05 February 2011
The history and culture of French Guiana is as varied as its landscape. Its people are as diverse as the country; from the Atlantic coast, to the marshy swamps, to the tropical rain forest and the Guiana Highlands. The Arawak Indians were the first known people to inhabit the land now known as French Guiana. The next wave of people was the Caribs, who were traveling from Brazil and stayed behind. This group made up the Amerindians, of which there are only a handful of descendants left today. The Spaniards commissioned Christopher Columbus and settled the land in 1498. They occupied the land on and off for the next century. When the rest of the European powers were claiming land in the new world, the French arrived in 1603 to claim the land and people. They were all looking for one thing, the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Due to the climate and Indian attacks the first French settlement was a failure (Britannica, 974). In 1634 the French returned and did not leave. Cayenne was founded as the capital some time later. It remains the country's largest city. In 1809 the country changed hands again when the Portuguese-British took the country from France. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814 the country was handed back to France and has remained in their hands ever since (Burton, Reno, 2). With the introduction of slaves from Africa the French were able to establish plantations along the northern coast where easy access and low, clear lands were available. These plantations formed the country’s economic base. Following a series of agricultural failures, and culminating with the abolition of slavery in 1848, most of the plantations closed. During this period, France was in the midst of its own revolution and was over-filling its prison system with political prisoners as well as the common thief or scoundrel. France saw that England was taking the lead to rid its country of its prisoners by sending them to Australia. Starting in 1852, Napoleon III closed two prisons in France. He wanted to follow the example of England and send prisoners to its colonies to reestablish some of the abandoned plantations. France found the perfect spot with a chain of islands about 7 miles off the coast. One of these is the infamous Devil’s Island. It was one of three to be used as a penal colony for the next century. It housed the most hardened and notorious criminals and dissidents. Of the 70,000 prisoners that France sent over, 56,000 were placed there (Devil’s Island, web). The island was only 34 acres in size. Of those on the island, over 95% would die there from starvation and malnutrition. After receiving much bad publicity for the death camps France sent its last prisoner there in 1938 and closed all prisons in 1950 (Devil’s Island, web). Many of these prisoners were released and were left as they were on the island. There are few left alive today and they are reluctant to speak of their time spent on the island. In 1964, the president decided to construct a space-travel base. The plan was to replace the existing Sahara base in Algeria and stimulate economic growth in Guiana. The department is peculiarly suitable for the purpose, both because it is near the equator and there is extensive access to a large ocean. The Guiana Space Centre, a short distance along the coast from Kourou, has grown considerably since the initial rocket launches. It has brought commercial success to the European space industry with launches since (Duran, 93). This space center ranks number 3 in the world in the amount of rockets and satellites launched into space for research and telecommunications. Ethnic Relations: A complex weave of ethnicity and culture forms French Guiana's population. The Creole population, itself a large mix of ethnicity and culture, comprises the largest group and has had the greatest influence on the country's culture. Fewer than one hundred of the native settlers,...