Country Listing

Guyana Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Guyana: Historical Setting


Amerindian wood carving

MORE THAN TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after gaining independence, Guyana retained the clear imprint of its colonial past. Sighted by Columbus during his third voyage, the area was virtually ignored by later Spanish explorers and conquistadors. The first European settlers were the Dutch, who established a trading post in 1616. The native Carib and Awarak peoples were killed by disease or conflict over the land or forced into the interior. The Dutch, realizing the agricultural potential of the swampy coast, drained the land with a network of dikes and canals. In the 1700s, the three Dutch colonies in present-day Guyana grew and prospered with plantation economies based on sugarcane and slave labor. Increasing number of British settlers were also drawn to the area in the second half of the eighteenth century. Dutch rule ended in 1814 when the colonies were awarded to Britain following the Napoleonic wars.

Much of British rule in the 1800s was simply a continuation of the policies of the Dutch. Consolidated into one colony--British Guiana--in 1831, the sugar-based economy continued to expand, and when emancipation was completed in 1838 other ethnic groups, most notably from India, were imported to work the plantations. The 1900s saw an increased political awareness of the varied ethnic groups and a slow transfer of political power from the old plantocracy and colonial administration to the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese. Amid growing polarization between these two groups, self-government was granted in the 1950s. Political conflict between the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese, sometimes marked with violence, caused the British to delay independence until 1966. Since independence, two characteristics have dominated Guyanese society and politics: the presence of strong political personalities (Cheddi Jagan, Linden Forbes Burnham, and Hugh Desmond Hoyte) and ethnic and racial divisions based on mutual suspicion and manipulation by these strong personalities.

Ideology played a large part in the newly independent country's approach to economic development. The initial selection of a Marxist-Leninist economic system was motivated by a desire to break with the capitalist past. But authoritarian rule by one dominant political personality and continued ethnic tension undermined the crafting of a coherent or pragmatic development strategy. Independent Guyana's history under its first prime minister, Forbes Burnham, is one of political confrontation and long economic decline. Desmond Hoyte's tenure appeared to represent a departure from the economic and authoritarian policies of his predecessor, but in 1991 it was unclear if the historical patterns of personal political dominance and ethnic tension could be changed.

Data as of January 1992