The Jesuits in Guyana
History of the Region

“Guiana” is an indigenous word which means “land of many waters”, and so it is fitting that the border of the north-east coastal strip of South America known as “The Guyanas” is defined by oceans and rivers: the Caribbean Sea marks the northern perimeter, the Atlantic Ocean the eastern edge, the Orinoco river in Venezuela is the western frontier, while the mighty Amazon and the Rio Negro patrol the south. Waterways and massive rivers criss-cross the whole of the territory and define much of the life and personality of the land and its peoples.

Although Christopher Columbus’ sailed along the coast of Guyana in 1498, the Guyanas were never exploited by Spain and Portugal, possibly because the mosquito-ridden coastal marshes were uninviting to potential Conquistadors looking who were looking to get rich quickly. In 1595, however, the Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh scouted the region’s coast & rivers and because of his energetic and widely-read memoir of the adventure, he re-ignited the tantalising myth of El Dorado (a city of gold) at the source of the Orinoco and a scramble for coastal territory began in earnest between the second generation of European explorers – the English, the Dutch and the French.

When the Europeans arrived they came to an occupied land. Archaeological evidence of the presence of Warrau Amerindians dates back to at least 900 A.D., and the Carib and Arawak peoples left their marks on recorded history not long after that time. When the Europeans did arrive they met indigenous tribes that lived by hunting, fishing and cultivation of the land.

In the 18th century the dominance of English settlers in the Dutch territories caused a shift of power around the region and wars & conflicts peppered the relationships between the Dutch, the French and the British for forty years. Alliances were made & broken and territories were exchanged with dizzying speed.

The final abolition of slavery in 1838 stimulated a complex flow of labour around the world and by the end of the first world war, British Guiana had become the destination-of-choice for perhaps a quarter of a million workers & indentured labourers who came in search of opportunity and a new life. They came from places as far-a-field as China, Portugal and India and many of them stayed when their initial contracts were completed. This influx, along with the indigenous Amerindians and the liberated African presence, laid the basis of the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity underpinning modern-day Guyana. The two major groups are the African Guyanese who make up about 32% of the population, while East Indian Guyanese make up about 44% of the population.

Present Situation

The second half of the 20th Century was an uncertain era in Guyana: the 50’s and 60’s were decades of political unrest as racial tensions simmered and various independence movements jostled for dominance. Racial tensions bubbled-over and political parties split along racial lines in the mid-50’s and have substantially remained so to the present day.

In the early 1960’s, the US State Department and the CIA (fearful of a new Cuba in their neighbourhood) received the tacit agreement of the Macmillan government in the UK to take a role in influencing the dominant political forces in the country during the time of transition. The first supervised election took place in 1964 and Mr Forbes Burnham came to power at the head of the PPC (People’s National Congress), a predominantly African party. Independence from British rule came in 1966 and the country went on to become a “Co-operative Republic” in 1970 while still remaining a member of the British Commonwealth.

It is widely agreed that the elections held between 1968 and 1993 were rigged in favour of the ruling party, and this thinly-veiled dictatorship only came to an end when ex-President of the US, Jimmy Carter, succeeded in forcing Forbes Burnham’s successor, Desmond Hoyte, to hold free, fair and internationally supervised elections. The PPC lost control of government in the election of 1992 and this ushered in the government of Mr Cheddi Jagan, a veteran politician and leader of the PNC (People’s National Congress) and a period of Indian-dominated politics began and which lasts to the present day.

Today the geographical area of The Guyanas is mainly made up of three countries: French Guyana to the east; Suriname [formerly “Dutch Guyana”] in the centre; and Guyana [formerly “British Guiana”] to the west.

Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the South American continent. It is the size of the United Kingdom but has fewer than a million inhabitants. Both culturally and politically it is dominated by the islands of the Caribbean, but both because it is geographically far-out on the eastern wing of that grouping and because of its extensive hinterland, it is more & more realising that it is also part of South America and it is developing contacts with the continent.

Although there are about 36 Jesuits in Guyana, there are none permanently resident in Suriname or French Guyana.