San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Political and Economic History
of French Guiana

The political unit known as French Guiana is not a country but instead an overseas department (subunit) of France with political representation in the National Assembly and Senate of the French Republic. The initial exploration of the Guianas was by Spain after Columbus sighted the coast in 1498 but since there apparently were no significant resources Spain did not pursue development although a Spanish settlement was attempted in 1503 the vicinity of what subsequently became the city of Cayenne. The Spanish settlement did not survive and when the Spanish did not pursue further development the Dutch and French appropriated territories.

A permanent settlement was not achieved until 1624 when the French established a trading post. French merchants then founded a settlement at Cayenne in 1643 and in 1667 under the Treaty of Breda French control was recognized. However the Dutch who had captured Cayenne in 1664 were not driven from the city until 1676.

Portugal had some claim to the territory and a combined British and Portuguese force captured Cayenne in 1808 and held it until 1817. However, international recognition of French possession of its Guianan territory was achieved in 1816.

As in the other Guiana the land in French Guiana consists of a narrow strip of lowlands along the coast and the uplands, constituting 90 percent of the area, in the interior. About 90 percent of the population live in the lowlands with half located in the capital city of Cayenne.

Some degree of prosperity was achieved in French Guiana with slave-based sugar plantations but this ended in 1848 with the abolition of slavery throughout the French Empire. In 1852 France began sending convicts to French Guiana but the prison labor was not an economical substitute for the slave labor.

Peter Redfield in his book Space in the Tropics says of the prison labor:

The product of this labor was dubious at best; the penal colony produced little of material value and required massive subventions from the French government to continue its operations. Original intent and promises notwithstanding, it did little to further the economic development of the region. Land was cleared, trees were cut, but no lasting agricultural presence emerged. What work was done was done poorly, slowly, incompletely.

When Albert Londres wrote his exposé of the penal system in the early 1920's the convicts had been working on a single road for fifty years and had only completed twenty four kilometers.

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