indentured servitude, island of Madeira, Hindu rituals, Native American languages, East Indians
Slightly more than one-half of the total population of Guyana is made up of East Indians, whose ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent. Another 43 percent of the people are of black African descent or of mixed background. Approximately 2 percent are Native Americans. In addition, small numbers of Europeans and Chinese live in Guyana. About 90 percent of the people live along the coast, and 62 percent are classified as rural. About 50 percent of the people are Christians, most being Anglicans or Roman Catholics. The remainder are mainly Hindus (33 percent) or Muslims (9 percent). The official language is English; Hindi, Urdu, and Native American languages are also spoken.
Guyana’s diverse population results from its history as an agricultural colony. Native Americans were the indigenous inhabitants of the country. They have not been integrated into Guyanese society and live mainly in the interior as hunters and nomadic farmers. The Europeans imported Africans by the thousands in the 17th and 18th centuries to work on the sugar plantations as slave labor. Following emancipation in the 19th century, the Africans tended to move to the cities and to adopt European patterns of living. People of mixed origin form a distinct group in Guyana, maintaining closer social ties to the European community than to the Afro-Guyanese community.
Asians from the Indian subcontinent began to arrive in the 19th century, following the abolition of slavery, to work as indentured and contract laborers. They continued to arrive until 1917, when Britain outlawed indentured servitude in India. Thousands of Indians chose to remain in Guyana after their terms of employment ended. They primarily live in the rural districts as plantation workers and rice farmers, although some have moved to urban areas. A small but highly influential community of Indian business and professional people live in Georgetown. The Indians have tended to preserve their cultural identity and have maintained a deep interest in their homeland.
The Portuguese are the descendants of indentured laborers brought mainly from the island of Madeira in the 19th century. They did not work as agricultural laborers for long; instead, many became urban shopkeepers and merchants. The Portuguese have not preserved their native language. The Chinese also came to Guyana as indentured laborers in the 19th century. Many now own shops and are highly respected members of Guyanese society. The few English in Guyana are generally employed by the sugar firms or by the government.
Guyana’s various ethnic groups form distinct communities within the nation. This division extends into politics, where major political parties are often identified with specific ethnic groups. Despite the political importance of ethnic identifications, a common Guyanese culture has developed. The bulk of the people have had a common experience as plantation workers, and they have had little real contact with their ancestral homelands. There is also widespread belief that racial or ethnic origin should be unimportant in public life. There is broad tolerance of religious diversity. Many Indians, for example, accept baptism and membership in Christian churches without abandoning their participation in Hindu rituals.
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