Both Carib and Arawak peoples inhabited the land that is now Guyana before the Dutch arrived in the late 16th century. Running a plantation economy dependent on African slaves, the Dutch faced a widespread rebellion, known as the Berbice Slave Revolt, in 1763. The rebel leader, Kofi, remains a national hero despite the ultimate failure of the slaves to gain their freedom.

The British took control in 1796, and in 1831 the three colonial settlements of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice merged to become British Guiana. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, Africans refused to work on the plantations for wages, and many established their own villages in the bush and became known as Maroons. Plantations closed or consolidated, but the sugar industry was resurrected with the introduction of indentured laborers from Portugal, India, China and other countries, drastically transforming the nation's demographic.

British Guiana was run very much as a colony until 1953, when a new constitution provided for home rule and an elected government. In 1966 the country became an independent member of the British Commonwealth with the new name, Guyana, and in 1970 it became a republic with an elected president.

For decades after independence, most of the important posts had been occupied by Afro-Guyanese, but in the past two decades Indo-Guyanese have been appointed to influential positions, fueling racial tensions. Cheddi Jagan, Guyana's first elected president, died in office in 1997 and was replaced by his US-born wife Janet, resulting in continued political friction. In 1999 Janet Jagan retired from the presidency on health grounds and named Bharrat Jagdeo her successor.

Delayed elections in 2001 resulted in entire blocks of Georgetown being set ablaze by opposition supporters. The police and protesters clashed in the capital for weeks. Fortunately, violence on this scale has not returned to Georgetown since, but this division continue to be a part of Guyanese politics. However, efforts at tolerance education have made a positive impact on Guyanese youth, and many people acknowledge that more cooperation to end racial conflict is needed.

Guyana's economy relies on commodities exports, especially bauxite, but also gold, sugar, rice, timber and shrimp.

Tragedy at Jonestown

On November 18, 1978, 913 people (including over 270 children) were killed in a mass suicide-murder in a remote corner of Guyana's northwestern rainforest. Since then, Guyana has been sadly associated with this horrific event that became known as the Jonestown Massacre.

In the 1950s, Jim Jones, a charismatic American leader, started a religious congregation in Indiana called the Peoples Temple. With utopian ideas of an egalitarian agricultural community, Jones attracted hundreds of followers, but by the 1960s, after moving his church to San Francisco, he became increasingly paranoid and the Peoples Temple started to resemble a cult. Jones' next move took the congregation to the Guyanese bush, and by 1977 word leaked from escaped members that Jones was running the settlement in questionable ways.

California congressperson Leo Ryan, along with journalists and worried family members, visited Jonestown, where they encountered several frightened Temple members who wanted to leave. Not realizing how dangerous Jones really was, Ryan tried to take several residents with him, only to meet gunfire from Jones' followers on the Jonestown airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed. That night Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch; while many 'drank the Kool-Aid,' others were found shot or with slit throats. Jones either shot himself or ordered someone to do it.

Director Stanley Nelson has provided a modern perspective on this mysterious tragedy in his excellent 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.