 resulted in the trial and execution of thirty-three slaves and the trial and conviction of missionary John Smith.

When slavery was abolished in 1834, the Afro-Guyanese refused to work for wages, and many scattered into the bush. This forced many plantations to close or consolidate. Thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugarcane plantations, primarily from India, but also from Portugal and China.

This provided the basis [no citation] for the racial tension that was encouraged and manipulated later, at the point where Guyana made its bid for independence, and to the present day. However, Guyanese culture is not in many ways homogeneous, due to different ethnic history, racially forced intermarriage, and many other factors.

Despite the recruitment of West Indian, African and Portuguese and other European labourers, this did not help very much to ease the labour shortage of the 1830s. After the West Indian islands placed restrictions on emigration, the sugar planters in Guyana began to look further afield to obtain a large labour force. One of them, John Gladstone, the father of the British statesman, applied for permission from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to recruit Indians to serve in Guyana for a five-year period of indenture.

Gladstone's proposed venture was supported by a number of other sugar planters whose estates were expected to obtain some of the Indians to be recruited. By this time Indians were being taken to Mauritius to work on the sugar plantations and were proving to be very productive. Gladstone's request was granted and he, Davidson, Barclay and Company, Andrew Colville, John and Henry Moss, all owners of sugar plantation in Guyana, made arrangements to recruit 414 Indians. Of these 150 were "hill coolies" from Chota Nagpur, and the remainder were from Burdwan and Bancoorah near Calcutta. (The word "coolie", a corruption of the Dravidian word "kūli", referred to a porter or labourer).

To transport these Indians, two ships, the Whitby and Hesperus were chartered. The Whitby sailed from Calcutta on 13 January 1838 with 249 immigrants, and after a voyage of 112 days, arrived in Guyana on 5 May. Five Indians died on the voyage. The ship immediately sailed to Berbice and 164 immigrants, who were recruited by Highbury and Waterloo plantations, disembarked. The ship then returned to Demerara and between 14–16 May the remaining 80 immigrants landed and were taken to Belle Vue Estate.

Of the total of 244 Indians who arrived on the Whitby, there were 233 men, 5 women and 6 children.

The Hesperus left Calcutta on the 29 January 1838 with 165 passengers and arrived in Guyana late on the night of the 5 May, by which time 13 had already died. The remaining 135 men, 6 women and 11 children were distributed between the 8-10 May to the plantations Vreedestein, Vreed-en-hoop and Anna Regina.

In 1835 the British government asked German explorer Robert Hermann Schomburgk to map British Guiana and mark its boundaries.

After gold was discovered in the disputed area Venezuela made repeated protests and proposed arbitration which the British ignored. It was only after the United States under President Grover Cleveland threatened to intervene did the British finally agree. An international tribunal to arbitrate the boundary was set up in 1897. For two years, the tribunal consisting of two Britons, two Americans, and a Russian studied the case. Their three-to-two decision, handed down in 1899, awarded 94 percent of the disputed territory to British Guiana. Venezuela accepted the ruling at the time but as recently as 2001 claims up 3/4 of Guyana.

The British stopped the practice of importing labor in 1917, by which time around 250,000 people had settled in Guyana. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful.

A fall in sugar prices in the late nineteenth century led to an increase in logging and mining.

Prelude to independence

Guyanese politics has occasionally been turbulent. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as chairman; Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice chairman; his American-born wife, Janet Jagan, as secretary general and Lionel Jeffries as Treasurer. The PPP won eighteen out of twenty-four seats in the first popular elections permitted by the colonial government in 1953. Dr. Jagan became leader of the house and minister of agriculture in the colonial government. However, Jagan's Marxist views caused concern in Washington.

On October 9, 1953, five months after his election, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops because, they said, the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a communist state. Among the troops sent were the second Battalion of the Scottish regiment, The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), who arrived in 1954. Their unusual regalia and their bagpipe music made them quite conspicuous.

These events led to a manipulated split in the PPP, in which Burnham broke away and founded what eventually became the People's National Congress (PNC). Colonial interests, which hoped to thwart the Guyanese independence movement, instigated conflict between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese. The PPP, which was a multi-ethnic, nationalist party, was depicted as a vehicle for the majority Indo-Guyanese population, and the PNC posed as an alternative for Afro-Guyanese. Lionel Jeffries, the PPP Treasurer who was half Afro-Guyanese and half Indo-Guyanese emigrated with his family to Britain. This ethnic divide in politics continues to this day.

In the year 1961 Guyana was subject to fierce rioting resulting with a huge 1/6 of the Capital, Georgetown, being burned down. The riots were politically motivted by Forbes Burnham of the PNC, who insighted striking and rioting after Jagan's Budget Bill of January lead to economic measures out of favour with the predominately Afro-Guyanese Civil Service and other Urban Groups.

Self rule was achieved on 26 August 1961. The Premier and a Cabinet of Ministers had authority over internal matters only. The British Governor had veto powers over the elected legislature. The bi-cameral House of Assembly consisted of a lower house, the Legislative Council and an upper house, the Senate. The Legislative Council was elected in a First past the post system. The Senate was made up of a majority of members from the Government, Opposition representatives, and two nominated members chosen by the Governor after consultation with various groups.

This period, between early part of 1961, through the early part of 1964, came the period euphemistically called "The Disturbances" by the British. The governments of The UK and the USA joined forces to destabilize the Guyanese political landscape, with the U.S. providing intelligence and infiltration (through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)), while the British brought in an element of force. AIFLD operatives instigated a 90 day strike of primarily urban and Afro-Guyanese unions, which brought the nation's economy to a halt; the strike was also the occasion for outbreaks of racial violence, as it was used to pit the predominantly Indo-Guyanese government against the predominantly Afro-Guyanese service unions. The British alternately moved to crush the altercations, or to simply allow them to run their course. During this period, PPP leaders such as Jagan, Brindley Benn, and the man who came to be regarded as Guyana's poet laureate, Martin Carter, were frequently imprisoned and harassed by the British. Around 200 people died in the riots.

At a Constitutional Conference in London in 1963, the British agreed to grant independence to the colony, but only after another election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. It was widely believed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority in parliament. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 45.8 percent, the PNC 40.5 percent, and the United Force (TUF), a conservative party, 12.4 percent. TUF threw its votes in the legislature to Forbes Burnham, and he became Prime Minister.


Guyana achieved independence on May 26, 1966, and became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana on February 23, 1970 - the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion - with a new constitution. From December 1964 until his death in August 1985, Forbes Burnham ruled Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner, first as Prime Minister and later, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980 (declaring Guyana to be in transition from capitalism to socialism and allowing an elected President and Prime Minister appointed by the president), as Executive President. During that time-frame, elections were viewed in Guyana and abroad as fraudulent. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred: the Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke in July 1979, and the distinguished historian and WPA Party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for both deaths. Burnham also nationalised many industries, such as sugar and bauxite, and fostered links with the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

Jonestown tragedy

In 1974, the Peoples Temple applied to lease land in Guyana for an agricultural commune. The Temple viewed socialist, English-speaking Guyana as a more hospital place, especially for the Temple's black members, than the United States, which it considered the subject of "creeping fascism" and "multinational" corporate influence. In 1976, Guyana executed a lease with the Temple for over 3,000 acres of land in Northwest Guyana, retroactive to April 1974.

The community created on this property was called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, or informally, "Jonestown." It expanded from as few as 50 residents in early 1977 to over 1,000 in 1978. Temple leader Jim Jones purported to establish Jonestown as a benevolent communist community and stated that Prime Minister of Guyana Forbes Burnham "couldn’t rave enough about us, uh, the wonderful things we do, the project, the model of socialism.

The Temple established offices in Georgetown and conducted numerous meetings with Burnham and other Guyanese officials. In addition, Temple member Paula Adams engaged in a romantic relationship with Guyana's U.S. Ambassador Laurence "Bonny" Mann while Jones bragged about other Temple members he referred to as "public relations women" giving all for the cause in Georgetown. Guyana granted the Temple permission to import several items "duty free. Guyanese immigration procedures were also compromised to inhibit the departure of Temple defectors and curtail the visas of Temple opponents.

On November 18, 1978, 918 Americans died in Peoples Temple-related incidents in Guyana concurrent with the investigation of Jonestown by Congressman Leo Ryan, media members and others. A tape of the Temple's final meeting in a Jonestown pavilion contains repeated discussions of the group committing "revolutionary suicide," including reference to people taking the poison and the vats to be used. Four other members died in the Temple's headquarters in Georgetown. The murder of Congressman Ryan at a Port Kaituma airstrip was the first and only murder of a Congressman in the line of duty in the history of the United States.

Paula Adams later married Ambassador Mann. On October 24, 1983, Ambassador Mann fatally shot both Adams and the couple's child, and then fatally shot himself.

The People's Progressive Party in power

Following Burnham's own death in 1985, Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency and was formally elected in the December 1985 national elections. Hoyte gradually reversed Burnham's policies, moving from state socialism and one-party control to a market economy, industry privatisation and unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Guyana to lobby for the resumption of free elections, and on October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and regional councils were elected in the first Guyanese election since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. Cheddi Jagan of the PPP-Civic was elected and sworn in as President on October 9, 1992, the first time the PPP had won power since independence, reversing the monopoly Afro-Guyanese traditionally had over Guyanese politics. The poll was marred by violence however. A new IMF Structural Adjustment programme was introduced which led to an increase in the GDP whilst also eroding real incomes and hitting the middle-classes hard.

When President Jagan died of a heart attack in March 1997, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds replaced him in accordance with constitutional provisions, with his widow Janet Jagan as Prime Minister. She was then elected President on fifteenth December 1997 for the PPP. Desmond Hoyte's PNC contested the results however, resulting in strikes, riots and 1 death before a Caricom mediating committee was brought in. Janet Jangan's PPP government was sworn in on 24th December having agreed to a constitutional review and to hold elections within three years, though Hoyte refused to recognise her government.

Jagan resigned in August 1999 due to ill health and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, who had been named Prime Minister a day earlier. National elections were held on March 19, 2001, three months later than planned as the election committees said they were unprepared. Fears that the violence that marred the previous election led to monitoring by foreign bodies, including Jimmy Carter. In March incumbent President Jagdeo won the election with a voter turnout of over 90%.

Meanwhile tensions with Suriname were seriously strained by a dispute over their shared maritime border after Guyana had allowed oil-prospectors license to explore the areas.

In December 2002, Hoyte died, with Robert Corbin replacing him as leader of the PNC. He agreed to engage in 'constructive engagement' with Jagdeo and the PPP.

Severe flooding following torrential rainfall wreaked havoc in Guyana beginning in January 2005. The downpour, which lasted about six weeks, inundated the coastal belt, caused the deaths of 34 people, and destroyed large parts of the rice and sugarcane crops. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated in March that the country would need $415 million for recovery and rehabilitation. About 275,000 people — 37% of the population — were affected in some way by the floods.


Following Independence the British monarch was represented as head of state by Governors-General. The position ceased to exist on the establishment of the President of Guyana. The Governors-General were:

  • Sir Richard Edmonds Luyt (26 May 1966 to 16 Dec 1966)
  • David James Gardiner Rose (16 December 1966 - 10 November 1969) (b. 1923 - d. 1969)
  • Sir Edward Victor Luckhoo (acting) (10 November 1969 - 22 February 1970) (b. 1912 - d. 1998)

''See also Governors of British Guiana and Governors-General of Guyana


  • C.A. Harris and J.A.J. De Villiers (comps.), Storm van's Gravesande: The Rise of British , trans. from Dutch, 2 vol. (1911, reprinted 1967), extracts from his dispatches written between 1738 and 1772.
  • Allan Young, The Approaches to Local Self-Government in British Guiana (1958), deals mainly with the nineteenth century.
  • Brian L. Moore, Race, Power, and Social Segmentation in Colonial Society: Guyana After Slavery, 1838–1891 (1987), is a history of race relations.
  • Thomas J. Spinner, Jr., A Political and Social History of Guyana, 1945–1983 (1984), provides an overview of recent events.
  • Cheddi Jagan, The West on Trial: The Fight for Guyana's Freedom, rev. ed. (1972, reissued 1980), is a vivid account of preindependence turmoil by a former prime minister.
  • Latin American Bureau, Guyana: Fraudulent Revolution (1984), takes a closer look at Burnham's government.

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