French Guiana

A Brief History

   Spaniards explored the Guiana coast in 1500 and settled the area around Cayenne in 1503. French merchants from Rouen opened a trading centre in Sinnamary in 1624, followed by others from Rouen or Paris who founded Cayenne in 1643. The Treaty of Breda awarded the territory to France in 1667 who had occupied Cayenne in 1664. Inhabitants of the territory were made French citizens, with representation in the French Parliament after 1877. However, by 1852 the French began using the territory as a penal colony where deported convicts were imprisoned in dreadful conditions exemplified by the notorious Devils Island. More than 70,000 French convicts were deported to French Guiana between 1852 and 1939. French Guiana became a département of France in 1946; it was given regional status in 1974.

Language and people

    French Guiana’s population is principally Creole (mixed descent) with minorities of ethnic blacks, American Indians, metropolitan French, Lebanese, Chinese, East Indians, Laotians, Haitians, Brazilians, and Vietnamese, with all these different kinds of people  The principal languages spoken are French (official); Creole; Taki-Taki (Sranan), spoken by the ethnic blacks; American Indian dialects; and the various languages of the immigrant communities.

Geography of the land

    French Guiana lies between latitudes 2° and 6° N, and longitudes 51° and 53° W. It consists of two main geographical regions: a coastal strip where the majority of the people live, and dense, near-inaccessible rainforest which gradually rises to the modest peaks of the Tumuc-Humac mountains along the Brazilian frontier. French Guiana's highest peak is Bellevue de l'Inini in Maripasoula (851 m (2,792 ft)). Other mountains include Mont Machalou (782 m (2,566 ft)), Pic Coudreau (711 m (2,333 ft)) and Mont St Marcel (635 m (2,083 ft)), Mont Favard (200 m (660 ft)) and Montagne du Mahury (156 m (512 ft)).

Creative Expression

    The novel, Papillon, by the French convict Henri Charrière, is set in French Guiana. It was first published in France in 1969, describing his escape from a penal colony there. Becoming an instant bestseller, it was translated into English from the original French by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels for a 1970 edition, and by author Patrick O'Brian. Soon afterward the book was adapted for a Hollywood film of the same name. Charrière stated that all events in the book are truthful and accurate, allowing for minor lapses in memory. Since its publication there has been controversy over its accuracy


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