go to content go to search box go to global site navigation

The Guianas


The muddy Guiana coastline, covered with mangroves and sparsely populated with warlike Carib Indians, did not attract early European settlement. Spaniards saw the coast for the first time in 1499, but they found no prospect of gold or cheap labor, though they did make occasional slave raids. Several 16th-century explorers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, placed the mythical city of El Dorado in the region but there was still no sustained interest in the area until the mid-17th century.

The Netherlands began to settle the land in 1615. After forming the Dutch West India Company in 1621, the colonists traded with Amerindian peoples of the interior and established plantations of sugar, cocoa and other tropical commodities. Indigenous peoples were almost wiped out by introduced diseases, so the Dutch imported West African slaves to construct dikes and work the plantation economies. Beginning in the mid-18th century, escaped slaves (descendants of whom are now called Maroons) formed settlements in the interior.

England established sugar and tobacco plantations on the west bank of the Suriname River around 1650 and founded what is now Paramaribo. After the second Anglo-Dutch War, under the Treaty of Breda (1667), the Dutch retained Suriname and their colonies on the Guyanese coast (in exchange for a tiny island now called Manhattan) but ceded the area east of the Maroni (Marowijne in Dutch) River to the French. For the next 150 years sovereignty of the region shifted between the three powers; by 1800 Britain was dominant, though Suriname remained under Dutch control, and France retained a precarious hold on Cayenne in what is now French Guiana.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Treaty of Paris reaffirmed the sovereignty of the Dutch in Suriname and of the French east of the Maroni, while Britain formally purchased the Dutch colonies in what became British Guyana. By 1834 slavery was abolished in all British colonies, and the Royal Navy suppressed the slave trade in the Caribbean. This created a need for more plantation labor, and the subsequent immigration of indentured labor from other colonies (especially India) created a unique ethnic mix in each of the Guianas.