The country was first partially settled between 1616 and 1621 by the Dutch West India Company, who erected a fort and depot at Fort Kyk-over-al (County of Essequibo).
The first English attempt at settlement was made by Captain Leigh on the Oiapoque River (now French Guyane) in 1604, but he failed to establish a permanent settlement. Lord Willoughby, famous in the early history of Barbados, founded a settlement in 1663 at Suriname, which was captured by the Dutch in 1667 and ceded to them at the Peace of Breda in exchange for New York. The Dutch held the three colonies till 1796 when they were captured by a British fleet. The territory was restored to the Dutch in 1802, but in the following year was retaken by Great Britain, which finally gained it in 1814, when the three counties of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara were merged to form British Guiana.
During the 17th century the Dutch and English settlers established posts up-river, in the hills, mostly as trading points with the Amerindian natives. Plantations were laid out and worked by slaves from Africa. Poor soil defeated this venture, and the settlers retreated with their slaves to the coastal area in mid-18th century: the old plantation sites can still be detected from the air. Coffee and cotton were the main crops up to the end of the 18th century, but sugar had become the dominant crop by 1820. In 1834 slavery was abolished. Many of the slaves scattered as small landholders, and the plantation owners had to look for another source of labour. It was found in indentured workers from India, a few Chinese, and some Portuguese labourers from the Azores and Madeira. At the end of their indentures many settled in Guyana.
The end of the colonial period was politically turbulent, with rioting between the mainly Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan, and the mainly Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress (PNC), under Mr Forbes Burnham. The PNC, favoured over the PPP by the colonial authorities, formed a government in 1964 and retained office until 1992. Guyana is one of the few countries in the Caribbean where political parties have used race as an election issue. As a result, tension between the main ethnic groups has manifested itself mainly at election time.
On 26 May 1966 Guyana gained independence, and on 23 February 1970 it became a co-operative republic within the Commonwealth, adopting a new constitution. Another new constitution was adopted in 1980; this declared Guyana to be in transition from capitalism to socialism. Many industries, including bauxite and sugar, were nationalized in the 1970s and close relations with the USSR and Eastern Europe were developed. Following the death of President Forbes Burnham in August 1985, Mr Desmond Hoyte became President. Since then, relations with the United States have improved.
Regular elections to the National Assembly and to the Presidency since independence were widely criticized as fraudulent. Having been delayed since May 1991, national assembly and presidential elections were finally held on 5 October 1992. In the polling, declared free and fair by international observers, the PPP/Civic party, led by Dr Jagan, won power after 28 years in opposition. The installation of a government by democratic means was greeted with optimism and prompted foreign investors to study potential opportunities in Guyana. An economic recovery programme, part of an IMF Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, stimulated several years of positive gdp growth, but also seriously eroded workers’ real income and hit the middle classes very hard.
In March 1997, President Jagan died after a heart attack. New elections were held on 15 December 1997, in which the PPP/Civic alliance was re-elected to power. Janet Jagan, wife of the late president, was elected as president. The PNC, led by Desmond Hoyte, disputed the results and a brief period of violent demonstrations was ended when a Caricom mission agreed to mediate between the two sides. Even though the PPP/Civic was sworn in to office on 24 December 1997, agreeing to review the constitution and hold new elections within three years, Hoyte refused to recognize Jagan as president. More unrest occurred in mid-1998 and PPP/Civic and PNC dialogue had registered little progress by mid-1999.