If the third time’s a charm, then Christopher Columbus’s third voyage to the “New World” definitely delivered one of the Caribbean’s most captivating discoveries: Guyana. Columbus spotted Guyana’s coast during his 1498 journey, although Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda would be the first European to set foot in the country a year later. It would be another century before any returned.
Blame it on the gold, or at least the lust thereof. While the Spaniards found neither minerals nor much else of value in Guyana during their initial exploration, the legend of El Dorado—a fabled golden city rumored to be in northern South America—lured a new round of expeditions, including three led by Sir Walter Raleigh of England. (Guests on our Wild Guyana expedition might not find much gold, but the region is home to a bonanza of biodiversity, with thousands of species of fauna and flora, many found nowhere else on earth.)
The Dutch established the first colonial settlements in Guyana during the early 17th century; within a few decades, the Dutch West India Company was granted complete political and economic control over the area. It soon became a prime producer of sugar and other crops; however, the increased need for labor would lead to the massive import of African slaves. Their bleak conditions led to numerous uprisings, including the famous Berbice Rebellion of 1763. In fact, February 23, the day the revolt began, is commemorated during Guyana’s annual Mashramani festival.
Conflicts among the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain would cause Guyana to change hands numerous times during the late 1700s. The latter took official possession in 1814, and it was declared a British colony in 1831. Slavery was abolished a few years later—although the newly freed Africans would be replaced by indentured workers from India, an ethnic division that has had lasting effects on the country’s population.
Widespread unrest throughout the British Caribbean, including Guyana, during the 1930s eventually led to greater self-governance and distribution of wealth. Guyana gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, and officially became a republic in 1970.