Guyana - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Guyana: the Bradt Travel Guide

According to archaeological evidence, Guyana’s indigenous peoples, or Amerindians, have been living in the area for roughly 11,000 years. It’s widely believed that they arrived from Asia, via a land bridge, in pursuit of the herds of animals they relied on for food. It appears they first settled in the northwest region of Guyana where they maintained their hunting ways. About 7,000 years ago, they began to adapt to their new environment by gathering fruits and nuts to supplement their diets. Some groups kept up their nomadic ways and moved throughout the region while hunting wild animals, while others, such as those that settled in the northwest, set up more permanent camps as they gathered fish, turtles and crabs.

The first Europeans came to the area in the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus and crew sailed along the shores of Guiana. In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh explored the area and returned with tales of finding the lost city of gold, El Dorado.

By the 17th century, Dutch settlers began arriving and by the late 1600s had colonised much of the area along the coast and established several sugar plantations. The good times ended, and a long history of turbulence began in 1665 when the second Anglo–Dutch war broke out and the English attacked the Dutch colonies.

In 1689 and again in 1708 and 1712 the French attacked the Dutch settlements. The Dutch recovered, however, and throughout much of the 18th century were able to expand their sugar, coffee and cotton estates. It wasn’t long before the British became envious of their success and in 1781 captured the Dutch colonies. For the next two decades control of the area frequently changed hands between the British, French and Dutch, until 1803 when the British finally conquered for the last time renaming the colonies ‘British Guiana’ in 1831.

On 1 August 1834 the Emancipation Bill went into effect. It stated that immediate measures would be taken to abolish slavery in all British colonies. The news of the Act, as expected, quickly spread from plantation to plantation and sparked excited talk amongst the slaves about life after slavery. It was decided that 1 August should be a national holiday. Most freed slaves spent the day celebrating, thinking that the days of horrible living conditions and forced manual labour were behind them. The next morning they were awakened and told to get to work in the fields. They weren’t completely free just yet.

The 1870s brought two great discoveries to Guiana: Charles Barrington Brown was the first European to find Kaieteur Falls and large gold deposits were finally found in Guyana’s interior. Both brought the colony a certain amount of fame, but it was the discovery of gold that garnered the most interest from the outside. When Venezuela got word of the gold being mined in western Guiana they claimed that the set boundaries were inaccurate, and that everything west of the Essequibo River actually belonged to them.

The latter part of the 19th century also saw many improvements to the sugarcane cultivation and manufacturing industries, and soon British Guiana was seen as being the most technologically advanced nation in the region. In the 1890s, many of the Indian labourers began moving off the plantations and onto their own lands along the coast. Many new settlements grew and this movement of labour also helped give rise to an emerging rice industry. The first half of the 20th century was a period of social growth for the colony.

Unhappy labourers formed unions, political parties dabbled with socialist experiments and a national pride led to a desire to be free from British control. On 26 May 1966 British Guiana was granted independence from Britain. No longer a colony, the country became known as Guyana and in 1970 it was declared a cooperative republic. 

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Guyana: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Smithsonian Institution has been conducting biodiversity inventories for Guyana since 1983, and in these 25 years thousands of species have been identified, including more than 225 species of mammals, over 300 species of reptiles and amphibians, 815 (and counting) species of birds and more than 6,500 species of plants. And the research is still not conclusive, with most researchers and scientists believing that hundreds more species remain unidentified.

Flora

Approximately 80% of Guyana’s landmass is covered by tropical rainforest, and much of it is still intact. Some 6,500 species of plants have so far been identified in Guyana. And of those species, hundreds are put to use as food, medicine or other requirements. Guyana is tropical, and almost everything seems to flourish here. Many orchids, helliconias and flowering trees that are so coveted in other parts of the world abound, but perhaps the most celebrated of Guyana’s species is its national flower, the Victoria amazonica. The largest of the giant water lilies, its leaves can grow up to 3m in diameter and support the weight of a baby. Their stalks can reach lengths of 7–8m. At dusk the lily’s flowers slowly open, eventually blooming a brilliant white. At the same time they also emit a strong odour and increase their temperature to attract a beetle that pollinates them. Roughly 24 hours later, when the flower blooms again, it is a pinkish-red colour.

Mammals

Jaguar, Guyana by Wilderness ExplorersAmongst the more than 225 species of mammals that have been documented in Guyana are some of the world’s largest, including capybara (rodent), giant anteater, giant river otter, false vampire bat (largest bat in Central and South America) and jaguar (largest cat in the Western Hemisphere). Many of Guyana’s mammals that don’t get to claim a world record are still much sought after, including five additional species of big cats, manatee, tapir, capybara and eight species of primates.

(Photo: A fine jaguar, Guyana’s big cat, © Courtesy of Wilderness Explorers)

Reptiles, amphibians and invertibrates

The Smithsonian’s reptile and amphibian preliminary checklist records more than 300 species. Some highlight species include poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae) that come in a range of colours including orange, black, blue and yellow and are used by some Amerindian tribes to poison their arrows and blow-gun darts. Another frog of note is the golden rocket frog (Anomaloglossus beebei), which is endemic to the giant bromeliads atop Kaieteur Falls. Besides the four species of sea turtles that nest on Guyana’s coast, there are a couple others of note. The endangered giant river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is found in Guyana’s interior, but like the marine turtles their population is endangered because their meat and eggs have long been seen as delicacies. The female turtles, which typically weigh around 50lb and measure 2ft in length, are easy prey for hunters because they nest in large colonies.

Guyana is also home to the world’s largest alligator, the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger). There are healthy populations in the interior, especially along the Essequibo, Rewa and Rupununi rivers. They prefer slow-moving rivers, wetlands and flooded savannas and the nocturnal creatures can reach lengths of more than 15ft. Their diet consists of fish, turtles, large rodents and sometimes deer. While black caimans are more easily spotted in the dry season, visitors to Guyana can easily see them at Iwokrama, Karanambu Lodge and the Caiman House, where there is ongoing research with the species. As for snakes there are highly poisonous species including the labaria (Bothrops atrox), bushmaster (Lachesis muta), the largest venomous snake in the Americas, the rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) and himeralli coral snake (Micrurus surinamensis), most of which visitors will likely not see. There are also several species of tree boas, such as the emerald tree boa, that can be spotted at night along the riverbanks. The most famous boa constrictor is the anaconda (Eunectes murinus), which grows throughout its life and can reach lengths of more than 30ft.

As much of Guyana is covered in tropical rainforest, the number of ants, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, beetles, ticks, flies, gnats, bees, roaches, scorpions, etc are endless. It will be these little critters that you’re likely to see (or feel) the most. Mosquitoes are notorious transmitters of disease, including malaria, dengue, yellow fever and filariasis. The tiny parasitic ticks that are prevalent during the dry season are also disease carriers. Scorpions, tarantulas and spiders large enough to eat birds can make one recoil at the thought of setting off on a rainforest walk, but you’ll likely find that ants are the worse pests of them all.

The tiny insects account for more than 10% of the entire biomass created by animals in the rainforest. One species, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) is the second-largest in the world and they have a sting to match their size. Locals say they are so named because if they bite you, you’ll be off like a bullet.  But ants also play an important role in cleaning up the forest of dead animals and forest plants in a cycle that creates new matter for plants to feed on.

Birds

Because other continental birding hotspots such as Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela were better-known, Guyana used to be an overlooked birdwatching destination in South America, attracting only the most adventurous and hardy twitchers. However, in the years since the first edition of this guide was published, Guyana has become a recognised and respected birdwatching destination in its own right. The Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative, a joint programme between the Guyana Tourism Authority and the United States Agency for International Development, began developing Guyana’s birding tourism industry in 2006 by bringing international tour operators and media to Guyana. Comments and suggestions provided by the participants are used to improve birdwatching destinations and the tourism industry as a whole. Improvements are ongoing, but the international feedback has been overwhelming. Guyana may not have the numbers of birds found in some other South American countries, but the birds that are found here are incredibly accessible. It’s not uncommon to identify nearly half of Guyana’s bird species on a two-week trip.

Marine life

From March to August, Shell Beach, a 90-mile stretch of undeveloped beach in northwestern Guyana, becomes the nesting ground for four of the world’s eight endangered species of marine turtles: leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley. The Amerindian communities of Guyana have long relied on turtle meat as a staple of their diet. Nesting season for the turtles was hunting season for many, although ‘hunting’ turtles seems to stretch the use of the word. Regardless, sea turtles were valued for their large amounts of meat, the numerous eggs and their beautiful shells. The hunting was unsustainable and numbers began dropping quickly. But turtle hunters aren’t the only ones to blame for a decline in sea turtle populations. Climate change certainly plays a role, but one of the biggest culprits is fishermen using nets, which often get caught in trawling nets and die.

The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), commonly called the sea cow, is grey or brown in colour with an average length of 3m and a weight of 400–800lb. It has a split upper lip for feeding and is typically found in shallow coastal areas and rivers, but you’re most likely to see them in the ponds of Georgetown’s Botanical Gardens or National Park.

Species of fish in Guyana are incredibly diverse; within the area around Iwokrama and the North Rupununi Wetlands alone, more than 400 species of fish have been identified and it’s estimated that roughly 200 more remain unidentified. The fish thrive in a range of habitats, including rivers, creeks, ponds, ox-bow lakes and flooded forests and savannas. During the rainy season, when much of southern Guyana is flooded, fish species are able to move between the Orinoco River delta, the eastern Guiana Shield and the Amazon basin, providing for a rich diversity of fish.

Unique species include the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish, the arapaima (Arapaima gigas), which can reach 3m in length and weigh up to 440lb, silver arowana (Osteglossum bicirrhosum) and several very large catfish species. Some of the more unfriendly fish species include the incredibly toothy red-bellied piranha (Pygocentrus natteri), barb-yielding freshwater stingrays (Potamotrygon sp), 6ft-long electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) that pack 500 volts and the tiny parasitic catfish known as candiru (Vandellia cirrhosa).

(Information provided by the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development, the Guyana Amazon Tropical Birds Society and www.guyanabirding.com, and Michelle Kalamandeen of the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Project)

People and culture

Guyana’s cultural diversity earned it the name of the Land of Six Peoples. Citizens of East Indian and African descent make up the majority of the population. The other ethnic groups are Amerindians, Chinese, Europeans (mostly Portuguese) and more recently Brazilian. It is estimated that some 50,000 Brazilians are currently living in Guyana, many of whom come for the mining prospects in the interior. All of the cultures hold on to their distinct cultural roots while also embracing what it is to be Guyanese, and the result is a vibrant culture.  Guyana’s culture is unique because it isn’t typically South American. There is no Latin heritage in the country, resulting in a culture that closely resembles other English-speaking Caribbean nations to the north. In fact, Guyana is regarded as a Caribbean nation and people are more apt to claim a mutual identity with their northern neighbours than any other. But what Guyana has that many Caribbean islands lack is a strong indigenous population, with a culture all its own. And the fact that Guyana isn’t an isolated island means that the influence of other South American cultures is slowly seeping in. The influence of Brazil is strongest in the south, but it is rapidly spreading northwards; Georgetown contains neighbourhoods, which are largely populated by Brazilians. A lesser influence of Venezuela is found in the northwest.

Arts and crafts

The arts of Guyana are influenced by many varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including the indigenous Amerindians, Indians, Africans and Europeans. Popular mediums run the gamut from woodworking, painting and ceramics to sculpture, basketry and jewellery.  Many Amerindian communities produce necessities of their daily life with an amazing amount of artistry, including Akawaio and Wai Wai intricately designed basketry, Wapishana and Makushi weaving and a variety of paddles, fishing traps, tools and the like that stem from Amerindian cultures.  Guyana has also given rise to a great many painters, including Stanley Greaves, Philip Moore, Aubrey Williams, Ronald Savory, Patrick Barrington, Hubert Moshett, George Simon, Winslow Craig and ER Burrowes that all draw from a host of influences that reflect Guyana, including Amerindian heritage, ethnic diversity and the country’s physical beauty. Oswald Hussein draws on many of the same influences in his fantastic sculptures.  Excellent displays of local artwork can be found at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and Castellani House.

Literature

Besides the countless pieces of literature that have been inspired by Guyana, the country has also produced some famous authors. Among them are Wilson Harris, Jan Carew, Denis Williams, Pauline Melville and ER Braithwaite, who wrote the famous To Sir With Love, which was actually based on his experiences in London. Edgar Mittelholzer also gained recognition for Corentyne Thunder and the Kaywana trilogy, which traced 350 years of Guyana’s history through the eyes of one family.

Music

Music plays an important role in Guyana’s culture and it seems that along the coast you’re never far from some style of music blaring forth from a set of speakers. Music emanating from Guyana is as varied as the culture, with Indian, African, European, Amerindian and Caribbean elements influencing it. In today’s popular culture soca, chutney, Brazilian, reggae and popular American music, both present and past, dominate.  Guyana has produced several internationally known musicians but none shared the popularity gained by Eddie Grant and his group the Equals. Eddie was born in Guyana but migrated to England in 1960 where he went on to gain international success with songs including ‘Baby Come Back’ and ‘Electric Avenue’.

Calypso

This Afro-Caribbean music originated in Trinidad in the early 1900s. Calypso quickly grew in popularity throughout the Caribbean where it was used as a means of spreading news. The singers often pushed the boundaries of free speech by using their music to provoke conversations on such issues as political corruption.  Its popularity never really faded, with calypso having long been associated with celebrations and carnival, which in Trinidad is still a time to showcase new music. In Guyana calypso is common during festivities, especially during Mashramani.

Soca

Soul calypso is a calypso infected with heavy, often electronic, dance beats. Like calypso, soca began in Trinidad in the 1960s, but it has grown in popularity in recent years, taking over from Caribbean music.  Soca was originally used to express social commentary but by the 1980s soca lyrics grew increasingly sexual. Today, soca is mainly a way to express Caribbean views of sexuality, often in graphic language. Just as graphic are the popular dances that accompany the songs.

Chutney

This is a relatively new form of party music that combines traditional Indian folk songs with calypso and soca beats.

Back to the top

Guyana articles

View all

Jonestown

Author Kirk Smock tells the tragic story behind Jonestown and its victims.

Read more...

Yachting in Guyana

Guyana is developing as a destination for yachters.

Read more...

Amerindian craft

Author Kirk Smock writes about traditional and non-traditional handicrafts produced by Amerindian communities in Guyana.

Read more...

Related guides and other books

View all