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History of French Guiana

Early History

The history of French Guiana spans many centuries. Before the first Europeans arrived, there was no written history in the territory. It was originally inhabited by a number of Native American peoples, among them the Carib, Arawak, Emerillon, Galibi, Palikour, Wayampi (also known as Oyampi) and Wayana. The first Europeans arrived in the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, shortly before 1500.

Beginnings of European Involvement

In 1498, French Guiana was first visited by Europeans when Christopher Columbus sailed to the region and named it the "Land of Pariahs". In 1604 France attempted to settle the area but was forced to abandon it in the face of hostility from the Portuguese, who viewed it as a violation of the Treaty of Tordesillas. French settlers returned, however, in 1643 and managed to establish a settlement at Cayenne along with some small-scale plantations. This second attempt would again be abandoned following attacks by Native Americans. The French returned once more in 1664, and founded a second settlement at Sinnamary (this was attacked by the Dutch in 1665).

In 1667, the British seized the area. Following the signing of the Treaty of Breda on July 31, 1667, the area was given back to France, though the Dutch briefly occupied it for a period in 1676.

Consolidation of French Rule

After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which deprived France of almost all its possessions in the Americas other than Guiana and a few islands, Louis XV sent thousands of settlers to Guiana. They were lured there with stories of plentiful gold and easy fortunes to be made. Instead they found a land filled with hostile natives and tropical diseases. One and a half years later only a few hundred had survived. These fled to three small islands that could be seen off shore and named them the Iles de Salut (or "Islands of Salvation"). The largest was called Royal Island, another Saint Joseph (after the patron saint of the expedition), and the smallest of the islands, surrounded by strong currents, Île du Diable (the infamous "Devil's Island"). When the survivors of this ill-fated expedition returned home, the terrible stories they told of the colony left a lasting impression in France.

In 1794, after the death of Robespierre, 193 of his followers were sent to French Guiana. In 1797, the Republican general Pichegru and many deputies and journalists were also sent to the colony. When they arrived they found that only 54 of the 193 deportées sent out three years earlier were left; 11 had escaped, and the rest had died of tropical fevers and other diseases. Pichegru managed to escape to the United States and then returned to France, where he was eventually executed for plotting against Napoleon Bonaparte.

Later on, slaves were imported from Africa and plantations were established along the more disease-free rivers. Exports of sugar, hardwood, cayenne pepper, and other spices brought a certain prosperity to the colony for the first time. Cayenne, the capital, was surrounded by plantations, some of which had several thousand slaves.

1800s and the Penal Era

In 1809, an Anglo-Portuguese naval squadron took French Guiana (ousting governor Victor Hugues) and gave it to the Portuguese in Brazil. However with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814 the region was handed back to the French, though a Portuguese presence remained until 1817.

In 1848, France abolished slavery and the ex-slaves fled into the rainforest, setting up communities similar to the ones from which they had been taken captive in Africa. Now called Maroons, from the French word for "fugitive", they formed a sort of buffer zone between the Europeans who settled along the coast and main rivers, and the unconquered, and often hostile, Native American tribes of Arawak living in the inland regions. Without the availability of slave labour the plantations were soon taken over by the jungle and the planters ruined.

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