The original inhabitants of Guyana were the Arawaks and Caribs, who
lived a life of hunting and fishing. Christopher Columbus sighted Guiana, as it was
originally called, in 1498 during his third voyage.
In 1615 the Dutch East India Company established the first European settlement at Kyk-over-al, now a national landmark on the lower Essequibo River. They traded tropial dyes, resins and woods with the Native people. The Dutch East India Company introduced the plantation system and cultivated coffee, cotton and sugar cane. They were unsuccessful in their attempts to enslave the Natives on these plantations. Wars, cruel treatment and European diseases soon decimated the Natives. It was then that Africans, mainly from West Africa by way of Jamaica, were brought in as slaves to work on the plantations.
Meanwhile, the French and British settled in other parts of Guyana. Rivalry among the French, British and Dutch meant that different parts of the region changed hands several times. In 1803 the British captured three Dutch colonies and in 1831 consolidated them into one country, calling it British Guiana. The name was later changed to Guyana.
In 1834 slavery was abolished with the condition that there were to be two more years of indentured labour. After this period, the former slaves refused to work for their ex-masters, even for pay. Thousands of indentured labourers, mainly from India, but also from Portugal and China, were brought in to work the plantations. The result was a cosmopolitan population consisting of native people, African, Chinese, Europeans and East Indians. Government under the British continued in changing forms until Guyana's independence in 1966.
In 1970 the country became a Cooperative Republic within the Commonwealth.