Guyana: 45 Years of Independence
Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. A third of the population is descended from black African slaves who, in the 17th century, were imported by the Dutch to work on the sugar plantations. Around half the population is of East Indian origin - the descendents of indentured Indian agricultural workers who were brought in by the British after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The two main political parties, the People’s Progressive Party (P.P.P.) and the People’s National Congress (P.N.C.), are based around these two main ethnicities and tension between them has caused political instability.
The first indentured labourers came from Bengal in 1838. Theophilius Richmond was a young doctor employed on a ship chartered by Sir John Gladstone in 1837 to collect and transport an Indian workforce to replace the slaves on their sugar plantations in British Guiana. Richmond recorded his voyage in his diary. His great-great-niece Brigid Wells later read his diary and described Richmond’s experiences in ‘From India to the Caribbean’ (History Today, October 2009).
Dutch trading posts were first founded in Guyana at the end of the 16th century. In 1620, the Dutch East India Company established a foothold in Guyana including armed bases and imported slaves to work on the sugar plantations. From 1780 to 1813, Guyana changed hands several times between the Dutch, French and British. Britain eventually captured Guyana during the Napoleonic Wars and in 1831, it was officially declared a British colony.
In 1953, in the aftermath of democratic elections for parliament in which the left-wing Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (P.P.P.) won the majority, the British suspended Guyana’s constitution, sent in troops and installed an interim government. When the constitution was restored four years later, the P.P.P. spilt: Cheddi Jagan became the leader of the mostly Indian P.P.P. and Forbes Burnham lead a party of African descendants, the People's National Congress (P.N.C.).
Guyana was granted autonomy in 1961 with Cheddi Jagan as Prime Minister and with Britain maintaining control over internal and defence matters. Forbes Burnham later became the first president of independent Guyana in 1966. On February 23rd, 1970, Guyana became a republic within the British Commonwealth. Raymond Arthur Chung was titular president. The current president, Bharrat Jagdeo of the P.P.P., came to power in 1999 and won a five-year term in the August 2006 general elections.
A dance, Guyana's 45th Independence Dance, is notably being organised in London this weekend to celebrate 45 years of independence.
Listen to the Guyanese national anthem here:
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