The Poor Guyanas…

When I first entered graduate school, a friend and I joked that we’d be the first Guyanist and Surinamist among Latin American historians, as the three are always excluded from the list of countries technically “Latin American.” I suppose there’s an understandable reason for the exclusion of each from the region in terms of culture/history. Latin America is often defined in terms of its Iberian background and the complementary independence movements that created nation-states out of Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and the Guyanas and Suriname fall outside of that definition for various reasons: French Guyana is still an overseas department of France, Suriname was a Dutch colony that only gained independence in 1975, more than 150 years after the last continental “Latin American” country gained independence, and Guyana remained English until 1966 and speaks Guyanese Creole, a mixture of English, West African, Indian, indigenous, and Dutch languages. Historically, culturally, and/or linguistically, the region took a radically different path from that of the remainder of the continent.

That said, I always felt bad that the Guyanas were completely invisible to Latin Americanists, even if the reasons were legitimate (Belize falls under this category as well, remaining “British Honduras” until independence in 1981). Even Latin Americans view the region as “exotic” (when one Brazilian friend was planning a trip to the region, the rest of my Brazilian friends were stunned, as though he were planning a trip to another planet rather than to a country that shared a border with Brazil).

That said, it’s not like the three countries don’t have any connection to South America whatsoever. At the New York Times‘s “Opinionator” blog, Frank Jacobs had this absolutely outstanding post on the history of the region. He also provides the historical context for why the region fell under neither the Spanish nor the Portuguese’s control. Who plays a major role in the different paths of the Guyanas and the rest of South America?

The Pope, of course.

Specifically, Jacobs suggests that Pope Alexander VI’s 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, combined with  environmental difficulties of settling the Amazon, the Protestant-Catholic division, ultimately set the stage for the region to fall under the control of countries outside of Spain and Portugal:

But even if the papally endorsed meridian proved ineffective at holding back the Portuguese, the invisible spell over the vast Amazonian jungle did have one clear result: It helped keep away the Spanish, who concentrated on the far side of the continent, conquering the rich empires of Mexico and Peru.

Vatican edicts do not work on Protestants, however, and the Dutch and English felt unconstrained by the decision to divvy up the subcontinent between Spain and Portugal. In the early 17th century, Protestant plantations sprang up in the fertile Guyanan coastlands. Ironically, the Dutch pioneered settlement in what is now Guyana, while the English were the first to colonize Suriname. France settled what was left, and the three powers proceeded to fight over and swap their Guyanas like they did with their Caribbean islands.

This was not the only instance of European countries ignoring papal bulls. Indeed, even Catholic France disregarded the papal bulls in its efforts to settle in Brazil in the 1550s. The French crown’s reasoning was that the bull was meaningless, and if the Portugese refused to settle Brazil, the French were more than happy to occupy theoretically-Portuguese lands in the name of trade. Indeed, the French even established a base in Guanabara Bay in the 1550s in what came to be called  “France Antarctique” before Portugal finally expelled them in the 1560s. And the Dutch famously occupied Pernambuco in Northeastern Brazil from the 1630s until 1654, when the Portuguese expelled them as well. While French and Dutch efforts failed in Brazil, the Treaty of Tordesillas had lands that theoretically excluded the Portuguese and that the Spanish did not attempt to settle, leaving them open to British, Dutch, and French colonization.

That’s not where the historical differences ended, and Jacobs does a particularly excellent job in chronicling English presence in the area in the national era.  His (much-needed, even if brief) history makes the strong argument on the role of the Treaty of Tordesillas in shaping the path of the Guyanas, providing some wonderful historical background to a region not so much overlooked as entirely excluded from “Latin America.”

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in French Guyana, Guyana, Suriname. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Poor Guyanas…

  1. Pingback: The Guyanas and Suriname - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  2. says:

    rolling on the floor funny. you a maroon, colin ?

    > Guyana remained English until 1966 and speaks Guyanese Creole, a mixture of English,
    > West African, indigenous, and Dutch languages.

    You fail to mention that 50% of the guyanese population is Indian (as in slaves from South India).

    Funny that, how you forget to mention that simple little linguistic fact and no south indian language makes your list.

    • I knew there was a South Indian presence, but didn’t realize it was so high (again, primarily b/c Latin Americanists rarely write on this stuff so we can learn from one another). Thanks for the heads-up, and I’ve cheerfully added Indian to the list!

    • blowback says:

      If you want to be precise, the Indians that travelled to British Guiana were not slaves but indentured labourers. Although some might consider it the same as slavery, it had major differences such as being for a finite term, being governed by the law of contract (which the British have always been very strongly supportive of) and that only the contract could be sold, not the individual who had mostly freely signed the contract. And it should not be forgotten that the decline in the supply of European indentured labour was one of the major causes of the growth of the slave trade.

      Furthermore, according to wikipedia, the majority of the Indian immigrants to British Guiana came from northern India.

Comments are closed.