French Guianans

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French Guianans

LOCATION: French Guiana (French American Dependency)
LANGUAGE: French; Amerindian languages; Taki-Taki
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; traditional Amerindian beliefs


During the 17th century, explorers began to roam all over South America, enduring terrific hardships, feverishly searching for the famed El Dorado. El Dorado means "the golden one" and many Europeans thought they would find a city of gold. The French explorer Daniel de la Ravardiere was no exception, and traveling through previously unexplored territory in 1604 along the Cayenne River, he finally arrived at what is now Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. Many hardships awaited the explorers and subsequent settlers. Eventually coffee, indigo, and sugarcane were cultivated. The Jesuits, famous in many parts of South America for their work with Amerindians, established several village colonies of Amerindians who had been living for centuries in the thickly forested interior of this tropical land.

In 1763 about 14,000 people disembarked at Kourou on the coast, lured by glittering promises that ended in disaster: some 11,000 people died of tropical fevers and 2,000 returned to France, shaken and disillusioned. After this catastrophe, Malouet, the French administrator, tried to reestablish the colony and by the end of the 18th century there were 1,300 Whites, 400 free Blacks and 10,500 Black slaves. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848, after many struggles and various attempts both to end it and to reintroduce it. While this was socially a progressive move, economically the plantation economy was ruined.

In 1852 French Guiana became a penal colony and the French sent many convicts there, particularly to the notorious Devil's Island. In 1855 gold was discovered, and in the ensuing gold rush, agriculture was neglected once again. Hindus who had arrived to work the land left for neighboring Brazil and Dutch Guiana.

As a penal colony French Guiana proved unproductive, and this type of status was formally abolished in 1940. Convicts who gained their freedom were not allowed to return to their country of origin but had to remain in French Guiana. With no serious attempt made to train them or to find them productive work, they became paupers, eking out a miserable existence as penniless beggars, occasionally managing to do casual work, until their deaths.

Nicol Smith, who visited the colony in the early 1940s, reported that convict labor still existed, and Smith even visited one of the large prison camps in the interior where convicts were engaged in timber logging. The governor of the time, Robert Chot, told Smith that not only were the convicts well-fed, but they were even allowed to fish and to hunt wild game such as deer, wild boar, and agouti on weekends. If this was the case, then it is quite possible that freed convicts fared worse in terms of a basic diet than when they were convicts. For many, however, freedom was preferable under any circumstances.

French Guiana ended its colonial status and became a department of France in 1964. It is governed by a prefect with the help of an elected council and is represented in the French parliament by a deputy and a senator. French Guianans are, in effect, French citizens.

French Guiana, as part of France, belongs to the European Union. The monetary unit is the euro and the current president of French Guianans is the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Movements for increasing French Guiana's autonomy grew during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1996, 1997, and 2000, all protest demonstrations ended in violence. These outbreaks of street violence, particularly those occurring in the 1990s, were motivated by high levels of youth unemployment and by historical tensions between the region and Paris. Support for greater autonomy and for independence has been tempered by the reliance on French subsidies. Thanks to the economic help received from France, French Guiana enjoys one of the higher standards of living on the South American zone.

The main exports are timber, fish, and gold. In the agriculture realm, rice, corn, sugar, cocoa, vegetables, bananas, and manioc as well as the breeding of cattle and pigs, are the main staples produced in the country.


French Guiana, with an area of 91,000 sq km (35,135 sq mi), is about the size of Ireland. It has an Atlantic coastline stretching 320 km (200 mi) along the north and northeast, a border with Brazil to the south, and a border with Suriname to the west. The Maroni River forms its western border with Suriname, and the Tumuc-Humuc mountains run along the southern border with Brazil. The southeastern part of the border with Brazil is formed by the Oyapock River.

French Guiana is very under-populated for its size. Only about 187,000 people live there permanently, with about 40,000 living in the capital, Cayenne. Despite being sparsely populated, there is a colorful mixture of peoples in French Guiana. About 70% of the population, descended from a mix of French, Black and Asian Indian settlers, are known as Creoles. There are also settlements of people of Indochinese (Vietnamese) origin, since Vietnam was once a French colony. In the interior, there are several Amerindian tribes, including the Oyampi and the Palikour, who farm the tropical forests using traditional slash-and-burn methods and who still live according to their own traditions. The Gualibi Caribs live along the coast and have mingled with the Creoles. There are also black tribes people descended from runaway slaves, known as the Djuka, the Paramaka, and the Boni. They are descended from runaway slaves of African origin who were originally taken to the British West Indies and who escaped to the jungles of French Guiana, where access was difficult and the motivation of the locals to track them down was weak. In this way, after many hardships, they achieved their freedom and partially reverted to a lifestyle that differed from the hard life of a West Indian plantation slave, but was similar to the life their families once had in the African rainforests.


The official language of French Guiana is French, but other languages are spoken, including a variety of Amerindian languages, while the Black tribespeople speak Taki-Taki, which is partly derived from English.

French Guiana is heavily influenced by the culture of mainland France in many ways, and girls and boys are usually given French names. Popular French boys' names such as Jean, Paul, Pierre, or Daniel are often combined, in the French manner, and become Jean Paul or Jean Pierre. Many girls have names that end in "-ette," a French diminutive that means "little": Yvette, Suzette, Jeanette. Often girls will have combined names that include "Marie" (Mary): Marie Claire, Marie José, Marie Christine, and Marie Therese. In countries with significant Catholic populations, the custom of naming a girl Maria or Marie, often used in combination with another name, is widespread and is found throughout South America. This custom is less widespread in Protestant countries because the emphasis on the Virgin Mary is not as strong as among Catholic populations.


Heroes vary according to the particular cultural mix, but for the historically conscious a very important figure was the ab-bess Mother Anne Marie Javouhey, the mother superior of St. Joseph of Cluny, who between 1827 and 1846 established a thriving colony for slaves who had been freed.


Most French Guianans are Roman Catholic, although in the tropical forests in the interior region, some Amerindian tribes follow their own spiritual and religious practices, which probably derive from Central Asia, including shamanic practices. There are also Black tribes descended from runaway slaves in the interior who have their own religious practices, and settlers from Vietnam, formerly the French colony called Indochina, who have their own religious customs. Although Buddhism was prevalent when Indochina was a colony of France, many Indochinese became Christian, and there were also tribal peoples living in more remote areas who were not Buddhist. There are also some Chinese settlers, and during the 19th century there were large numbers of Hindus who originally came from India to work in agriculture in the Guianas, particularly British Guiana and subsequently French Guiana. A number of Arabs, some of whom are Muslim, also made their way to French Guiana at a time when various countries in the Middle East were colonies of France.

Although French Guiana is mainly Catholic, it shares with some areas of the Caribbean an astonishingly varied cultural and religious background.


Major French holidays, such as Bastille Day, are celebrated, as are Labor Day and major Catholic holidays, such as the Feast of the Assumption, Easter, and Christmas. Carnival is celebrated for the three days preceding Lent (in February) including Ash Wednesday.


Children are often baptized and also enjoy their First Communion, usually at the age of seven, when according to Catholic custom they receive a special name and are received into the Church. This is usually an important occasion for traditional Catholic families, and for the child it is often a memorable occasion.

Young people in French Guiana, particularly in the capital, Cayenne, are influenced by French culture as well as local customs that have developed out of their own colonial history. They enjoy dating and parties, just as young people do everywhere. Many couples marry in church.

When a person dies, a novena, or cycle of prayers, is said according to Catholic custom, and close relatives and friends are expected to visit.


A friendly and informal greeting in the French style is "Salut!" which means "Hello," whereas formal greetings would include the phrase "Comment allez vous?"

People in French Guiana generally enjoy social visits and festive occasions. Family occasions are important. Young people enjoy going out together, and a favorite occasion is an outing to a beach. There are good facilities for swimming just outside Cayenne, but these outings are more than sporting occasions; they are pleasant social occasions and a chance for young people or families to spend time together in a relaxed, informal manner.


The standard of living in French Guiana is relatively high, although the lifestyle of the Amerindians, who represent about 4% of the population, differs considerably from that of the majority Creole population.

The health of French Guianans has improved considerably over the years. In particular, the work of the Pasteur Institute has made significant gains in helping to control and reduce serious diseases, such as yellow fever, malaria, and leprosy.

Heavily subsidized by the French government, the economy allows for more consumption than would otherwise be the case if French Guiana were to rely for significant income on its major exports alone. The European Launcher Development Organization's Equatorial Space Range, a rocket-launching base at Kourou usually used by the European Space Agency to launch satellites and for research programs such as weather studies, is pivotal for the economy, accounting for about one-quarter of French Guiana's GDP.

Housing in the interior, particularly in Amerindian settlements, often consists of simple huts with thatched roofs. In Cayenne, many streets have houses built in individual and varied styles, painted in bright colors such as light blue or yellow. The brilliant tropical flowers of many small gardens add to the impression of gaiety so often found in warm climates.

In the interior, rivers are often navigable by canoe or motorboats for long stretches. In towns, people use buses and cars for transport.


Family life in French Guiana varies according to the customs of diverse settlers, but in general the family unit is close and family ties are considered very important. The Catholic faith prevalent among a majority of French Guianans also reinforces the importance of close-knit families. Families tended to be large in the past, but now many people have fewer children than in traditional families in many countries in Latin America, following a more modern trend.


Western-style shirts and trousers for men, and blouses and skirts or cotton dresses for women, are often worn. One distinctive feature in Cayenne, the capital, is that many women are quite fashion-conscious and tend to follow French styles and tastes in dress, although there are local adaptations because French Guiana has a very warm climate.


There are various types of food eaten in Cayenne because the mix of settlers, including some Chinese and, formerly, settlers from India, have all influenced the local cuisine. However, tasty fish and seafood dishes, including shrimp, are often eaten, sometimes seasoned with different spices and served with rice. The hot pepper known as cayenne, known and used in many parts of the world, takes its name from French Guiana's capital.

It is claimed that even when French Guiana was a notorious convict colony, the convicts ate comparatively well: their diet included meat and fish stews, pork, and shrimp.


Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. Nearly all eligible children attend school. University education is available in France or the French Antilles. French Guiana has an 80% literacy rate. Primary schooling has been available to most people for some time, and secondary schools exist in Cayenne and some other smaller towns. Schooling is modeled on the educational system in France.


Music and dance vary according to the diverse traditions of French Guiana. Black tribes people who still live in the interior have percussion-based music and drumming, whereas some Amerindians produce quite different music where wood-wind instruments have a central place. The capital, Cayenne, is Westernized to the extent that there are strong influences of more-modern music, including French ballads and pop and rock music.


French Guiana had a long tradition of cheap, convict-based labor, which did not bring prosperity to its inhabitants. The modern economy relies on the export of tropical hardwoods logged in Inini, the inland forested region of the country, and valuable seafoods, such as shrimp. At one time gold was a major export in the mining sector, but people are now employed extracting bauxite, and diamond mining has also provided work. The fishing industry provides some employment.

A unique form of work in French Guiana is that provided by the modern space agencies located on the coast at Kourou. The European and French space agencies are both located there, and it was from Kourou that the Ariane rocket was fired in 1996. Unfortunately, this 10-year project failed when the Ariane rocket exploded in space, but millions of people around the world probably got their first look at Kourou and French Guiana's beautiful coast and starry skies on television during the rocket's launch. Work continues apace and brings in several thousand extra personnel to work in one of the most advanced industries in the world.


Water-based sports are popular with many in French Guiana and include boating, swimming, and fishing. Others enjoy soccer.


French Guianans, particularly in Cayenne, enjoy going to the movies, and watching television is also a popular pastime. Young people enjoy going to discos, and along Cayenne's main commercial areas there are now good shops with French imports, as well as cinemas, cafés, dance clubs, and nightclubs.

A favorite pastime is going to the beaches outside Cayenne for picnics and swimming, and families or groups of young people often spend the day there.


Crafts and folk art in French Guiana derive from Black, Amerindian, and even Vietnamese artisans and include textiles, pottery, and woodcarvings. Some of the early Vietnamese (formerly called Indochinese) groups arrived in French Guiana as convicts and were later freed. Some of these, called the Hmong, live in separate villages; their carvings in wood and their weaving are particularly appreciated.


French Guiana is a land of astonishing contrasts, with tribes who live only with the basics needed for survival in the jungles of Inini on the one hand, and the most modern space technologies based in Kourou on the other, with a modern, French-oriented population of Creoles in Cayenne, and many smaller settlements along the coast as well as villages with diverse groups such as the Hmong Vietnamese.

Some people think that despite the legal status of French Guiana as simply another department of France, this is really a colony under a different name. Despite exports of minerals, seafood, and timber, French Guiana is not independent economically, but remains heavily dependent on French government subsidies for its relative prosperity. Were this situation to change, life could become very difficult for French Guianans. It is too soon to tell how the establishment of modern space agencies at Kourou will affect the local population socially and economically in the long run.


Even though there is no systematic discrimination against women, traditional gender roles dominate social life. Women are generally responsible for tending to the children and other household tasks, while the men are in charge of providing financial support. This holds especially true in the rural areas, although there is some variation among the different ethnic groups. Traditional gender roles have prevented women from gaining access to high official positions in government.

As in other Caribbean countries, the fundamental social problems regarding women are teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and AIDS. During the 1990s, approximately 8% of mothers were younger than 18 years of age and in 1992 one third of these teenage mothers suffered from diseases while pregnant. The AIDS epidemic is also affecting teenage women, who represent 11.3% of those who are HIV positive.


Cherubini, Bernard. Interculturalité et créolisation en Guyane françise. Saint-Denis: Université de la Réunion, 2002.

Montabo, Bernard. Le grand livre de l'histoire de la Guyane. France: Orphie, 2004.

Redfield, Peter. Space in the tropics from convicts to rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Smith, Nicol. "Color Glows in the Guianas, French and Dutch." National Geographic (April 1943).

—Revised by C. Vergara