Fully integrated in the French central state in the 21st century, Guiana is a part of the European Union, and its official currency is the euro. The region has the highest nominal GDP per capita in South America. A large part of Guiana’s economy derives from jobs and businesses associated with the presence of the Guiana Space Centre, now the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator. As elsewhere in France, the official language is standard French, but each ethnic community has its own language, of which French Guianese Creole, a French-based creole language, is the most widely spoken.
French Guiana was originally inhabited by indigenous people: Kalina, Arawak, Emerillon, Palikur, Wayampi and Wayana. The French attempted to create a colony there in the 18th century in conjunction with its settlement of some Caribbean islands, such as Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue.
The first French effort to colonize Guiana, in 1763, failed utterly, as settlers were subject to high mortality given the numerous tropical diseases and harsh climate: all but 2,000 of the initial 12,000 settlers died. During operations as a penal colony beginning in the mid-19th century, France transported approximately 56,000 prisoners to Devil’s Island. Fewer than 10% survived their sentence.
Île du Diable (Devil’s Island) was the site of a small prison facility, part of a larger penal system by the same name, which consisted of prisons on three islands and three larger prisons on the mainland. This was operated from 1852 to 1953.
In addition, in the late nineteenth century, France began requiring forced residencies by prisoners who survived their hard labor. A Portuguese-British naval squadron took French Guiana for the Portuguese Empire in 1809. It was returned to France with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Though Portugal returned the region to France, it kept a military presence until 1817.
After French Guiana had been established as a penal colony, officials sometimes used convicts to catch butterflies. The sentences of the convicts were often long, and the prospect of employment very weak, so the convicts caught butterflies to sell in the international market, both for scientific purposes as well as general collecting.
A border dispute with Brazil arose in the late 19th century over a vast area of jungle, resulting in the short-lived, pro-French, independent state of Counani in the disputed territory. There was some fighting among settlers. The dispute was resolved largely in favor of Brazil by the arbitration of the Swiss government.
The territory of Inini consisted of most of the interior of French Guiana when it was created in 1930. It was abolished in 1946, the year that French Guiana as a whole was formally established as an overseas department of France. During the 1970s, following the French withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1950s and warfare conducted in the region by the United States, France helped resettle thousands of Hmong refugees from Laos to French Guiana.