Guyana: history & exploration
The area of the Guianas was first inhabited by Amerindians of the Carib, Arawak, and Warau tribes.
Europeans first discovered the area in 1498, and in 1499 the coast of Guyana was explored by Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer, and Alonso de Ojeda, a Spanish explorer.
During the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, many explorers set out in search of El Dorado (the fabled ‘city of gold’), and in 1595 the first English exploration of the area was led by Sir Walter Raleigh. In his notes, Raleigh described El Dorado as a city on Lake Parime, far up the Orinoco in Guiana.
The city of El Dorado was marked on many English maps, until its existence was disproved by Alexander von Humboldt during his expedition of Latin America between 1799 and 1804.
In 1615 the Dutch established their first settlement in the country, on the lower Essequibo River. After forming the Dutch West India Company in 1621, they established riverside plantations of sugar and other tropical commodities, and began to trade with the local Amerindians. In 1627, the Dutch established a second settlement Berbice, east of Essequibo, and by 1741, Demerara, a third settlement. Many of the indigenous people were wiped out by introduced diseases, which led to the need for the Dutch to import West African slaves.
As the British Empire began to expand around the World in the late 1700’s, so did their territory in Guyana. By 1814 the British had gained possesion of the colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara, and later in 1831 the three colonies merged to become British Guiana.
By 1834 slavery was abolished in all British colonies, which led to the immigration of nearly 250,000 indentured labourers from other colonies to work on the plantations, creating a diverse ethnic mix within the country. These labourers were primarily from China, India, Portugal and Germany.
In 1835 the German explorer, Robert Hermann Schomburgk, mapped the area of Guyana, marking the country’s boudaries. This led to a boundary dispute with neighbouring Venezuela. A decision made in 1899 by an international tribunal handed 94% of the disputed territory to British Guiana. Although Venezuela accepted the ruling at the time, border disputes have continued between Venezuela, Suriname and Guyana.
British Guyana continued to run as a colony, until 1953, when the British allowed the Guyanese to form their own political system, in which the ‘People’s Progressive Party’ (PPP) was formed. In October 1953, five months after the election, the British suspended the constitution and sent troops into the capital, Georgetown.
After an interim government was installed, general elections were held in 1957, this time with limited constitution. These events let to a manipulated split in the PPP. The PPP, which was a multi-ethnic, nationalist party, was aimed at the Indo-Guyanese population, whereas the PNC (People's National Congress), led by Forbes Burnham, posed as an alternative for Afro-Guyanese.
This created an ethnic divide within the country, which still continues today. In 1961 Guyana suffered from political riots, which led to a large amount of the capital being burnt down. Self rule was achieved on 26 August 1961, although there was still a strong British influence.
In 1966 Guyana became an independent member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, with Forbes Burnham appointed as the first Prime Minister. On February 23, 1970 it became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, with an elected president, Arthur Chung. Guyana adopted its own constitution in 1980. The PNC won the federal elections held that year, and Forbes Burnham became the first Executive President of the Republic, and continued to rule Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner until his death in 1985. During his rule, Burnham nationalised many industries, including bauxite and sugar, and forged links with Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. Elections throughout his rule from 1964-1985, were often viewed as ‘rigged’ and fraudulent.
After Burnham’s death in 1985, Desmond Hoyte succeeded as Executive President, and gradually reversed Bunham’s policies by moving towards a market economy, industry privitisation and unrestricted access of the press and assembly. In 1989, Hoyte helped to establish the Iwokrama International Rainforest Programme.