In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Guianas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Native Peoples
  • European Exploration

Atlantic History The Guianas
Randy M. Browne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0052


The Guianas span some nine hundred miles of Atlantic coast in northern South America, from the Orinoco River in the west to the Amazon River delta in the east. The name, from an indigenous word meaning “land of many waters,” is fitting for a region dissected by thousands of rivers and where most people live along the coast. Far off the tourist paths of the Caribbean Sea and Latin America, the Guianas are also understudied, despite having been the scene of intense European imperial rivalries, colonialism, and slavery for several centuries. Though geographically part of South America, the Guiana colonies have historically and culturally been considered part of the circum-Caribbean. Today, the Guianas are made up of three major political territories: the independent Republic of Guyana (formerly British Guiana and composed of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo), the Republic of Suriname (a former Dutch colony first established by the English), and French Guiana or Guyane (once a colony and now an overseas department of France and part of the European Union). Home to numerous and diverse indigenous societies, including Arawakan-speaking groups who migrated to the Caribbean islands, the Guianas were “discovered” by Columbus in 1498 on his third voyage to the Americas, but they became the site of sustained European exploration and conquest only in the early 17th century. In the wake of Sir Walter Ralegh’s wildly exaggerated account of his 1594–1595 voyage, which advanced the myth of a city said to be ruled by a golden king named “El Dorado,” English, Dutch, and French explorers jockeyed for access to the vast region between Spanish claims in the west and Portuguese Brazil in the east. The Dutch were the most successful early colonizers, establishing trading posts and eventually colonies along the Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice Rivers. They also captured Suriname from the English. Much of the scholarship on the Guianas understandably concentrates on Dutch colonialism and especially on Suriname, where the Dutch established a major slave society by the early 18th century. There is also a growing body of scholarship on Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo, both under Dutch rule and during the period when the colonies were controlled by Great Britain (1803–1966), when the slave system expanded rapidly until emancipation (1834) and where planters responded to the post-slavery labor crisis by importing large numbers of indentured laborers, primarily from India. The experience of indentured Asian laborers, who also immigrated to Suriname after slavery was abolished there, has also been the subject of much study, both by historians of the Indian diaspora and by Caribbean historians. Overall, scholarship on the Guianas is uneven and linguistically fractured, with a large number of works on the Dutch Guianas and especially Suriname, most of which are written in Dutch; a smaller but sizable body of work on British Guiana is in English, and relatively little scholarship has been done on French Guiana, almost of all of which is in French. The historiography of the Guianas thus reflects the region’s historical divisions along imperial and linguistic lines and the persistent effects of colonialism.

General Overviews

General overviews of the Guianas as a whole are virtually nonexistent; Hyles 2014 is a welcome exception and decent introduction to the region. Most overviews focus instead on a narrower geographic subregion, mirroring the historical—and modern—divisions of the Guianas along political and linguistic lines. For the westernmost colonies of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo (which were under Dutch and then British rule and which today compose the Republic of Guyana), Thompson 1987 is the best starting point, though it stops in the early 19th century, before Great Britain acquired the colonies and expanded plantation development, and it is not based on the most-current research. For the Dutch Guiana colonies, including Suriname, Goslinga 1971 is a dated but useful introduction; Hoefte 2001 is much shorter but more current. Klooster 1997 is broadly focused on the Dutch in the Americas but is still useful for the Guiana colonies. In French, Mam Lam Fouck 2002 is an excellent overview of French Guiana. General histories of the Caribbean, such as Heuman 2014 and the six-volume Sued-Badillo, et al. 1997–2011, and edited collections such as Palmié and Scarano 2011, sometimes include the Guianas, though usually tangentially. Richardson 1992 is a good introduction to the distinctive geography of the Guianas as compared to the Caribbean islands.

  • Goslinga, Cornelis Christian. The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, 1580–1680. Anjerpublikaties 12. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1971.

    The only English-language overview of Dutch colonization in the Guianas.

  • Heuman, Gad. The Caribbean. 2d ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    Widely used, readable, and concise introduction to Caribbean history from the pre-Columbian era to the present, best for classroom use and nonspecialists. Revised and updated from the popular 2006 edition. Limited coverage of the Guianas, like most general histories of the Caribbean.

  • Hoefte, Rosemarijn. “The Development of a Multiethnic Plantation Economy: An Introduction to the History of Suriname from circa 1650 to 1900.” In Twentieth-Century Suriname: Continuities and Discontinuities in a New World Society. Edited by Rosemarijn Hoefte and Peter Meel, 1–22. History Reference Center. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2001.

    Succinct introduction to colonial Suriname by one of the region’s leading historians.

  • Hyles, Joshua R. Guiana and the Shadows of Empire: Colonial and Cultural Negotiations at the Edge of the World. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014.

    Comparative history of the English-, Dutch-, and French-speaking territories of the Guianas (today Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) on the basis of the author’s master’s thesis. Emphasizes each region’s precolonial similarities and argues that the different imperial policies of Britain, the Netherlands, and France shaped distinctive colonial and postcolonial cultures.

  • Klooster, Wim. The Dutch in the Americas, 1600–1800: A Narrative History with the Catalogue of an Exhibition of Rare Prints, Maps, and Illustrated Books from the John Carter Brown Library. Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 1997.

    Richly illustrated book by a leading scholar of the Dutch Atlantic, written to introduce an exhibit showcasing the John Carter Brown Library’s collection of sources for the Dutch Americas. A good introduction to Dutch activities in the Guianas before the 19th century that also includes a very useful annotated bibliography for further research.

  • Mam Lam Fouck, Serge. Histoire générale de la Guyane française. 2d ed. Cayenne, French Guiana: Ibis Rouge Éditions, 2002.

    Comprehensive French-language synthesis of French Guiana’s history by one of the region’s leading historians. Revised and updated edition. Significant attention to indigenous people, slavery, and the effects of French colonialism. The best introduction to French Guiana.

  • Palmié, Stephan, and Francisco A. Scarano, eds. The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its Peoples. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226924649.001.0001

    Excellent collection of short essays on a variety of topics in Caribbean history, several of which discuss the Guianas. Accessible enough for classroom use but also useful for scholars.

  • Richardson, Bonham C. The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492–1992: A Regional Geography. Geography of the World-Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511560057

    Wide-ranging overview of Caribbean history and geography. Especially useful for comparing the environments of the Guianas to other places in the Caribbean.

  • Sued-Badillo, Jalil, Pieter C. Emmer, Franklin W. Knight, Keith O. Laurence, Bridget Brereton, and B. W. Higman, eds. General History of the Caribbean. 6 vols. London: UNESCO, 1997–2011.

    Massive, comprehensive collection of essays on Caribbean history from pre-Columbian societies to the 20th century, with contributions from leading scholars.

  • Thompson, Alvin O. Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Guyana, 1580–1803. Bridgetown, Barbados: Carib Research & Publications, 1987.

    Dated but still very useful overview of the colonies that now make up Guyana (Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo), from precolonial societies through Dutch colonialism. The best introduction to Guyanese history before the 19th century, with significant treatment of indigenous people and slavery.

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