officially Co-operative Republic of Guyana
Country, northeastern South America.
Area: 83,044 sq mi (215,083 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 751,000.
Capital: Georgetown. About half the people are of South Asian descent;
most of the rest are of African ancestry. Language: English (official).
Religions: Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic), Hinduism, Islam.
Currency: Guyana dollar. Guyana has a narrow Atlantic coastal plain that
extends up to 10 mi (16 km) inland and includes reclaimed land protected
by seawalls and canals. Inland, a high rainforest covers three-fourths
of the country. The Pakaraima Mountains in the west provide headwaters
for the Essequibo River. Guyana has a developing market economy with
both public and private ownership. Major exports include sugar, rice,
and bauxite. It is a multiparty republic with one legislative house; its
head of state and government is the president. American Indians
inhabited Guyana prior to European settlement, but little is known of
them except that their name for the land, guiana (“land of waters”),
gave the country its name. It was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th
century. The British occupied the territory during the Napoleonic Wars
and afterward purchased the colonies of Demerara, Berbice, and
Essequibo, which were united in 1831 as British Guiana. The slave trade
was abolished in 1807, but emancipation of the 100,000 slaves in the
colonies was not complete until 1838. From the 1840s, South Asian and
Chinese indentured servants were brought to work the plantations; by
1917 almost 240,000 South Asians had migrated to British Guiana. It was
made a crown colony in 1928 and granted home rule in 1953. Political
parties began to emerge, developing along ethnic lines as the People’s
Progressive Party (largely South Asian) and the People’s National
Congress (PNC; largely black). The PNC formed a coalition government and
led the country into independence as Guyana in 1966. In 1970 Guyana
became a republic within the Commonwealth; in 1980 it adopted a new
constitution. In the last decades of the 20th century, Guyana moved away
from the socialist approach first taken following independence. At the
beginning of the 21st century, it was still struggling to achieve
economic and political stability.
Official name Co-operative Republic of Guyana
Form of government unitary multiparty republic with one legislative
house (National Assembly )
Head of state and government President
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Guyanese dollar (G$)
Population estimate (2008) 736,000
Total area (sq mi) 83,012
Total area (sq km) 214,999
officially Co-operative Republic of Guyana
country located in the northeastern corner of South America. It is
bordered by Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the southwest and south,
Suriname (along the Courantyne River) to the east, and the Atlantic
Ocean to the north. Most of the country’s population occupies the narrow
coastal strip. The capital and chief port is Georgetown.
Present-day Guyana reflects its British colonial past and its
reactions to that past. It is the only English-speaking country of South
America. Since independence in 1966, Guyana’s chief economic assets—its
sugarcane plantations and bauxite industry—have come under government
control, as has most of the country’s commerce. Guyana’s populace is
mainly of colonial origin, although a small number of aboriginal Indians
are scattered throughout the forested interior.
The more numerous coastal peoples are chiefly descendants of slaves
from Africa and indentured workers from India, who were originally
imported to work the coastal sugarcane plantations. Racial problems
between the latter two groups have played a disruptive role in Guyanaese
Politically, Guyana has moved on a steady course toward socialism
from the time of independence, although after the death of the first
prime minister, Forbes Burnham, in 1985, ties with Western powers were
strengthened. It is a member of the Commonwealth.
The narrow plain that extends along the country’s Atlantic coast has
been modified considerably by humans. Much of the area, which measures
only about 10 miles (16 kilometres) at its widest point, has been
reclaimed from the sea by a series of canals and some 140 miles of
dikes. The coastal plain’s inland border is generally marked by canals
that separate the plain from interior swamps. South of the coastal zone
the forested land rises gently and has sandy soils.
About 40 miles inland from the coast is a region of undulating land
that rises from 50-foot (15-metre) hills on the coastal side of the
region to 400-foot (120–metre) ones on the western side. The area is
between 80 and 100 miles wide and is widest in the southeast. It is
covered with sands, from which it takes its name as the white-sands
(zanderij) region. A small savanna region in the east lies about 60
miles from the coast and is surrounded by the white-sands belt. The
sands partly overlie a low crystalline plateau that is generally less
than 500 feet in elevation. The plateau forms most of the country’s
centre and is penetrated by igneous rock intrusions that cause the
numerous rapids of Guyana’s rivers.
Beyond the crystalline plateau, the Kaieteurian Plateau lies
generally below 1,600 feet above sea level; it is the site of the
spectacular Kaieteur Falls, noted for their sheer 741-foot initial
plunge. The plateau is overlain with sandstones and shales that, in the
south, form the extensive Rupununi Savanna region. The Acarai Mountains
(Serra Acaraí), which rise to about 2,000 feet, rim the plateau on the
southern border, and it is crowned on the western frontier by the
Pakaraima Mountains, which rise to 9,094 feet (2,772 metres) in Mount
Roraima. The Rupununi Savanna is bisected by the east–west Kanuku
Mountains, which rise to almost 3,000 feet.
Guyana’s four main rivers—the Courantyne, Berbice, Demerara, and
Essequibo—all flow from the south and empty into the Atlantic along the
eastern section of the coast. Among the tributaries of the Essequibo,
the Potaro, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni drain the northwest, and the Rupununi
drains the southern savanna. The coast is cut by shorter rivers,
including the Pomeroon, Mahaica, Mahaicony, and Abary.
The rivers are part of the watershed of the Amazon and Orinoco
rivers, and the headwaters of the Rupununi in Brazil are often confused
with those of the Amazon. Drainage is poor, because the average gradient
is only one foot per mile, and there are swamps and flooding in the
mountains and savannas. The rivers are not suitable for long-distance
transportation because they are broken by interior falls, and in the
coastal zone their mouths and estuaries are blocked by mud and by
sandbars that may occur two to three miles out to sea.
The coastal soils are fertile but acidic. The fine-particle, grayish
blue clays of the coastal plain are composed of alluvium from the Amazon
deposited by the south equatorial ocean current and of much smaller
amounts of alluvium from the country’s rivers. They overlie white sands
and clays and can support intensive agriculture but must be subjected to
fallowing to restore fertility. Pegasse soil, a type of tropical peat,
occurs behind the coastal clays and along the river estuaries, while
silts line the banks of the lower rivers. Reef sands occur in bands in
the coastal plain, especially near the Courantyne and Essequibo rivers.
The rock soils of the interior are leached and infertile, and the white
sands are almost pure quartz.
High temperatures, heavy rainfall with small seasonal differences,
high humidity, and high average cloud cover provide climatic
characteristics of an equatorial lowland. Temperatures are remarkably
uniform. At Georgetown the daily temperature varies from 74° to 86° F
(23° to 30° C), and the mean temperature is about 80° F (27° C). The
constant heat and high humidity are mitigated near the coast by the
Rainfall derives mainly from the movement of the intertropical front,
or doldrums. It is heavy everywhere on the plateau and the coast. The
annual average at Georgetown is about 90 inches (2,290 millimetres), and
on the interior Rupununi Savanna it is about 70 inches. On the coast a
long wet season, from April to August, and a short wet season, from
December to early February, are sufficiently well marked on the average,
but in the southern savannas the short wet season does not occur. Total
annual rainfall is variable, and seasonal drought can occur in July and
August when the southeast trade winds parallel the coast. Variations in
Guyana’s climatic patterns have a determining effect on tropical crop
Plant and animal life
Many plants of the coast, such as the mangrove and various saltwater
grasses, grow in shallow brackish water and help to protect or extend
the land. The wet savanna behind the coast has coarse tufted grasses and
a wide scattering of palms, notably the coconut, truli, and manicole.
High rain forest, or selva, covers about three-fourths of the land area
and is of extraordinary variety and magnificence. Prominent trees
include the greenheart and the wallaba on the sandy soils of the
northern edge, the giant mora and crabwood on swampy sites, the balata
and other latex producers, and many species such as the siruaballi and
hubaballi that yield handsome cabinet woods. The interior savanna is
mostly open grassland, with much bare rock, many termite hills, and
clumps of ita palm.
All forms of animal life are immensely varied and abundant, though
few, apart from birds and insects, are normally visible. The tapir is
the country’s largest land mammal, and the jaguar is the largest and
fiercest of the cats, which also include the ocelot; monkeys and deer
are the most common animals. Among the more exotic species are the
sloth; great anteater; the capybara, or bush pig; and armadillo. Birds
include the vulture, kiskadee, blue sacki, hummingbird, kingfisher, and
scarlet ibis of the coast and lower rivers; and the macaw, tinamou,
bell-bird, and cock-of-the-rock in the forest and savanna. The caiman (a
reptile similar to the alligator) is the most common of the larger
freshwater creatures. The giant anaconda, or water boa, is the largest
of the many kinds of snakes, and the bushmaster is the most vicious.
Lizards are numerous and include the iguana in the lower rivers. Sharks
and stingrays are found offshore. The snapper and grouper are common
ocean fish, and shrimps abound in the muddy currents off the coast. The
manatee is also common in Guyanaese waters. Among the freshwater fish is
the huge piraucu, which attains lengths up to 14 feet.
The country is divided traditionally between the coast, where most
of the population is concentrated, and the interior. The coastal
population is heterogeneous, its inhabitants descended from the
labourers brought in to work the sugarcane plantations. The interior,
despite scattered ranching and mining settlements, is largely the
province of the indigenous Indians.
Guyanese society is predominantly rural, most of the people occupying
villages in the coastal region. The highest population concentrations
are along the estuary of the Demerara River and between the mouths of
the Berbice and Courantyne rivers. Village units are of distinctive
rectangular shapes, with the settlement areas nearest the ocean and
connected to one another by the coastal highway; each village’s
farmlands extend inland, often for several miles, and are separated from
neighbouring village lands by canals. Villages range in size from
several hundred to several thousand persons. The commonly found wood and
concrete-block dwellings are usually built on stilts above the
flood-prone land and are connected by footbridges to the streets, which
are built over the drainage and irrigation canals.
Georgetown is the country’s main port and its largest city. Located
at the mouth of the Demerara River, it lies below sea level and is
protected by dikes along both the river and the sea. Other important
towns include the interior bauxite-mining centre of Linden and the
market centre of New Amsterdam, located on the mouth of the Berbice
River. Agricultural centres, such as the sugarcane plantation of Port
Mourant, east of New Amsterdam, and the rice centre of Anna Regina,
north of the Essequibo River estuary, provide commercial and marketing
functions in the rural areas of the coastal zone.
The indigenous peoples of Guyana are collectively known as
Amerindians and constitute about 4 percent of the population. Indian
groups include the Warao (Warrau), Arawak, Carib, Wapisiana (Wapishana),
Arecuna, the mixed “Spanish Arawak” of the Moruka River, and many more
in the forest areas. The Makusí (Macussí or Macushí) are the most
prominent of the savanna peoples. Sizable concentrations of Amerindians
inhabit the far west along the border with Venezuela and Brazil. They
are rarely seen in the populated coastal areas, although a few have
interbred with blacks and East Indians. Since 1970, traditional
Amerindian lands near the international borders have come under
government control, although Amerindians continue to hold village lands
informally throughout Guyana’s interior.
The other major elements in the population are predominantly coastal
dwellers. Descendants of African slaves form the oldest group; they
abandoned the plantations after full emancipation in 1838 to become
independent peasantry or town dwellers. The Afro-Guyanese constitute
about one-third of the population. The East Indians came mostly as
indentured labour from India to replace Africans in plantation work.
They form the largest racial group in the country—about half the
population—and have been increasing more rapidly than the others. The
East Indians are the mainstay of plantation agriculture, and many are
independent farmers and landowners, have done well in trade, and are
well represented among the professions.
The Chinese and Portuguese also entered originally as agricultural
labourers but are now rarely found outside the towns. They are active in
business and the professions, and their influence is disproportionate to
their numbers; they have not been increasing, however, and together they
constitute only a tiny percentage of the population. Europeans other
than Portuguese are few, and most are short-term inhabitants. While
every kind of racial mixture may be found, mulattoes (persons of mixed
white and black ancestry) are by far the most common. Most of them live
in towns, and a high proportion are in clerical or professional work.
The major religions are Christian (chiefly Anglican and Roman
Catholic) and Hindu. Fundamentalist Protestantism has made inroads in
the 20th century, mainly in Georgetown. There is also a sizable minority
of Muslims. Animistic religions are still practiced by some of the
Amerindian peoples. The official and principal language is English, but
a creole patois is spoken throughout the country. Hindi and Urdu are
heard occasionally among older East Indians.
Immigration is no longer important, and by the late 20th century the
number of foreign-born, long-term residents was insignificant.
Emigration has been a drain on the country’s human resources as
thousands of persons have left annually, going mainly to the United
States, Canada, England, and Caribbean islands. Many of the emigrants
have been skilled and professional people whose loss has intensified the
country’s severe economic problems. East Indians have emigrated in large
numbers to flee what they consider political persecution, a number of
them having sought part-time work across the Courantyne River in western
Since independence Guyana has remained locked into a typical
colonial economic dependency on agricultural and mined products, most
notably sugarcane and bauxite. Independence brought economic reforms
under a socialist-leaning government, but the effect on the old economic
cycle has been minimal. Although the government permits a three-sector
economy—private, public, and cooperative—the public sector remains
Government management of the economy has become direct and
significant. During the 1970s the government nationalized U.S. and
Canadian bauxite holdings; in 1976 it nationalized the vast holdings of
the Booker McConnell companies in Guyana, which included coastal
sugarcane plantations as well as an array of light manufacturing and
commercial enterprises. By the mid-1980s it was estimated that the
government controlled directly more than 80 percent of Guyana’s economy.
All nationalized businesses have been reorganized under the Guyana State
Corporation. The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation controls the
sugarcane plantations, and the Guyana Mining Enterprise Ltd. was
established to oversee local mineral production.
The Guyanese economy has deteriorated under government management
policies. Members of the ruling People’s National Congress (PNC)
political party have been placed in managerial positions, leading to the
exodus of former managers and clerical workers. Declining output, a
reliance on volatile external commodity markets, and a reduced tax base
have all increased financial deficits. External debt has risen
precipitously, and a devalued currency has been eroded by speculation in
the local black market. Reduced fuel imports have led to widespread
power outages, and a government austerity program all but eliminated
imported food and consumer goods. Guyana’s per capita income (estimated
at about $600 in the late 1980s) places it among the world’s poorest
countries. Improvements in economic conditions became dependent upon
foreign aid and a variety of regional and reciprocal trade agreements.
Trade associations have an important influence in Guyanese
government. The Trade Union Congress is an association of major unions,
among which are the Guyana Mine Workers’ Union, which is composed almost
exclusively of black workers, and the Guyana Agricultural and General
Workers’ Union is a predominantly East Indian association.
The most important mineral resource is the extensive bauxite
deposits between the Demerara and Berbice rivers. There are also
significant deposits of manganese at Matthews Ridge in the northwest,
about 30 miles east of the Venezuelan frontier. Diamonds occur in the
Mazaruni and other rivers of the Pacaraima Mountains. Gold is found in
both alluvial and subsurface deposits. Other minerals include copper,
iron ore, molybdenite (the source of molybdenum), nickel, white sand
(used in glass manufacture), kaolin (china clay), and graphite. The
government has encouraged oil exploration, but no significant reserves
have been found.
The main biological resource consists of the hardwoods of the
tropical rain forest and especially the greenheart tree, which is
resistant to termites, decay, and marine erosion. The shrimps off the
coast and a few inland fishes form the basis of the nation’s fishing
industry, and the grasses of the savanna regions are used for cattle
Most of Guyana’s energy must be imported; domestic electricity is
produced largely by thermal generation and is available only on the
coastal plain and along the lower reaches of the rivers. Hydroelectric
potential in Guyana is considerable, especially at Tiger Hill on the
Demerara River and Tiboku Falls on the Mazaruni. Development is
hampered, however, by the remoteness of the falls and the large amounts
of capital needed for generation and transmission facilities.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Agriculture is concentrated on the narrow sea-level coastal plain
between the Essequibo and Courantyne rivers. Land-use patterns still
reflect early Dutch and British water-control techniques. Arable land is
laid out in strips between the sea or a river and inland swamps. It is
protected on all sides by dikes and canals that are used for both
irrigation and drainage. The land reclaimed from the sea is fertile but
acidic; lost fertility must be returned to the soil by periodic
fallowing or the addition of fertilizers.
Food crops include cassava, corn (maize), bananas, vegetables, and
citrus fruits. Cash crops are mainly sugarcane and rice but also include
coffee and cacao. Both sugarcane and rice are cultivated through a
combination of mechanization and hand labour. Agricultural production
increased during the mid-20th century, mainly because mechanization
extended cultivable lands, although output stagnated in later decades as
the entire economy foundered. East Indian workers overwhelmingly
predominate in agriculture.
Livestock production is carried out on the Rupununi Savanna and on
the coastal plain. Animals include beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs,
goats, sheep, and poultry.
Forestry activities are hampered by the lack of adequate
transportation, the difficulty of cutting the extremely hard wood of
Guyana’s trees, and the shortage of facilities for the sawing, storing,
and shipping of timber. Most of the timber produced for the domestic
market and for export is from the greenheart tree.
Many fishing facilities have been improved, and total production has
increased as fishing has become a more important part of the economy.
Shrimping is carried out primarily for export.
Guyana is one of the world’s largest producers of bauxite. All
alumina (aluminum oxide occurring in hydrated form in bauxite) and most
of the bauxite mined is produced at Linden. The rest of the country’s
bauxite mining takes place on the Berbice River; a processing plant also
operates downriver at Everton.
Diamonds continue to be mined by hand and by suction dredges in the
interior rivers. Gold is mined by individual prospectors, and
large-scale Canadian-financed gold mines were opened late in the 1980s.
The country’s many rice mills, like its rice fields, are generally
small-scale and individually owned, although there are several large
government mills along the coast. Other domestic industries are oriented
toward the replacement of consumer imports such as cigarettes and
matches, edible oils, margarine, beverages, soap and detergents, and
clothing. Refined sugar, stock feeds, and rum and beer are also
Finance and trade
The Bank of Guyana, established in 1965, has the sole right of note
issue and acts as banker to the government and other banks. The
country’s major commercial banks include three local banks and branches
of Canadian and Indian banks. Other financial services are provided by
the Guyana Cooperative Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank and
the New Building Society; insurance companies, most of which are
foreign-owned; and more than 1,500 cooperative societies, which serve as
savings institutions and offer agricultural credit.
Guyana’s major trading partners are the United States, the United
Kingdom, and Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana joined the Caribbean Free Trade
Association (Carifta) in 1965 and then became a member of the Caribbean
Community and Common Market (Caricom), which replaced Carifta in 1973.
The major exports are bauxite and alumina, sugar, and rice. Shrimps,
diamonds, molasses, rum, and timber are also sold abroad. Major imports
include fuels and lubricants, machinery, vehicles, textiles, and foods.
The limited road and highway system is partly paved and partly made
of burnt clay. The few hundred miles of paved roads are mostly in the
coastal zone. The interior has few roads.
Guyana’s coastal railway, established in 1848 as South America’s
first rail line, was discontinued in the 1970s, ending passenger
service. A remaining freight line connects the manganese mines at
Matthews Ridge with Port Kaituma on the Kaituma River, and another
transports bauxite between Ituni and Linden.
Guyana Airways Corporation operates scheduled domestic and
international flights. Timehri International Airport, established in
1968 and located 25 miles from Georgetown, is the country’s main airport
and is served by several international airlines. Domestic commercial and
private aircraft, chiefly carrying passengers and equipment, use landing
strips and the quieter stretches of rivers.
Barges and small boats carry people and agricultural products in the
canals of the coastal estates and villages. Larger boats traverse the
estuaries that intersect the coastal plain. A pontoon bridge across the
Demerara River opened in 1978; it is the only bridge to link major
segments of the coastal plain. Bauxite is loaded into oceangoing ships
at Linden and manganese ore at Port Kaituma, but otherwise the country’s
external trade passes through Georgetown, which maintains connections
with the West Indies, Suriname, French Guiana, the United Kingdom,
Canada, and the United States.
Government and social conditions
Guyana became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1966 and
in 1970 became a cooperative republic, involving citizens’ organizations
in government. Under the constitution of Oct. 6, 1980, executive power
is vested in the president, who leads the majority party in the
unicameral National Assembly and holds office for the assembly’s
duration. The president appoints the Cabinet, which is responsible to
the National Assembly. The minority members of the assembly elect an
opposition leader. The assembly is elected by universal adult suffrage
for a term of five years.
The right to vote belongs to all Guyanese citizens 18 years of age or
older. Voting is carried out by secret ballot under a system of
proportional representation. Votes are cast for lists of candidates
compiled by the political parties, and seats are allocated
proportionally among the lists.
Since independence in 1966, Guyana has been ruled by one party, the
People’s National Congress. Initially identified with the urban black
populace, the PNC essentially established a one-party state under the
direction of its first leader, Forbes Burnham. The PNC won power in an
election marked by numerous reports of irregularities, many of which
were related to the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), a military unit
established in 1965 with strong ties to the PNC. Both the GDF and the
police force are overwhelmingly black.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the PNC’s official opposition,
is the traditional party of the rural East Indians; smaller parties
include the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a newer party founded by
the historian Walter Rodney and headed by black labour leaders and
intelligentsia allied against alleged PNC corruption.
Local government is administered principally through the Regional
Democratic Councils, each led by a chairman; they are elected for terms
of up to five years and four months in each of the country’s 10 regions.
Guyana has two legal traditions, the British common law and the
Roman-Dutch code, the latter now largely relegated to matters of land
tenure. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. The court
structure consists of magistrate courts for civil claims of small
monetary value and minor offenses, the High Court, with original and
appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, and the Court of
Appeal, with appellate authority in criminal cases. The Court of Appeal
and the High Court together constitute the Supreme Court.
Education is free and compulsory. Primary and secondary instruction
are separate, although the lack of facilities makes it necessary to hold
some secondary classes in primary schools. In 1976 the government
assumed full responsibility for education from nursery school to
university. Government authority was extended over all church and
private primary schools. Teachers are expected to teach loyalty to both
the PNC and socialist objectives. The principal university is the
University of Guyana, founded in 1963 and subsequently housed at
Turkeyen, in the eastern part of Greater Georgetown. The school has also
become politicized, attendance there being contingent upon prospective
students completing a year of national service, usually at camps in
Guyana’s interior. Thus many Guyanese seek education and training
abroad. There are also a number of other colleges, including technical
and teacher-training schools.
Health and welfare
Health standards declined after independence. Many doctors and other
trained personnel have emigrated, and economic austerity programs have
reduced supplies of medicine and soap. Food shortages have created
widespread malnutrition, especially in Georgetown. Diseases formerly
under control, notably beriberi and malaria, had reappeared by the early
1980s, and sanitation problems have also increased.
Under colonial rule public health was centred around government and
plantation health clinics. After independence a universal health care
system was instituted, and most hospital facilities came under
government control. Health problems arise particularly along the easily
flooded coast, where the many ditches and ponds provide ideal
environments for the spread of disease. A minimal government pension
plan for the sick and aged has continued beyond independence, its
effectiveness reduced by inflation. Government housing projects,
confined mainly to the Georgetown area, have not produced expected
The national social structure was inherited from the period of
British colonial rule, under which the majority of East Indian and
Afro-Guyanese labourers were directed by white planters and government
officials. A poorly defined local middle class composed of teachers,
professionals, and civil servants, and including a disproportionate
number of Chinese and Portuguese, emerged during colonialism. Since
independence the PNC political elite has replaced the white plantocracy
at the apex of Guyana’s social order. The Amerindians remain apart from
the country’s social structure as they did under the British.
Postindependence Guyanese culture still bears the imprint of its
colonial heritage. Guyanese were taught to respect and covet European
values during the colonial era, and this has not changed despite
government exhortation. Yet ethnic identity continues to be important,
with daily life centring around ethnic and family groups; the mother-
and grandmother-dominated family among blacks differs from the
father-oriented East Indian family. Men of both groups often commute
long distances to work along the coastal highway. Daily dress normally
does not distinguish one group from another.
Amerindian culture, which remains uninfluenced by national politics,
is recognized as an important element in Guyanese museum displays and as
an inspiration in local music and painting. Cultural institutions are
concentrated in Georgetown, including the Guyana Museum, which includes
the Guyana Zoo, with its impressive collection of animals from northern
South America. Guyanese writers have made noteworthy contributions to
literature; the works of Wilson Harris, A.J. Seymour, and Walter Rodney
are among the foremost.
Much recreational activity is based upon the festivities that
accompany Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays. The Guyanese share the
passion for cricket that is prevalent throughout the English-speaking
The government has taken nearly complete control over local news
media, including the one radio station and the single daily newspaper.
Objections against censorship have been on the rise from opposing
political and church groups. In 1988 Guyana’s first television station
was established under government control.
The first human inhabitants of Guyana probably came into the
highlands during the first millennium bc. Among the earliest settlers
were groups of Arawak, Carib, and possibly Warao (Warrau). The early
communities practiced shifting agriculture supplemented by hunting.
Christopher Columbus sighted the Guyana coast in 1498, and Spain
subsequently claimed, but largely avoided, the area between the Orinoco
and Amazon deltas, a region long known as the Wild Coast. It was the
Dutch who finally began European settlement, establishing trading posts
upriver in about 1580. By the mid-17th century they had begun importing
slaves from West Africa to cultivate sugarcane. In the 18th century the
Dutch, joined by other Europeans, were moving their estates downriver
toward the fertile soils of the estuaries and coastal mud flats. Laurens
Storm van ’s Gravesande, governor of Essequibo from 1742 to 1772,
coordinated these development efforts.
Guyana changed hands with bewildering frequency during the wars
(mostly between the British and the French) from 1780 to 1815. During a
brief French occupation, Longchamps, later called Georgetown, was
established at the mouth of the Demerara; the Dutch renamed it Stabroek
and continued to develop it. The British took over in 1796 and remained
in possession, except for short intervals, until 1814, when they
purchased Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo, which in 1831 were united as
the colony of British Guiana.
The slave trade was abolished in 1807, when there were about 100,000
slaves in Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo. After full emancipation in
1838, black freedmen left the plantations to establish their own
settlements along the coastal plain. The planters then imported labour
from several sources, the most successful group being indentured workers
from India. Indentured labourers who had earned their freedom settled in
coastal villages near the estates, a process that became established in
the late 19th century during a serious economic depression caused by
competition with European sugar beet production.
Settlement proceeded slowly, but gold was discovered in 1879 and a
boom in the 1890s helped the colony. The North Western District was
organized in 1889 and was the cause of a dispute in 1895 when the United
States supported Venezuela’s claims to the territory. Venezuela revived
its claims on British Guiana in 1962, an issue that went to the United
Nations for mediation in the early 1980s but was not immediately
The British inherited from the Dutch a complicated constitutional
structure. Changes in 1891 led to progressively greater power being held
by locally elected officials, but reforms in 1928 invested all power in
the governor and the Colonial Office. In 1953 a new constitution—with
universal adult suffrage, a bicameral elected legislature, and a
ministerial system—was introduced.
From 1953 to 1966 the political history of the colony was stormy. The
first elected government, formed by the People’s Progressive Party led
by Cheddi Jagan, seemed so procommunist that the British suspended the
constitution in October 1953 and dispatched troops. The constitution was
not restored until 1957. The PPP split along racial lines, Jagan leading
a predominately East Indian party and Forbes Burnham leading a party of
African descendants, the People’s National Congress. In the elections of
1957 and 1961, the PPP was returned with working majorities. From 1961
to 1964 severe rioting involving bloodshed between rival blacks and East
Indians and a long general strike led to the return of British troops.
To answer the PNC allegation that the existing electoral system
unduly favoured the East Indian community, the British government
introduced for the elections of December 1964 a new system of
proportional representation. Thereafter the PNC and a smaller, more
conservative party formed a coalition government, led by Burnham, which
took the colony into independence under its new name, Guyana, on May 26,
1966. The PNC gained full power in the general election of 1968, which
was characterized by questionable rolls of overseas voters and
widespread claims of electoral impropriety. On February 23, 1970, Guyana
was proclaimed a cooperative republic within the Commonwealth. A
president was elected by the National Assembly, but Burnham retained
executive power as prime minister. Burnham declared his government to be
socialist and in the later 1970s sought to reorder the government in his
favour. In 1978 one of the most bizarre incidents in modern history
occurred in Guyana when some 900 members of a religious cult in a
commune known as Jonestown committed mass suicide at the behest of their
leader, the Reverend Jim Jones.
In 1980, under a new constitution, Burnham became executive
president, with still wider powers, after an election in which
international observers detected widespread fraud. Two major
assassinations also occurred at this time. Jesuit priest and journalist
Bernard Darke was killed in July 1979 and prominent historian–political
leader Walter Rodney in June 1980; many observers accused Burnham of
involvement in the killings. In the following years Burnham was faced
with an economy shattered by the depressed demand for bauxite and sugar
and a restive populace suffering from severe commodity shortages and a
near breakdown of essential public services. Burnham enforced austerity
measures, and he began leaning toward Soviet-bloc countries for support.
Burnham died in 1985 and was succeeded by the prime minister, Hugh
Desmond Hoyte, who pledged to continue Burnham’s policies. In elections
held that year Hoyte won the presidency by a wide margin, but once again
charges of vote fraud were raised.
In the late 1980s Hoyte gradually shifted away from Burnham’s
ideology, denouncing communism and granting more rights to the Guyanese.
His administration, facing worsening financial and economic problems,
moved to liberalize the economy. He also bowed to pressure for electoral
reform, and elections held in 1992 were considered free and fair by
international observers. The PPP triumphed in the elections and Jagan
became president. In contrast with the strong socialist views he held
decades earlier, Jagan now advocated policies more conducive to
democratization and economic reform. After Jagan’s death in 1997, his
wife, Janet Jagan, was elected president in elections held later that
year. The PNC disputed the results of the elections; many demonstrations
and protests ensued. Janet Jagan stepped down in 1999, attributing her
resignation to ill health. Bharrat Jagdeo was appointed president; he
was reelected in 2001.
The beginning of the 21st century found Guyana confronting an
increase in violent crime, struggling to improve the economy, and
dealing with ethnic tension and episodic political unrest. Guyana
continued to work with international organizations and foreign countries
to increase economic stability and strengthen international relations.