Both Carib and Arawak tribes inhabited the land that is now Guyana before the Dutch arrived in the late 16th century. The British took over in 1796. Halfway between rulers, in 1763, the locals staged the Berbice Slave Revolt; Kofi, the revolt’s leader, remains the country’s national hero.
In 1831 the three colonial settlements of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice merged to become British Guiana. After the abolition of slavery (1834), Africans refused to work on the plantations for wages, and many established their own villages in the bush. Plantations closed or consolidated because of the labor shortage. A British company, Booker Bros, resurrected the sugar industry by importing indentured labor from India, drastically transforming the nation’s demographic and laying the groundwork for fractious racial politics that continue to be a problem today.
British Guiana was run very much as a colony until 1953, when a new constitution provided for home rule and an elected government. Ten years later, riots left almost 200 dead after black laborers were hired to replace striking Indian plantation workers. In 1966 the country became an independent member of the British Commonwealth with the name Guyana, and in 1970 it became a republic with an elected president.
Guyana attracted the world’s attention in 1978 with the mass suicide-murder of over 900 cultists in American Jim Jones’ expatriate religious community of Jonestown.
Since independence, most of the important posts have been occupied by Afro-Guyanese, but more recently East Indians have been appointed to influential positions. Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s first elected president, died in office (1997) and was replaced by his US-born wife Janet, resulting in continued political tension. In 1999 Janet Jagan retired from the presidency on health grounds and named Bharrat Jagdeo her successor.
Elections scheduled for January 2001 were delayed until March 2001, a move that antagonized already sensitive race relations. Entire blocks of Georgetown were set ablaze by opposition supporters as the ruling PPP/Civic was declared victor of a third consecutive term, and the police and protesters clashed in the capital for weeks.
Guyana’s economy relies on exports of primary commodities, especially bauxite but also gold, sugar, rice, timber and shrimp. East Indians control most of the small business, while the Afro-Guyanese have, until the late ’90s, dominated the government sector. Guyana is a member of the Caribbean economic group, Caricom.