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French Guiana

French Guiana Collection

History Archive - French Guiana Collection

French Guiana (Guyane) is a South American French colony is situated between Dutch Guiana and Brazil.

The Sieur La Revardière, sent out in 1604 by Henry IV. to reconnoitre the country, brought back a favourable report; but the death of the king put a stop to the projects of formal colonization. In 1626 a small body of traders from Rouen settled on the Sinnamary, and in 1635 a similar band founded Cayenne. The Compagnie du Cap Nord, founded by the people of Rouen in 1643 and conducted by Poncet de Brétigny, the Compagnie de la France Équinoxiale, established in 1645, and the second Compagnie de la France Équinoxiale, or Compagnie des Douze Seigneurs, established in 1652, were failures, the result of incompetence, mismanagement and misfortune. From 1654 the Dutch held the colony for a few years. The French Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, chartered in 1664 with a monopoly of Guiana commerce for forty years, proved hardly more successful than its predecessors; but in 1674 the colony passed under the direct control of the crown, and the able administration of Colbert began to tell favourably on its progress, although in 1686 an unsuccessful expedition against the Dutch in Surinam set back the advance of the French colony until the close of the century.

The year 1763 was marked by a terrible disaster. Choiseul, the prime minister, having obtained for himself and his cousin Praslin a concession of the country between the Kourou and the Maroni, sent out about 12,000 volunteer colonists, mainly from Alsace and Lorraine. They were landed at the mouth of the Kourou, where no preparation had been made for their reception, and where even water was not to be obtained. Mismanagement was complete; there was (for example) a shop for skates, whereas the necessary tools for tillage were wanting. By 1765 no more than 918 colonists remained alive, and these were a famished fever-stricken band. A long investigation in Paris resulted in the imprisonment of the incompetent leaders of the expedition. Several minor attempts at colonization in Guiana were made in the latter part of the century; but they all seemed to suffer from the same fatal prestige of failure. During the revolution band after band of political prisoners were transported to Guiana. The fate of the royalists, nearly 600 in number, who were exiled on the 18th Fructidor (1797), was especially sad. Landed on the Sinnamary without shelter or food, two-thirds of them perished miserably. In 1800 Victor Hugues was appointed governor, and he managed to put the colony in a better state; but in 1809 his work was brought to a close by the invasion of the Portuguese and British.

Though French Guiana was nominally restored to the French in 1814, it was not really surrendered by the Portuguese till 1817. Numerous efforts were now made to establish the colony firmly, although its past misfortunes had prejudiced the public mind in France against it. In 1822 the first steam sugar mills were introduced; in 1824 an agricultural colony (Nouvelle Angoulême) was attempted in the Mana district, which, after failure at first, became comparatively successful. The emancipation of slaves and the consequent dearth of labour almost ruined the development of agricultural resources about the middle of the century, but in 1853 a large body of African immigrants was introduced. The discovery of gold on the Approuague in 1855 caused feverish excitement, and seriously disturbed the economic condition of the country.

A delimitation of the territory belonging to France and the Netherlands was arrived at in 1891, by decision of the emperor of Russia. This question originated in the arrangement French Guiana. of 1836, that the river Maroni should form the frontier. It turned on the claim of the Awa or the Tapanahoni to be recognized as the main head-stream of the Maroni, and the final decision, in indicating the Awa, favoured the Dutch. In 1905 certain territory lying between the upper Maroni and the Itany, the possession of which had not then been settled, was acquired by France by agreement between the French and Dutch governments.

The question of the exploitation of gold in the Maroni was settled by attributing alternate reaches of the river to France and Holland; while France obtained the principal islands in the lower Maroni. The additional territory thus attached to the French colony amounted to 965 sq. m. In December 1900 the Swiss government as arbitrators fixed the boundary between French Guiana and Brazil as the river Oyapock and the watershed on the Tumuc Humac mountains, thus awarding to France about 3000 of the 100,000 sq. m. which she claimed.

This dispute was of earlier origin than that with the Dutch; dissensions between the French and the Portuguese relative to territory north of the Amazon occurred in the 17th century. In 1700 the Treaty of Lisbon made the contested area (known as the Terres du Cap du Nord) neutral ground. The treaty of Utrecht in 1713 indicated as the French boundary a river which the French afterwards claimed to be the Araguary, but the Portuguese asserted that the Oyapock was intended. After Brazil had become independent the question dragged on until in 1890–1895 there were collisions in the contested territory between French and Brazilian adventurers. This compelled serious action, and a treaty of arbitration, preliminary to the settlement, was signed at Rio de Janeiro in 1897.

French Guiana, according to official estimate, has an area of about 51,000 sq. m. The population is estimated at about 30,000; its movement is not rapid. Of this total 12,350 live at Cayenne, 10,100 were in the communes, 5700 formed the penal population, 1500 were native Indians (Galibi, Emerillon, Oyampi) and 500 near Maroni were negroes. Apart from Cayenne, which was rebuilt after the great fire of 1888, the centres of population are unimportant: Sinnamarie with 1500 inhabitants, Mana with 1750, Roura with 1200 and Approuague with 1150. In 1892 French Guiana was divided into fourteen communes, exclusive of the Maroni district. Belonging to the colony are also the three Safety Islands (Royale, Joseph and Du Diable—the last notable as the island where Captain Dreyfus was imprisoned), the Enfant Perdu Island and the five Remire Islands.

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Geography. A considerable portion of the low coast land is occupied by marshes, with a dense growth of mangroves or, in the drier parts, with the pinot or wassay palm (Euterpe oleracea). Settlements are confined almost entirely to the littoral and alluvial districts. The forest-clad hills of the hinterland do not generally exceed 1500 ft. in elevation; that part of the Tumuc Humac range which forms the southern frontier may reach an extreme elevation of 2600 ft. But the dense tropical forests attract so much moisture from the ocean winds that the highlands are the birthplace of a large number of rivers which in the rainy season especially pour down vast volumes of water. Not less than 15 are counted between the Maroni and the Oyapock. South-eastward from the Maroni the first of importance is the Mana, which is navigable for large vessels 10 m. from its mouth, and for smaller vessels 27 m. farther. Passing the Sinnamary and the Kourou, the Oyock is next reached, near the mouth of which is Cayenne, the capital of the colony, and thereafter the Approuage. All these rivers take their rise in a somewhat elevated area about the middle of the colony; those streams which rise farther south, in the Tumuc Humac hills, are tributaries of the two frontier rivers, the Maroni on the one hand or the Oyapock on the other.

Climate and Products.—The rainy season begins in November or December, and lasts till the latter part of June; but there are usually three or four weeks of good weather in March. During the rest of the year there is often hardly a drop of rain for months, but the air is always very moist. At Cayenne the average annual rainfall amounts to fully 130 in., and it is naturally heavier in the interior. During the hotter part of the year—August, September, October—the temperature usually rises to about 86° F., but it hardly ever exceeds 88°; in the colder season the mean is 79° and it seldom sinks so low as 70°. Between day and night there is very little thermometric difference. The prevailing winds are the N.N.E. and the S.E.; and the most violent are those of the N.E. During the rainy season the winds keep between N. and E., and during the dry season between S. and E. Hurricanes are unknown. In flora and fauna French Guiana resembles the rest of the Guianese region. Vegetation is excessively rich. Among leguminous trees, which are abundantly represented, the wacapou is the finest of many hardwood trees. Caoutchouc and various palms are also common. The manioc is a principal source of food; rice is an important object of cultivation; and maize, yams, arrowroot, bananas and the bread-fruit are also to be mentioned. Vanilla is one of the common wild plants of the country. The clove tree has been acclimatized, and in the latter years of the empire it formed a good source of wealth; the cinnamon tree was also successfully introduced in 1772, but like that of the pepper-tree and the nutmeg its cultivation is neglected. A very small portion of the territory indeed is devoted to agriculture, although France has paid some attention to the development of this branch of activity. In 1880 a colonial garden was created near Cayenne; since 1894 an experimental garden has been laid out at Baduel. About 8200 acres are cultivated, of which 5400 acres are under cereals and rice, the remaining being under coffee (introduced in 1716), cacao, cane and other cultures. The low lands between Cayenne and Oyapock are capable of bearing colonial produce, and the savannahs might support large herds; cereals, root-crops and vegetables might easily be grown on the high grounds, and timber working in the interior should be profitable.

Gold-mining is the most important industry in the colony. Placers of great wealth have been discovered on the Awa, on the Dutch frontier and at Carsevenne in the territory which formed the subject of the Franco-Brazilian dispute. But wages are high and transport is costly, and the amount of gold declared at Cayenne did not average more than 130,550 oz. annually in 1900–1905. Silver and iron have been found in various districts; kaolin is extracted in the plains of Montsinéry; and phosphates have been discovered at several places. Besides gold-workings, the industrial establishments comprise saw-mills, distilleries, brick-works and sugar-works.

Trade and Communications.—The commerce in 1885 amounted to £336,000 for imports and to £144,000 for exports; in 1897 the values were respectively £373,350 and £286,400, but in 1903, while imports had increased in value only to £418,720, exports had risen to £493,213. The imports consist of wines, flour, clothes, &c.; the chief are gold, phosphates, timber, cocoa and rosewood essence. Cayenne is the only considerable port. One of the drawbacks to the development of the colony is the lack of labour. Native labour is most difficult to obtain, and attempts to utilize convict labour have not proved very successful. Efforts to supply the need by immigration have not done so completely. The land routes are not numerous. The most important are that from Cayenne to Mana by way of Kourou, Sinnamarie and Iracoubo, and that from Cayenne along the coast to Kaw and the mouth of the Approuague. Towards the interior there are only foot-paths, badly made. By water, Cayenne is in regular communication with the Safety Islands (35 m.), and the mouth of the Maroni (80 m.), with Fort de France in the island of Martinique, where travellers meet the mail packet for France, and with Boston (U.S.A.). There is a French cable between Cayenne and Brest.

Administration.—The colony is administered by a commissioner-general assisted by a privy council, including the secretary general and chief of the judicial service, the military, penitentiary and administrative departments. In 1879 an elective general council of sixteen members was constituted. There are a tribunal of first instance and a higher tribunal at Cayenne, besides four justices of peace, one of whom has extensive jurisdiction in other places. Of the £256,000 demanded for the colony in the colonial budget for 1906, £235,000 represented the estimated expenditure on the penal settlement, so that the cost of the colony was only about £21,000. The local budget for 1901 balanced at £99,000 and in 1905 at £116,450. Instruction is given in the college of Cayenne and in six primary schools. At the head of the clergy is an apostolic prefect. The armed force consists of two companies of marine infantry, half a battery of artillery, and a detachment of gendarmerie, and comprises about 380 men. The penal settlement was established by a decree of 1852. From that year until 1867, 18,000 exiles had been sent to Guiana, but for the next twenty years New Caledonia became the chief penal settlement in the French colonies. But in 1885–1887 French Guiana was appointed as a place of banishment for confirmed criminals and for convicts sentenced to more than eight years’ hard labour. A large proportion of these men have been found unfit for employment upon public works.

Authorities.—A detailed bibliography of French Guiana will be found in Ternaux-Compans, Notice historique de la Guyane française (Paris, 1843). Among more recent works, see E. Bassières, Notice sur la Guyane, issued on the occasion of the Paris Exhibition (1900); Publications de la société d’études pour la colonisation de la Guyane française (Paris, 1843–1844); H. A. Coudreau, La France équinoxiale (1887), Dialectes indiens de Guyane (1891), Dix ans de Guyane (1892), and Chez nos Indiens (1893), all at Paris; G. Brousseau, Les Richesses de la Guyane française (Paris, 1901); L. F. Viala, Les Trois Guyanes (Montpellier, 1893).


1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12. pp. 674-683.

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