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History, The Colonial Period

free villages, sugar cultivation, British expeditions, Widespread unrest, Indian ethnic groups

By the mid-18th century, Dutch settlers and traders had prevailed over rival Spanish and British expeditions. They formed three colonies in the region. During the 17th century, the Dutch penetrated well into the interior of Guyana and developed trade contacts with the Arawak- and Carib-speaking indigenous people. The Dutch concentrated on sugar cultivation, however, and in the first quarter of the 18th century they rapidly developed sugar plantations. Under the leadership of Laurens Storm Van's Gravesande, the Dutch commander from 1742 to 1772, the Dutch built sea defenses and drainage and irrigation systems in the coastal lowlands. Many English planters from Barbados also moved to the Dutch colony.

Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the French occupied Holland. In 1795 the Dutch offered administration of the colonies to the British because they did not want the colonies to fall under the control of the French. The British officially took possession of the area from the Dutch in 1814. In 1831 the British merged the three Dutch colonies that had existed on the territory that is now Guyana, forming a single colony known as British Guiana.

The Dutch and British imported African slaves to work the sugar plantations. During the years of British rule, diseases introduced from Europe killed many Native Americans. An influx of European immigrants and African slaves reduced the Native American population to a tiny minority. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the British brought laborers from India to work the plantations. The resulting division of Guyana’s population into African and Indian ethnic groups had long-lasting effects on Guyana’s society.

Most of the former slaves established free villages on abandoned sugar plantations. They did not succeed in becoming independent farmers, but instead became dependent on wage labor. Gradually a class of black professionals developed. They sought a role in the political life of the colony. Some constitutional reforms were introduced in the late 19th century. The British governor and appointed members of the colonial legislature continued to dominate the government, but the legislature expanded to include a limited number of elected representatives.

Guyana received its first constitution under the British administration in 1928, and the vote was extended to women. However, the government continued to nominate some of the representatives in the colonial legislature. These representatives were given more power than those elected by the voters. Widespread unrest in Britain's Caribbean and West Indian territories led in 1938 to the appointment of a royal commission to investigate social and economic conditions. The commission recommended that the people be given a larger role in the government and administration of their territories. Progress toward self-government had to wait until after the end of World War II in 1945, however.



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