Before the arrival of Europeans, the region was inhabited by both Carib and Arawak tribes, who named it Guiana, which means land of waters. The Dutch settled in Guyana in the late 16th century, but their control ended when the British became the de facto rulers in 1796. In 1815, the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice were officially ceded to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna and, in 1831, were consolidated as British Guiana.
Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugar cane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The British stopped the practice in 1917. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful. The small Amerindian population lives in the country's interior.
The people drawn from these diverse origins have coexisted peacefully for the most part. Slave revolts, such as the one in 1763 led by Guyana's national hero, Cuffy, demonstrated the desire for basic rights but also a willingness to compromise. Politically inspired racial disturbances between East Indians and blacks erupted in 1962-64. However, the basically conservative and cooperative nature of Guyanese society contributed to a cooling of racial tensions.
Guyanese politics, nevertheless, occasionally has been turbulent. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as chairman; Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice-chairman; and his American-born wife, Mrs. Janet Jagan, as secretary general. The PPP won 18 out of 24 seats in the first popular elections permitted by the colonial government in 1953, and Dr. Jagan became leader of the house and minister of agriculture in the colonial government.
Five months later, on October 9, 1953, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops because, they said, the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a communist state. These events led to a split in the PPP, in which Burnham broke away and founded what eventually became the People's National Congress (PNC). Elections were permitted again in 1957 and 1961, and Cheddi Jagan's PPP ticket won on both occasions, with 48% of the vote in 1957 and 43% in 1961. Cheddi Jagan became the first Premier of British Guiana, a position he held for seven years. At a constitutional conference in London in 1963, the U.K. Government agreed to grant independence to the colony, but only after another election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. It was widely believed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority in parliament. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 46%, the PNC 41%, and the United Force (TUF), a conservative party, 12%. TUF threw its votes in the legislature to Forbes Burnham, who became prime minister.
Guyana achieved independence in May 1966, and became a republic on February 23, 1970--the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion.
From December 1964 until his death in August 1985, Forbes Burnham ruled Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner, first as prime minister and later, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980, as executive president. Elections were viewed in Guyana and abroad as fraudulent. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred: The Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke in July 1979, and the distinguished historian and Working People's Alliance (WPA) party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for both deaths.
Following Burnham's death, Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency and was formally elected in the December 1985 national elections. Hoyte gradually reversed Burnham's policies, moving from state socialism and one-party control to a market economy and unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly.
On October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and Regional Councils were elected in the first Guyanese elections since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. Cheddi Jagan was elected and sworn in as President on October 9, 1992.
When President Jagan died in March 1997, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds replaced him in accordance with constitutional provisions.