European settlement began about 1596 when the Dutch entered the region. Soon slaves were imported from Africa. British settlers came in 1604, and the Dutch and British frequently fought for control. The area was ceded to Britain in 1815. In 1831 it became the colony of British Guiana. Many East Indians were brought here to work on the sugar plantations after slavery was abolished in the 1830's. The boundaries with Suriname (Dutch Guiana) and Venezuela were long disputed, and in the 1960's Venezuela and the Netherlands renewed claims to much of the area.

British Guiana was granted internal self-government in 1961. Political and racial tensions between blacks and East Indians led to severe riots, 1962–64. In 1966 the country became independent under prime minister Forbes Burnham and renamed itself Guyana. It remained within the Commonwealth of Nations as a constitutional monarchy. In 1970 Guyana became a republic within the Commonwealth. It soon became involved in border disputes with Venezuela and Suriname. Burnham became president in 1980 and served until his death in 1985.

Legislative elections in 1992 resulted in the defeat of the People's National Congress, the party that had dominated Guyanese governments since independence. In 1997 Janet Jagan became the country's first woman prime minister, but resigned in 1999 for medical reasons. In 1999, Bharrat Jagedo became president. He remained in power after elections in 2001 and 2006.