Guyana Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Guyana is not necessarily what you'd expect of a South American nation. In this lesson, we'll talk about the ethnic groups of Guyana and see what this shows about the national history and identity.


The world is an interesting place. You may think you understand an area, and then boom! Something comes along and complete overturns your assumptions. Take South America, for example. When people think of South America, they tend to picture the Spanish language, Roman Catholicism, and people of mixed European and Amerindian heritage. We don't often talk about topics like the Dutch, English, Protestant, or Chinese. But then we find Guyana, a South American nation on the Atlantic coast.

Not only is Guyana the only English-speaking country of South America, it was also never a Spanish or Portuguese colony, but instead Dutch and then British. Guyana overturns many of the rules that we assume apply to South America. Turns out, you really do have to watch your assumptions.


Indian Ethnicity in Guyana

So, if there was never any Spanish or Portuguese presence in Guyana, but there was lots of Dutch and British presence, the largest ethnic groups in Guyana must be Dutch or British, right? Nope. Guyana is a land of surprises, and the largest ethnic group of the nation is Indian, comprising about 44% of the total population. Now, I know what you're thinking: Indian isn't a politically correct term. Actually, in this case it is because I'm not talking about Amerindians.

Guyana's largest ethnic group traces their ancestry back to the Asian subcontinent of India. Surprise! So, why does Guyana have such a large Indian population, or Indo-Guyanese as they call themselves? Well, in 1833 British abolished slavery throughout its empire, including the colony of Guyana. This freed the many African slaves working there, many of whom left the colony. To fill the labor shortage, Britain brought in over 200,000 indentured servants from the colonies in India between the years of 1838 and 1917. That's a lot of people, and their great-great-great-grandchildren make up the bulk of the population to this day.

Ethnic Minorities in Guyana

Following the Indo-Guyanese, the next largest segment of Guyana's population are the descendants of those freed slaves who stayed in the colony after 1833. About 30% of the nation's population is black, or Afro-Guyanese. Both Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese populations are pretty proud of their ethnic heritage, which over time has led to some tension between these groups.

Since each group is so large, there is a history of each trying to elevate their ethnicity as the one that defines national identity for Guyana. So, conflict does exist, but generally not to the violent extremes that appear in some other nations.

The independence day festival of Mashramani displays some of the African heritage of Guyana through music and festive costumes
Guyana festival

After these two large groups, the next largest ethnic population in Guyana is the Amerindians, or people who identify with ancestrally indigenous heritage. While they make up about 9% of the total population, this category is actually composed of four main Amerindian nations.

The Waraus claim the oldest heritage in Guyana, with Waraus sites dating back 7,000 years. Ancestrally, they were a coastal fishing people and speak a unique language that is actually not related to anything else in South America. Along with the Waraus are the Wapishanas, a group originally from Brazil, as well as the jungle-dwelling Arawaks and the diverse set of people called the Caribs.

The Amerindian heritage of Guyana is largely celebrated through the national cuisisne
Amerindian dish

Finally, we get to the smallest minority groups in Guyana, composed mostly of people who identify as white, Portuguese, or Chinese. Altogether, these people make up 0.5% of the population, and are mostly remnants of indentured servitude programs that were not as successful at bringing in workers as the Indian programs. After Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966, most of the British population left, leaving a low population of Europeans within the nation.

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