Before the Spanish, French, Dutch and British ever thought about establishing colonies and fighting over the area now known as Guyana, aboriginal peoples had settled these lands for centuries. The Warrau Indians were thought to have been here before 900 AD, with the Carib and Arawak tribes arriving later.
The word Guiana is one of the legacies of the aboriginal inhabitants, and means “land of many waters”. Indeed, this is a land of great rivers, streams and waterfalls. And while many civilizations emerged in the Americas at different points, life for the Amerindian society that came to reside in the area known as the Giuanas – bounded by the Orinoco, Amazon, Rio Negro rivers and the Atlantic – consisted mainly of subsistence farming, hunting and fishing.
When Christopher Columbus sailed off the coast of Guyana on his 3rd voyage in 1498, there were two major tribes: the Arawaks along the coast and the Caribs in the interior (although the warlike Caribs eventually displaced the peaceful Arawaks). Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1595 voyage to the New World also led to subsequent accounts of El Dorado, the city of gold, which is believed to be in what is now Guyana (in fact, gold was discovered on a tributary of the Cuyuni River in 1857. Diamond mining began later in the Upper Mazaruni River). But it was the Dutch who established the first European settlement in 1616, a trading post on the Essequibo River through which they traded with the indigenous people. Soon, though, Dutch territorial acquisition led to control over the region early in the 17th century.
As Dutch settlers turned to agriculture, the lure of large profits from sugar led to the reclamation of coastal lands in the second half of the 1700s. Their system of dams and drainage schemes (dug largely by African slaves they had imported to work on their plantations) that created the coastal plains, is the most significant Dutch legacy on the Guyana landscape. These plains remain one of the country’s most productive plantation areas, and sugar is still a major export. Rice, also a major export, did not begin commercially until the late 19th century.
In 1746 the Dutch opened the area near the Demerara River to British immigrants, and by 1760 the British constituted a majority of the population of Demerara. In 1781 war broke out between the Netherlands and Britain, resulting in the British occupation of Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara. The French, allied with the Dutch, regained control of the colonies a few months later. During the French two year reign, they constructed a new town, Longchamps, at the mouth of the Demerara River. The Dutch regained power in 1784 and moved their colonial capital to Longchamps and renamed it Stabroek.
The capital eventually would become known as Georgetown. The colonies changed hands again several times until, in 1814, they were formally ceded to Britain. Berbice and the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo were unified as British Guiana in 1831. Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice are still the names used today for the three counties of Guyana.
By 1838, total emancipation for slaves had been effected. As ex-slaves left the plantations, labour shortages were created. This led to the introduction of new ethnic groups into the country through indentureship, primarily from Portugal, India and China, to work on the plantations. From 1846-1917, almost 250,000 labourers entered Guyana. The largest of these groups came from India and were known locally as East Indians. The introduction of indentured East Indian workers alleviated the labour shortage and added a significant group to Guyana’s ethnic mix. East Indians now form the largest segment of modern Guyana’s population.