Guyana: The Country of the Golden myth

Guyana lies in the North West of South America, with the Atlantic Ocean to the North and Brazil to the South. The name Guyana derives from in indigenous language known as Amerindian and translates to the land of many waters. Currently, there are numerous indigenous tribes still inhabiting Guyana, thought the historical lens tends to focus on the Lokono and Kalina tribes which maintained a hegemony over the region, though to be replaced by the European powers following the (re-)discovery of the Americas. It is the discovery and the resultant colonial expansions that I wish to focus on in the blog as it was a defining moment in Guyana’s history as it was when Guyana actually entered history – at least the European-centric global history we often refer to. The arrival of Europe to America irreversibly transformed Guyana – as indeed it did for all of the Americas.

The first recorded European explorer to discover Guyana was Christopher Columbus in 1498. This was during his third voyage that lasted between 1498-1500, when he left Spain with six ships; his intention was to continue searching for a passage to Asia. After two months of travelling he discovered Trinidad, and the next day, on 1st August, Columbus arrived at the Orinoco river, landing on the mainland a few days later. However, although Columbus may gain the credit for discovering South America as a whole, it was Walter Raleigh in 1594, who first explored Guyana in search for a legendary golden city which he learned about from a Spanish account. This greatly contributed to the legend of El Dorado as the intention and expedition were published in 1596 by Raleigh, titled “The Discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa” – or the Discovery of Guiana, for short, as it is often referred to as today. The published account provides details to Raleigh’s expedition but greatly exaggerates an empire of gold and untold wealth. Some of the mountainous regions do yield infrequent deposits of gold, but certainly nothing to even offer a slight paradigm to Raleigh’s claims. The reasoning behind such postulation appears to originate from Raleigh falling from Grace and using the expedition as means of gaining vast wealth and thus regain favour with the English monarchy; after discovering that no such wealth in the area existed, Raleigh produced his written account as a mean of producing his own triumph. Unfortunately for Raleigh, this did not have the intended effect as he was imprisoned for twelve years when he returned; he then returned to Guiana and, returning once again empty-handed, was sentenced to death in 1617.

Even so, Raleigh’s discovery of Guyana and his proposed empire of wealth potentially lead to other peoples voyaging to explore and potentially claim some or all of the wealth for themselves, and while Columbus and Raleigh were the first to venture to the region, it was the Dutch who first established a permanent presence in Guyana. This was almost off the back of the Netherlands gaining independence from Spain in the late 16th century; by the early 17th century, the Netherlands were already emerging as a major commercial and maritime power. In 1616, the first European settlement in Guyana was established, along the Essequibo River. The original intention of the settlement was to act as a trade centre with the indigenous communities. This, however, like many of the European colonies, soon transformed into acquiring as much land and territory as possible, in reaction to other European colonies in the Caribbean, and Spanish patrols in the area becoming more frequent; the Spanish claimed original sovereignty over Guyana, they eventually yielded it to the Netherlands in 1648 with the Treaty of Munster.

For the indigenous communities in Guyana, prosperous trade with the Dutch colonists transformed into plantation working, in light of the territory acquisitions, and the regions became a major supplier of crops; of special note is tobacco, with a recorded 15,000 kg being exported from Essequibo in 1623. Sadly, this intensification of crop development led (inevitably for the time) to the importation of slaves. The native people of Guyana do not seem to have been slaves, but suffered during their work on plantations, with many dying as a result of the harsh conditions and imported diseases introduced by the colonists. This meant another workforce needed to be sourced and African slaves were brought in to work the plantation instead. It appears that by 1660, almost 3000 slaves were present in Guyana, and the native population – of around 50,000, retreated into the hinterland. However, the Dutch did not enjoy human exploitation all the time. In 1763, a slave rebellion broke out on two plantations along the Canje River; the rebellion spread and as more and more plantations fell, the slaves took control of the area of Berbice and threatened to wrest control of all of Guyana from the Dutch. The rebellion was eventually defeated by the Dutch, but the threat was so great that troops from neighbouring Spanish and English colonies, and from Europe itself, were needed; the Spanish and English most likely worried that the fires of rebellion could spread into their lands if not unchecked. The rebellion appears to have been led by an individual named Cuffy. So powerful was the rebellion that Cuffy remains the national hero of Guyana – proving that his war against systemic slavery was victorious in the end.

I hope that provided an interesting insight into the early national history of Guyana. Check back next week to see what awaits with “H” in our alphabet of global history.

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