Population of Guyana

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Guyana Travel Information

Demographic Profile

Guyana's population was counted at 758,619 in the census of 1980 and estimated to be 764,000 in 1990. This slow growth was in sharp contrast to the decades following World War II, when the population rose from 375,000 in 1946 to 700,000 in 1970. The natural increase in population in 1990 was 1.9 percent; this growth was almost completely negated, however, by the large numbers of Guyanese who emigrated. The population was relatively young, with 37 percent under fifteen years of age in 1985.

Guyana's birthrate, which averaged thirty-two live births per 1,000 residents in the two decades prior to 1940, jumped to an exceptionally high forty live births per 1,000 in the two decades after 1940. The rate began to drop after 1960 and by 1990 had fallen to twenty-five live births per 1,000.

Efforts to control malaria and to improve sanitation in the 1940s resulted in a dramatic decrease in infant mortality and in the overall death rate. In the 1930s, the infant mortality rate was 149 for every 1,000 live births. By 1946 this rate had dropped to eighty-seven per 1,000, and in 1990 it stood at thirty deaths per 1,000 live births. Statistics on the general death rate mirror the decline in the infant mortality rate. The death rate (including infant mortality) in 1944 was twenty-two per 1,000 residents; in 1963, eight per 1,000; and in 1990, five per 1,000, one of the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere.

Indo-Guyanese women had a higher birthrate than Afro-Guyanese women in the years after World War II. However, by the early 1960s the fertility rate for Indo-Guyanese women had begun to drop. Statistics for the 1980s showed Indo-Guyanese women marrying at a later age and having fewer children than had been customary in the 1950s. By the 1990s, the difference in birthrates between IndoGuyanese and Afro-Guyanese women had disappeared.

A general decline in fertility rates among women in all ethnic groups was attributed to the increased availability and use of contraceptives. In 1975 the Guyana Fertility Survey found that 57 percent of women who had been married had used contraceptives at some time and that about 40 percent currently were using them. This high rate of contraceptive use was maintained in the absence of public or private family-planning campaigns.

Ethnic Composition

Ethnic diversity is one of the most significant characteristics of the Guyanese population. As of 1980, Guyanese of East Indian descent (Indo-Guyanese) constituted 51 percent of the total population. Guyanese wholly of African descent made up 31 percent of the population. Those listed as of mixed ancestry constituted 12 percent. Since the mixed-ancestry category comprised individuals of partial African ancestry who were usually included in the Afro-Guyanese community, the Afro-Guyanese population in effect constituted 42 percent of the total population. The remainder of the population was composed of Amerindians (4 percent) individuals of European or Asian descent (3 percent).

A higher growth rate for the Indo-Guyanese population in the post-World War II period resulted in a change in the ethnic composition of Guyanese society. The Indo-Guyanese population grew from 43 percent of the total in 1946 to a majority--51 percent--in 1980. During the same period, the Afro-Guyanese proportion of the population decreased from 49 percent to 42 percent. Although the small European (mostly Portuguese) and Asian (almost entirely Chinese) sectors continued to grow in absolute numbers after World War II, they represented a decreasing proportion of the population.

Population Distribution and Settlement Patterns

Statistics indicate that Guyana is one of the most lightly populated countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank estimated that there were four people per square kilometer in Guyana in 1988, far fewer than the average of twenty people per square kilometer for all of Latin America. However, more than 90 percent of Guyana's population lived along the coast, on a strip constituting only 5 percent of the country's total land area. A more useful figure is the population density per square kilometer of agricultural land, which was estimated at forty-six in 1988. In Latin America as a whole, the average population density on agricultural land was fifty-five per square kilometer.

More than 70 percent of Guyana's coastal population is rural, living on plantations or in villages strung along the coastal road. The villages range in size from several hundred to several thousand inhabitants. The layout of the villages is dictated by the drainage and irrigation systems of the plantations, both active and abandoned. The villages are most heavily concentrated along the estuary of the Demerara River and the eastern environs of Georgetown, near the mouth of the Berbice River close to New Amsterdam, and along the extreme east coast near the Courantyne River.

The pattern of population distribution in Guyana is a product of nineteenth-century economic development, which was based on the cultivation of sugarcane. Because the swampy coast was fertile and sugar production was geared to export, the large sugar estates confined their operations to a narrow coastal strip. Most of the villages had ethnically diverse populations, but usually one ethnic group predominated. The urban population was predominantly African, but it would be misleading to suggest that all Afro-Guyanese were urban. Indeed, the majority of the Afro-Guyanese population was rural. A far greater majority of Indo-Guyanese, however, lived outside the cities. The interior of the country was left mainly to the Amerindians. Even the later exploitation of timber, bauxite, and manganese in the interior failed to effect any sizeable migration.

Urban Population

Guyana remained a primarily rural country in 1991. The only significant urban area, the capital city of Georgetown, was home to more than 80 percent of the urban population. The smaller towns served primarily as regional distribution centers. Georgetown had an estimated population of 195,000 in 1985 and an annual growth rate of 6.6 percent. Linden, the country's second largest town with a population of 30,000, was a bauxite mining complex on the Demerara River. The port of New Amsterdam in eastern Guyana had a population of about 20,000.

The proportion of the population living in urban areas increased only slightly between 1960, when it was 29 percent, and 1980, when it was 30.5 percent. By 1985, 32.2 percent of the population was living in urban areas.


Guyanese statistics indicated an average of 6,080 declared emigrants a year between 1969 and 1976, increasing to an average of 14,400 between 1976 and 1981. Figures for 1976 showed 43 percent of the emigrants going to the United States, 31 percent to Canada, 10 percent to Britain, and 9 percent to the Caribbean. Deteriorating economic conditions caused emigration to increase sharply in the 1980s. Unofficial estimates put the number leaving the country in the late 1980s at 10,000 to 30,000 annually. Many of these emigrants were reported to be middle-class professionals, largely Indo-Guyanese, who opposed government policies that favored employment of Afro-Guyanese in the public sector. This emigration resulted in a significant loss of skilled personnel.


Guyana's ethnic mix is the direct product of the colonial economy. Except for the Amerindians and a few Europeans, the country's ethnic groups are the descendants of groups brought in to work the early plantations. An economy based on sugar production required a large labor force. Attempts to enslave the Amerindian population failed, and the planters soon turned to African slaves. By 1830 there were 100,000 such slaves in British Guiana.

After the abolition of slavery became totally effective in 1838, the planters found a new source of cheap labor in the form of indentured workers, foreigners recruited to work for a specific number of years, usually five, with the possibility of reenlisting for an additional period and eventually being repatriated. Even before slavery was abolished, the importation of indentured workers began. They were recruited from Portugal, India, China, and the West Indies. Although the terms of indenture were nearly as harsh as slavery, the planters succeeded in bringing about 286,000 persons into the country by the early twentieth century. More than 80 percent of these indentured workers were East Indians; their arrival would profoundly affect Guyana's ethnic composition and the nature of Guyanese society in general.


Descendants of the Africans, the Afro-Guyanese came to see themselves as the true people of British Guiana, with greater rights to land than the indentured workers who had arrived after them. The fact that planters made land available to East Indians in the late nineteenth century when they had denied land to the Africans several decades earlier reinforced Afro-Guyanese resentment toward other ethnic groups in the colony. The AfroGuyanese people's perception of themselves as the true Guyanese derived not only from their long history of residence, but also from a sense of superiority based on their literacy, Christianity, and British colonial values.

By the early twentieth century, the majority of the urban population of the country was Afro-Guyanese. Many Afro-Guyanese living in villages had migrated to the towns in search of work. Until the 1930s, Afro-Guyanese, especially those of mixed African and European descent, comprised the bulk of the nonwhite professional class. During the 1930s, as the Indo-Guyanese began to enter the middle class in large numbers, they began to compete with Afro-Guyanese for professional positions.


Between 1838 and 1917, almost 240,000 East Indian indentured workers were brought to British Guiana. The indentured workers had the right to be repatriated at the end of their contracts, but as of 1890, most of the East Indian indentured workers had chosen to settle in British Guiana.

Although the great majority of the East Indian immigrants workers were from northern India, there were variations among them in caste and religion. Some 30 percent of the East Indians were from agricultural castes and 31 percent were from low castes or were untouchables. Brahmans, the highest caste, constituted 14 percent of the East Indian immigrants. About 16 percent were Muslims. The only acknowledgment the colonial government and the plantation managers gave to caste differences was their distrust of the Brahmans as potential leaders. East Indian workers were housed together and placed in work gangs without consideration of caste. Unlike the African slaves, the East Indian indentured workers were permitted to retain may of their cultural traditions. But the process of assimilation has made the culture of the modern Indo-Guyanese more homogeneous than that of their caste-conscious immigrant ancestors.

Portuguese and Chinese

The Portuguese were among the first indentured workers brought to Guyana. Portuguese indentured immigration began in 1835 and ended in 1882, with most of the immigrants having arrived by the 1860s. Most of the Portuguese came from the North Atlantic island of Madeira.

Economically successful in Guyana, the Portuguese nonetheless experienced discrimination. Even though of European origin, they were treated as socially inferior by the British plantation owners and officials because of their indentured past and Roman Catholic religion. Despite discrimination, by the end of the nineteenth century the Portuguese were firmly established as an important part of Guyana's middle class and commercial sector.

Indentured Chinese workers first came to British Guiana from the south coast of China in 1853. Relatively few in number, the Chinese became the most acculturated of all the descendants of indentured workers. The Chinese language and most Chinese customs, including religion, disappeared. There were no clans or other extended kinship organizations, and soon most Chinese did not trace their ancestry beyond the first immigrant. Because almost all of the Chinese indentured immigrants were men, they tended to intermarry with both East Indians and Africans, and thus the Chinese of Guyana did not remain as physically distinct as other groups.

Like the Portuguese, the Chinese left the plantations as soon as their indenture contracts were fulfilled. Many entered the retail trade. Other Chinese engaged in farming and pioneered wetrice production, using techniques they brought from China. The Chinese tended to live in urban settings.


The Amerindians are the descendants of the indigenous people of Guyana; they are broadly grouped into coastal and interior tribes. The term tribes is a linguistic and cultural classification rather than a political one. The coastal Amerindians are the Carib, Arawak, and Warao, whose names come from the three language families of the Guyanese Amerindians. The population of coastal Carib in Guyana declined in the nineteenth century, but Arawak and Warao communities can be found near the Pomeroon and Courantyne rivers.

The interior Amerindians are classified into seven tribes: Akawaio, Arekuna, Barama River Carib, Macusi, Patamona, Waiwai, and Wapisiana. The Barama River Carib, Akawaio, Arekuna, and Patamona live in river valleys in western Guyana. Two Amerindian groups live in the Rupununi Savannah region: the Macusi in the northern half and the Wapisiana in the southern half. The Waiwai live in the far south of the country, near the headwaters of the Essequibo River. All of the interior Amerindians originally spoke Carib languages, with the exception of the Wapisiana, whose language is in the Arawak linguistic family.

By the 1990s, all of the Amerindian groups had undergone extensive acculturation. The coastal Amerindians were the most acculturated, sharing many cultural features with lower-class Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. There had been considerable intermarriage between coastal Amerindians and Afro-Guyanese. The Waiwai and the Barama River Carib were probably the least acculturated of the Amerindians. Nevertheless, most Amerindians spoke English (or near Brazil, Portuguese) as a first or second language. Almost all Amerindians had been affected by missionary efforts for many decades. Finally, most Amerindians had been integrated in one way or another into the national economic system, though usually at the lowest levels.

Development of Ethnic Identity

One of the dominant characteristics of Guyanese society and politics, ethnicity has received much attention from social scientists and historians. It is an oversimplification to describe Guyanese society as made of up of separate racial groups. Terms such as Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese refer to ethnic identities or categories. Significant physical and cultural variations exist within each ethnic category. Thus, two Guyanese with quite different ancestry, political and economic interests, and behavior may share the same ethnic identity.

All of the immigrant groups in British Guiana adapted to the colony's dominant British culture. In many ways, the descendants of the various immigrant groups have come to resemble each other more than their respective ancestors. Moreover, the immigrants' descendants have spread out from their original social niches. Indo-Guyanese are to be found not only on the sugar plantations or in rice-producing communities, but also in the towns, where some are laborers and others are professionals or businessmen. Afro-Guyanese are likewise found at all levels of society.

Among the experiences shared by all of the immigrant groups was labor on the plantations. After the abolition of slavery, the nature of the labor force changed, but not the labor itself. East Indians performed the same work as the slaves before them and lived in the same kind of housing; they were subject to the same management structure on the plantations. All of the immigrants groups were exposed to the same dominant British value system and had to accommodate their own values to it. Africans saw themselves as belonging to different cultural groups; Indian society was differentiated by religion and caste. To the British, however, race was the primary social determinant, and East Indians found themselves categorized as a single race distinct from the Africans.

Perhaps nowhere was assimilation more evident than in language use. English, the official language, has become the primary language of all Guyanese, with the exception of a few elderly IndoGuyanese and some Amerindians. The universal use of English is a strong unifying cultural force. English also brings the nation closer to other countries of the English-speaking Caribbean, although it has isolated Guyana from Spanish- and Portuguesespeaking Latin America.

As the descendants of the immigrant groups became more Anglicized, cultural differences grew less pronounced, and even physical differences became blurred through intermarriage. The cultural differences that remained took on a symbolic importance as indicators of ethnic identity. Many of these cultural differences had not been passed on by ancestors, but developed in the colony. Guyanese Hinduism, for example, is closer to Islam and Christianity than anything observed by the ancestors of the Indo-Guyanese, yet it serves to rally ethnic solidarity.

Ideologies of Race and Class

Racial stereotypes developed early in the colony. British planters characterized Africans as physically strong but lazy and irresponsible. East Indians were stereotyped as industrious but clannish and greedy. To some extent, these stereotypes were accepted by the immigrant groups themselves, each giving credence to positive stereotypes of itself and negative stereotypes of other groups. The stereotypes provided a quick explanation of behavior and justified competition among groups. Africans were described as improvident when they refused to work for low wages or make long-term contracts with the plantations. East Indians were considered selfish when they minimized their expenses to acquire capital.

In modern Guyana, the association of behavior with ethnicity is less rigid than in colonial days. Where once there was a sharp and uniform distinction between behavior considered "British" and behavior considered "coolie," now there is a continuum of behaviors, which receive different ethnic labels in different contexts. What is considered "British" in a rural village might be considered "coolie" in the capital.

Along with stereotyping, the colonial value system favoring European, specifically British, mores and behavior has persisted. Eurocentrism was promoted by the colonial education system, which idealized British customs. The superiority of British culture was accepted by the ex-slaves, who perceived their Christianity, for example, as an indication that they too were civilized. From the late nineteenth century, the emerging middle class of urban AfroGuyanese , Indo-Guyanese, and others developed a nationalist ideology based largely on British values. They claimed a place in society because they met standards that had been set by the British.


Afro-Guyanese Patterns

The Africans brought to Guyana as slaves came from cultures with highly developed family systems. Slavery had a devastating effect on African social life and especially on family structures. Spouses could be separated, children could be sold away from their mothers, and sexual exploitation by planters was common. Although legal marriage was forbidden to the slaves, Africans attempted to sustain relationships between men and women and their children.

The monogamous nuclear family is but one family structure accepted among Afro-Guyanese. Although the Christian church wedding has become a important popular ideal, it is more likely to be achieved by middle-class than by lower-class Afro-Guyanese. For many, a church wedding comes not at the beginning of a union, but as a sort of culmination of a relationship. Many common-law marriages are recognized socially but lack the status of a legal wedding. Afro-Guyanese, especially in the lower socioeconomic groups, may have a series of relationships before entering into a legal or common-law marriage. Some such relationships do not entail the establishment of a separate household. The children of such relationships live with one of the parents, usually the mother.

Because of the variety of conjugal relationships that AfroGuyanese adults may form over the course of their lives, the composition of households varies. They may be headed by fathers or mothers and may include children from several parents. Afro-Guyanese households tend to be clustered around females rather than males because the men frequently leave their homes in search of paid work. A three-generation household is likely to include daughters with children whose fathers are away or do not live in the household. Children born out of wedlock are not stigmatized.

Indo-Guyanese Patterns

The plantation system had an effect on the family life of East Indians as well as on that of Africans. In rural India, the basic social unit was the large extended family. Caste position was the first criterion in choosing an appropriate mate. In the plantation housing of British Guiana, it was not possible to maintain extended households even if the kin were available. Considerations of caste became less important in choosing a spouse largely because there were so few women among the East Indian indentured workers.

A wedding is not only an ideal to the Indo-Guyanese; it is the usual rite of passage to adulthood. An elaborate wedding is a necessary affirmation of the social prestige of a Hindu family, as well as a major ritual in the life cycle. Muslim weddings are less elaborate, but also confer prestige on the families involved. Parents usually play a role in selecting the first mate. Religion and sect are important in choosing a marriage partner; caste notions may be as well. However, first marriages are not necessarily expected to endure.

An increasing number of East Indian marriages are regarded as legal, especially since Hindu and Muslim clergy have legal authority to perform wedding ceremonies. No social stigma is attached to civil wedding ceremonies, common-law unions, or conjugal unions between couples who remain legally married to others but have ended their past relationships by mutual consent.

The Indo-Guyanese family tends to be organized through male lines. Extended-family members do not necessarily share the same household, but they often live near each other and may engage in economic activities together. A young couple typically lives with the husband's family for several years, eventually establishing their own cooking facilities and later their own home. In contrast to Afro-Guyanese practice, three-generation households with males at the head are not uncommon among the Indo-Guyanese. The role of the woman is typically more subordinate in Indo-Guyanese families than in Afro-Guyanese households.

SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Guyana