French Guiana


In preparation for the peace conference that was expected to follow World War I, in the spring of 1917 the British Foreign Office established a special section responsible for preparing background information for use by British delegates to the conference. French Guiana is Number 137 in a series of more than 160 studies produced by the section, most of which were published after the conclusion of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The book covers physical and political geography, political history, social and political conditions, and economic conditions. Situated on the northern coast of South America between Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname) and Brazil, the colony of French Guiana had a diverse population that included aboriginal Indians of three main groups (Arawak, Carib, and Tupi), descendants of former slaves (including of the marrons, runaway slaves living in the interior of the country), and Europeans of French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, and German ancestry. The section on political history discusses the competition in the 17th and 18th centuries between the French, Dutch, and British for control of Cayenne Island, the historical core of the colony. After occupation by an Anglo-Portuguese force during the Napoleonic wars, the colony was restored to France, which  has ruled it ever since. In 1854 Cayenne became a French penal colony, the site of the notorious Devil’s Island where such famous prisoners as Captain Alfred Dreyfus were held. The total penal population in 1915 is given as 8,568. Gold was discovered in 1853, and gold mining was the colony’s chief industry. A table in the appendix lists the number of gold mining concessions by year in the period 1900‒15, their size, and the total annual production of gold in troy ounces and by value in pounds sterling. French Guiana is today an overseas department of France. It is home to the Guiana Space Center, operated by the French and European space agencies.

Last updated: February 4, 2016