Guiana

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Guiana

Guiana (gēăn´ə, –än´–), region, NE South America. It faces the Atlantic Ocean on the north and east and is enclosed on the west and south within a vast semicircle formed by the linked river systems of the Orinoco, the Río Negro, and the lower Amazon. It includes SE Venezuela, part of N Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), and Guyana (formerly British Guiana). The region consists of a cultivated coastal plain, where most of the population lives, and a forested, hilly interior, the Guiana Highlands. Descending from plateaus as high waterfalls, such as Kaieteur Falls (Guyana) and Angel Falls (Venezuela), the rivers, notably the Caroní, Essequibo, Courantyne (Corantijn or Corentyne), Maroni, and Oiapoque, flow through low mountains, savannas, and tropical rain forests into coastal swamps and lagoons. Most of the streams are navigable only for short distances, a feature that has hindered development. The coastal plain contains rich alluvial deposits carried by ocean currents from the Amazon. The Dutch and subsequently the English reclaimed much of the tidal lands for planting sugarcane and rice, but the acreage is tiny in comparison to Guiana as a whole. Most of coastal Guiana has a monotonously hot, humid climate with heavy rainfall. The interior is inhabited by indigenous peoples and descendants of freed slaves (maroons).

The Guiana coast was discovered (1498) by Columbus, who did not land there. The legend of El Dorado drew Sir Walter Raleigh to the region in 1595. The Spanish had also come in search of easy wealth, but, finding none, they left the coast open to exploitation by the Dutch, English, and French. The Dutch were the first to settle, but ownership of territory changed hands many times. After the emancipation of the slaves in the 19th cent., labor shortage proved a major problem on the European-owned plantations. It was partially offset by importing South Asians and Indonesians.

See J. Gimlette, Wild Coast (2011).

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