Old penal colony
Enabling & Support

History of French Guiana

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ESA / Enabling & Support / Space Transportation / Europe's Spaceport

Some people believe the original inhabitants of French Guiana to be the Amerindians who settled in Guiana 10 000 years before Christ, others think the Arawak Indians were the first settlers. What is certain is that in the 9th century the Karibs moved here from the Orinoco Basin.

The first French settlers arrived at the beginning of the 17th century. However, in 1652 they abandoned the colony which was then taken over by the Dutch in 1654. French Guiana has also been a Portuguese and a British colony. In 1817 it again became French and in 1946 French Guiana was made a French Overseas Department.

Its rich history and the presence of so many ethnic groups: Amerindians, Brazilians, Europeans and Haitians, as well as Africans and Chinese, means that French Guiana is a mosaic of ethnic groups, races and nationalities, a place where many different cultures mix and meet.

Apart from its fame as the site of one of the world’s major spaceports, French Guiana has another claim to fame. It is here that the French decided to set up a penal colony in 1852. French convicts and deportees were imprisoned in Saint Laurant de Maroni and on the islands of Royal and St Joseph, while political prisoners were kept on Devil’s Island, made famous by the book Papillon, written by one its last inmates, Henri Charrière.

The doors of the infamous penal colony clanged shut for the last time in 1947. The islands are now one of French Guiana’s main tourist attractions and home to some of the region’s interesting and varied wildlife.

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