French Guiana — History and Culture
The local culture is heavily influenced by the French, though ethnic traditions are well preserved in Amerindian settlements. Minorities and indigenous groups contribute to the diversity of cultures in the territory, having maintained their dress and religious beliefs. The majority of French Guianese are Roman Catholics, but other religions are also practiced by the minorities, including shamanistic Amerindian variations, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other African-based religions.
The very first people known to inhabit French Guiana were the Arawak Indians, who were later displaced by a major wave of Caribs from the Amazon. The Caribs continued to roam around the Antilles and the Caribbean during the age of discovery and the days of Christopher Columbus’ journey. The French were the first Europeans to settle in the region early in the 1600's, which was the period when many European powers crept into the Americas to build colonies and look for "the lost city of gold" (El Dorado). The first attempts at settlement failed because of Indian attacks and resistance. France finally succeeded in establishing a home base in 1634, which was about the same time the capital of Cayenne was founded.
Economic stability formed in the territory as plantations were established on many parts of the land. However, many of these closed due to agricultural failures and the abolition of slavery in the late 1840's. The infamous Devil’s Island in Kourou was once an agricultural settlement before it was turned into a penal colony. Numerous political prisoners were sent here at the time of the French Revolution along with the most notorious and hardened criminals of the decade. Devil’s Island and the other prisoner camps ceased operation in 1945 after nearly a hundred years of brutal imprisonment.
Two decades later, France started developing Kourou as a space center for the European Space Agency and French Guiana started receiving scientists instead of prisoners. A rocket-launching center (one of the most active today) was constructed. French Guiana ceased being a French colony and was recognized as an official overseas department of France in 1946. A pro-independence party started to rise in the 1980's, but eventually lost steam as the majority of people were in favor of affiliation with France.
Singing and dancing are favorite pastimes for French Guianese. Local music is vibrant and Caribbean rhythms are played with a distinct French twist. While Maroon art can be found in neighboring countries like Suriname, Hmong textiles and craft products are exclusive to French Guiana along with other kinds of art.
Mardi Gras is one of the best cultural highlights in the territory, as the French Guianese celebrate one of the longest, most jovial and fascinating carnivals in the world. Dancing to the tune of the bands, overflowing food, and all kinds of festivities are observed during the Mardi Gras season which often lasts for an entire month or longer.