When Columbus reached the northern coast of South America at the beginning of the 16th century, the area that is now Guyana was inhabited by two distinct groups, the Arawak who lived along the coast and the Carib who lived in the interior. The Spanish were not attracted by the region, however, and it was the Dutch who first established a European presence around 1616. At the heart of it was the trading post at the mouth of the Essequibo River, which was controlled, along with other posts established later on, by the Dutch West India Company. The Dutch remained in undisputed control until the end of the 18th century when the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars brought a period of turmoil during which the territory changed hands several times between the Dutch, British and French. The British ultimately prevailed following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The territory was then declared the colony of British Guiana, a status which it retained until independence.
After the abolition of slavery in 1834, the plantation owners imported labourers from India. Indians now form the largest racial group, with most living in the agricultural areas, particularly around Demerara. Other immigrants were Americans, Europeans (Portuguese, British and Dutch) and Chinese. The urban/rural split between the Africans (descendants of the original slaves) and Asians is reflected in the main divisions between Guyana's two main political parties the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which draws predominantly Indian support, and the People's National Congress (PNC), formed in 1957 as a mainly ethnic African breakaway from the PPP. The left-wing PPP, under Cheddi Jagan, won prototype elections held in 1957, 1961 the year in which internal self-government was granted and again in 1964. On the latter occasion, the PPP failed to secure an overall majority and entered into an alliance with the PNC. It was this coalition government which guided Guyana to full independence in 1966.
After independence, the PNC under Forbes Burnham, and subsequently his erstwhile deputy, Desmond Hoyte, won every election from 1966 until 1992 albeit against regular allegations of fraud. The PNC was finally ousted by a coalition of the PPP still led by Jagan and the newly-formed CIVIC movement, largely composed of middle-class professionals disillusioned with the PNC. Cheddi Jagan died in March 1997. His widow, Janet Jagan, took over as president, but was forced to stand down two years later through ill health. Her replacement, Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, took over and remained in office following the PPP/CIVIC coalition's most recent victory at the March 2001 poll. Samuel Hinds, who took over as Prime Minister in 1997, still holds the post.
Abroad, Guyana has an unresolved border dispute with Venezuela, which has been referred to UN mediation: at present, this shows no potential either of imminent settlement or significant deterioration. Guyana's other important border dispute concerned the division of territorial waters with neighbouring Surinam. Potential oil and gas deposits in the area lay at the root of the row, which was resolved in July 2000.