Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Land of Many Waters

An introduction to the little known worlds of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana...

'Guiana' has long been the name given by the native people to the mysterious, mostly unexplored land of dark, dense rainforest that lies behind a 900 mile stretch of muddy coastline, just above of the Equator on the north east flank of South America. However Guiana is not only a name, but also a description, a reflection upon the most influential feature the country has on the lives of its people- it means the 'Land of Many Waters'.

Today Guiana consists of three territories, marked by vague, disputed boundaries. The largest of these is Guyana, which lies to the west, bordering Venezuela, and has roughly the same surface area as Britain. Closest to the mouth of the mighty Amazon river is French Guiana and sandwiched in between is Suriname.

The sheer abundance of water in Guiana previously led people to believe that the country was nothing more than a closely packed collection of islands. Solely in Guyana, over 1500 rivers gush through the forest, racing to the Atlantic Ocean. They do so with such turbulence that no ship bigger than a canoe makes it further than 90 miles inland along even the largest rivers, without being torn apart in the torrents. These rivers define boundaries, isolate tribes, block passage through the country and act as a lifeline, a source of food for those who are brave enough are to inhabit the interior. The rivers are home to hundreds of species of fish, perhaps including the largest freshwater fish in the world, as well as less friendly creatures such as stingrays and electric eels.

Over three times as much rain falls each year on Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, as does on the Scottish town of Perth. Water is everywhere in Guyana, it fills the air, resides in the swamps and feeds the rainforest, creating the prime conditions for a miraculous ecosystem in which many undiscovered species still roam. Water rots buildings and spreads disease, it constantly threatens the inhabitants of Georgetown, who live precariously below sea level, with only a man-made wall holding back the Ocean, which is said to be the colour of plaster due to Peruvian sediments, washed across the continent.

However, Guiana is by no means the only name ever used to describe this watery world. Early French and English maps label the region as 'Equinoctiale' or 'Caribana, Land of Twenty-one Tribes'. For a while to the Dutch it was the original New Zealand, before they came up with an enchanting name that captured the sense of danger and remoteness, the possibility of success, the curiosity associated with an unknown world. They called it de Wilde Kust, 'The Wild Coast'. There are no natural harbours along the entire coastline of Guiana, although it is on this 10 mile wide muddy stretch of land by the sea that 90% of the population live.

The naming of the place which lies between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers is ultimately a trivial thing, for the simple reason that it has never truly been owned by humans. Throughout its turbulent history of bloody wars between French, British and Dutch settlers, current day Guyana changed hands 9 times, Suriname 6 times and French Guyana 7 times. These squabbles over sugar plantations and coastal towns never changed the fact the vast majority of Guiana is untamed, unexplored jungle, they never made any part of the country an easy place for humans to thrive or gave the population any real sense of national identity.

Even today the population of Guyana is a mere 750,000, and not a single road leads to the outside world. Without an aeroplane, it takes four weeks to travel to the interior of the country. Most of its inhabitants are insects, trees, snakes or jaguars. It is a comforting, solid reminder that the world has in no way been conquered by human development, that nature still rules in some little forgotten corners.


  1. Bibliography:

    'Wild Coast' by John Gimlette,2nd Edition, Profile Books Ltd, 2012 (Accessed 21/02/2013) (Accessed 21/02/2013)

    1. Dear Harry, I'm Tara Singh Chouhan from India connected with your family. My best wishes and good luck to your visit to Guyana.

    2. Dear Tara, it is great to hear from you, thank you for your support! I would love to find out more about your connection with my family, and life in India. Do you have an email address I could write to? My email is
      Best Wishes, Harry.