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Guyana’s History, People, Culture and Government

Published: 21st of September, 2017 by Patrick Carpen

Last updated: December 5, 2022 at 22:00 pm

Guyana’s history is a complicated story. It was colonized by the French, Dutch, and British at different points in history. However, the country had been existing for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans to Guyana’s shores.

And what about the Spanish? Well, although the Spanish never colonized Guyana, neighboring Venezuela has a border dispute with Guyana. They are claiming nearly two-thirds of the entire country called the Essequibo – everything west of the Essequibo River. Guyana has referred the case to the International Court of Justice following blatant threats by the Venezuelan government. So while Guyana was never colonized by the Spanish, Spanish “conquistores” still stake a claim on what is legitimately Guyana. They couldn’t take it from the British due to the formidable British military, but after Independence, Caracas has reared its ugly head over the Essequibo once again, and it is only fear of international repercussion that is keeping them at bay.

Venezuela’s claim of the Essequibo is outright ridiculous as the territory has always been administered by Guyana, and Venezuela has no hold on the Essequibo. The language spoken across the Essequibo has always been English.

The indigenous peoples, called the Amerindians, were the first people to have lived in Guyana, and historical evidence suggests that they might have been here for about 6000 years. Maintaining a primitive, low tech lifestyle, the indigenous peoples survived by hunting and fishing. Although the indigenous peoples of Guyana were generally never enslaved, the account of the 1763 Berbice Slave Revolt documented by the Dutch states that some indigenous peoples were enslaved by the Dutch, while others performed work for nominal fees, and many worked as mercenaries during the 1763 Slave Revolt.

I mentioned that the indigenous peoples “survived” by hunting, farming, and fishing for thousands of years. I used the past tense because most indigenous people are not resistant to change. Many of them seek change. Indigenous people in general do not resist technology – they embrace it. Indigenous peoples of Guyana have intermarried extensively with just about every other race in Guyana. Indigenous people now hold jobs in education, journalism, law, banking, education, and many other “civilized” areas. Further, there are many indigenous people who own vehicles and work in private transportation. In this context, the indigenous people of Guyana are not fanatical about the indigenous lifestyle. Nevertheless, there are indigenous groups and organizations, such as the South Rupununi District Council, which seek to preserve and promote the primitive indigenous lifestyle.

After the Dutch ceded Guyana to the British, the British empire continued the slave driving legacy of the Dutch. However, with the abolition of slavery in 1838, the British looked to India for cheap labor. They found the “coolies” who were hard workers, and who were willing to work cheap. Thus happened the influx of East Indians to Guyana’s shore. However, before importing East Indian laborers, the British had tried their hands with the Chinese and Portuguese. Although Portuguese are technically Europeans, they are still listed as a separate race or ethnic group from their French, Dutch, and British European counterparts. We’ll discuss this in another article.

At this point, we’ve explained how the six ethnic groups arrived in Guyana. And they are:

  • The Europeans (British, French or Dutch)
  • The Indigenous (Amerindians)
  • The Africans
  • The Chinese
  • The Portuguese
  • The East Indians

Although the Chinese and Portuguese might have been brought to work on the sugar plantations, historical records suggest that some groups of Chinese and Portuguese might have migrated to Guyana with a different mission such as setting up restaurants and other businesses. In addition, those who came to work on the plantation might have switched up and started their own business after getting a foothold in the country.

The East Indians are the ethnic group which worked longest and hardest on the sugar plantations, and they still do to this day, although many of them have branched off into business, education, law, politics, etc. Further, many East Indians, as well as other races, have migrated to the United States and other countries.

During colonial rule, a fraction of East Indians converted to Christianity while some retained their traditional religion of Islam or Hinduism. On the other hand, most Africans converted to Christianity.

Over the centuries, the different ethnic groups of Guyana have inter-married, producing a seventh mix race. This continues to happen at an increasing rate.

Government

Guyana was ruled by the British until 1966 when it was granted Independence after movements by leading politicians Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. The two led a revolt against the British and rallied the Guyanese people to protest against British rule. After the British granted Independence to Guyana in 1966, Guyana was ruled by the Burnham dictatorship until his death. His successor, Desmond Hoyte, allowed international observers to oversee the first free and fair elections in 1992. Guyana has since been ruled by a democracy with a president elected by the people every five years. The next general elections is scheduled for 2025.

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