|Guyana gained independence on 26 May 1966. This module provides an overview of the key events on Guyana's road to independence.
Road to Independence
The original Guiana was inhabited by semi-nomadic Amerindian tribes who lived by hunting and fishing – notably Arawaks and Caribs. It was divided by European powers into Spanish Guiana (Venezuela), Portuguese Guiana (Brazil), French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname) and British Guiana (Guyana). Colonial competition for territory began with the Spanish sighting in 1499. Probably temporary Spanish or Portuguese settlements were followed by Dutch settlement, first unsuccessfully at Pomeroon, and then (in 1627) under the protection of the Dutch West India Company on the Berbice river. Despite yielding from time to time to British, French and Portuguese invasions, the Dutch kept control until 1814, when the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to Britain. The Europeans imported African slaves to develop their plantations, first of tobacco and later sugar, and to labour on constructing the coastal drainage system and the elegant city of Georgetown. Some slaves escaped to the forest; these so-called ‘bush-blacks’ eked out a living by panning for gold, hunting and subsistence agriculture.
The British administration merged the three colonies into British Guiana in 1831, but retained the Dutch administrative, legislative and legal system, whereby the country was directed by a governor, advised by councils of plantation owners. After the abolition of slavery, Indian and smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese indentured labourers were brought in to work the estates.
In 1928 a legislative council, with members appointed by the British Government, was established, but members were elected after extensions of the franchise in 1943 and 1945. The country was by this period among the most advanced of the British colonial territories in the region, and became the headquarters of several regional educational and political institutions. CARICOM still has its headquarters in Georgetown.
In 1953, a constitution with a bicameral legislature and ministerial system, based on elections under universal adult suffrage, was introduced. There was a general election, won by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan. The PPP had a large East Indian following, whereas the People’s National Congress (PNC), a breakaway party formed in 1957, had its roots among Guyanese of African origin. Shortly after the 1953 elections, the UK suspended the constitution, decided to ‘mark time’ in the advance towards self-government, and administered the country with a government composed largely of nominated members.
When, in 1957, the UK did introduce elected members, the legislature voted for more representative government. The UK called a constitutional conference which was held in 1960 and provided for a new constitution with full internal self- government. In the elections held in August 1961 under this constitution, the PPP again gained the majority. The UK held further constitutional conferences in 1962 and 1963, to settle terms for independence, but ethnic divisions prevented the leaders of Guyana’s three political parties from being able to reach consensus among themselves on the terms of a constitution; they then asked the UK to settle the matter.
The UK selected a form of proportional representation which was aimed at preventing domination by any single ethnic group. (It was also argued that, at this period of the ‘Cuba crisis’ with near- war between the USA and USSR, the UK was under pressure to avoid allowing a socialist government to come to power in Guyana.) Despite renewed disturbances, elections were held under the PR system, and brought to power a coalition of the PNC led by Forbes Burnham and The United Force (TUF).
The new government finalised independence arrangements at a further constitutional conference, which was boycotted by the PPP. Guyana became independent on 26 May 1966 and joined the Commonwealth in May 1966. On 23 February 1970, Guyana was proclaimed a cooperative republic within the Commonwealth with a president elected by the National Assembly.
Meaning of Independence
Guyana becoming an independent nation, now meant that Britain, no longer controlled the affairs of the country. It was now the responsibility of the newly elected Prime Minister and the locally elected Cabinet. Independence also meant that a Constitution, symbols, emblems, an army, and passports had to be developed for the country.
As an independent nation, Guyana assigns Ambassadors overseas who represent the country. They sign treaties on behalf of Guyana and become members of various international organisations. This is important, as it gives the country equal rights on various issues relating to international trade, policies and treaties.