Guiana was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498 during his third trip to the New World, but the land he sighted was not named or settled for 100 years. The native people were the Arawak Indians, who were displaced by the Carbs who came out of the Amazon to populate the Caribbean islands. These two tribes were the native people in Guiana when Christopher Columbus arrived.
The first French settlers began arriving in the 1600s and named the territory Guiana, a French form of an American Indian word that means “land of waters. The first settlers were looking for the famed hidden gold and new opportunities but found hostile natives and tropical diseases. It was some years before the French returned.
French Guiana is also known for the famous penal colony, Devil’s Island that housed over 17,000 prisoners between 1852 and 1939. These inmates were notorious as hardened criminals and exiles from Europe.
Today one of the notable limitations in Guiana is the lack of transportation. Guiana has very few roads, actually only one main road that connects the main cities. With over 200 rivers, travel in the interior can be difficult. It is common to see local people with boats ferrying people across these rivers. This is how these local people make their living. Because of transportation difficulties and the large amount of uninhabited land, adventuresome tourists visiting French Guiana work with independent agencies and tour guides who organize trips to the heart of this wilderness setting. Also, the country is very close to the equator with averages 80ºF temperatures year round, making it important that tourists be prepared for the heat.
The “country” is actually not a country, but a department of France and the people enjoy a good quality of life and 80% literacy because of this unique relationship. The French influence is evident throughout the populated areas.
The population of French Guiana is only 200,000 people living in 4 major cities. By contrast the Oyampi and Palik tribes live deep in the interior and still live a traditional pre-columbian way of life. There are also a few tribes descended from African slaves that escaped the plantations and live a lifestyle similar to their native central Africa. Over 98% of the land is uninhabited with vast amounts of tropical wilderness. By contrast, the European Space Launching Center is in Kourou near the capital and has brought that small area into the 21st century.
Almost 40% of the people live in the capital city, Cayenne, and reflect the diverse history of immigration and settlement. The Creole population comprises over 66% of the population and is the major ethnic group influencing the Guianese culture. Europeans make up another 18% and the remainder is east Asians, Chinese, Amerindians and Brazilian. A blend of European influence is evident in the cloths which are modified for the tropical weather. In the cities there are other traces of the French life style.
French is the official language. Through the years the French spoken in Guiana has accommodated the local dialect and is now call French Creole or Patois. In early French history Patois meant rough language spoken by the peasants. The native tribes speak their own language and the African tribes speak a form of pidgin English known as Taki-Taki.
Many cultures are seen in Guianese food such as European, African, Indian, and Amerindian traditions, with a strong French influence. Guiana used to grow nutmeg, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and chili peppers; these are still basic ingredients in the foods. Their waters are teeming with a variety of fish and shrimp that are commonly prepared in many different dishes such as marinated for fritters, kebabs, fricassees and seafood stew. Shrimp is available in all sizes from small sea-bobs to giant shrimp.
These dishes are usually accompanied by generous portions of rice, red beans and couac, a starch similar to semolina. Beef is used for special occasions and often prepared as a stew. The fresh food markets are abundant and a good place to see everyday life in Guiana.
Festival and Holidays
The country boosts the longest Carnival in the Caribbean, starting in early January and goes to mid-February. One unusual tradition happens every Saturday night during the Carnival. Women of the island dress up as “toulous” who are mysteries dancer that disguise themselves by covering from head to foot. These women enjoy that people do not know who they are; they lead the parades and dancing until early hours of the morning. At dawn the partiers enjoy a traditional stew with shrimp and fish stew and with a brief rest the festival starts again.
Guiana also celebrates French holidays, the most important being Bastille Day. The vast majority of the population is Roman Catholic and celebrates the traditional Catholic holidays. Other minority religions are also represented such as indigenous Amerindians shamanistic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and African-based religions.
The music and dance reflect these same ethnic groups. Those living in the interior have a strong drum influence and woodwind instruments are common, influenced by early American Indians. In the major cities people also listen to French ballads as well as pop and rock music.
French Guiana has a long and rich history that is a reflection of the many immigrant populations that have moved through and settled over the last 500 years. As a French department, the population enjoys a relatively high quality of living, particularly compared to neighboring islands. One of the most striking contrasts in Guiana is the presence of primitive tribes in the deep tropical jungles compared to the high technology European Space Center near the coast.