French Guiana (Guyane française) is an overseas department and region of France, located on the north Atlantic coast of South America bordering Brazil to the east and south, and Suriname to the west. Its 32,253 square mile (83,534 square kilometer) area has a very low population density of only three inhabitants per square kilometer, with half of its 244,118 inhabitants in 2013 living in the metropolitan area of Cayenne, its capital. By land area, it is the second largest region of France and the largest outermost region within the European Union. Guiana is derived from an Amerindian language and means “land of many waters”. The addition of the adjective “French” in most languages other than French is rooted in colonial times when five such colonies existed (The Guianas), namely from west to east: Spanish Guiana (now Guayana Region in Venezuela), British Guiana (now Guyana), Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), French Guiana, and Portuguese Guiana (now Amapá in Brazil). French Guiana and the two larger countries to the north and west, Guyana and Suriname, are still often collectively referred to as the Guianas and constitute one large shield landmass.
The official language is French, while each ethnic community has its own language, of which Guianan Creole is the most widely spoken. Part of France since 1946, Guiana joined the European Union, and its official currency is the euro. The region is the most prosperous territory in South America with the highest GDP per capita. A large part of Guiana’s economy derives from the presence of the Guiana Space Centre, now the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator.
French Guiana was originally inhabited by indigenous people: Kalina, Arawak, Emerillon, Galibi, Palikur, Wayampi and Wayana. The French attempted to create a colony there in the eighteenth century in conjunction with its settlement of some other Caribbean islands. In this penal colony, the convicts were sometimes used as butterfly catchers. As the sentences of the convicts were often long, and the prospect of employment very weak, the convicts caught butterflies to sell in the international market, for scientific purposes as well as general collecting. The first French effort to colonize Guiana, in 1763, failed utterly when tropical diseases and climate killed all but 2,000 of the initial 12,000 settlers. During its existence, France transported approximately 56,000 prisoners to Devil’s Island. Fewer than 10% survived their sentence.
Its infamous 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, and which 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 the region was handed back to France, a Portuguese presence remained until 1817. A border dispute with Brazil arose in the late nineteenth century over a vast area of jungle leading to the short-lived pro-French independent state of Counani in the disputed territory. There was some fighting between 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, when French Guiana as a whole became an overseas department of France. During the 1970s, following the French withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1950s, France helped resettle Hmong refugees from Laos to French Guiana.
In 1964, French president Charles de Gaulle decided to construct a space-travel base in French Guiana. It was intended to replace the Sahara base in Algeria and stimulate economic growth in French Guiana. The department was considered particularly suitable for the purpose because it is near the equator and has extensive access to the ocean as a buffer zone. The Guiana Space Centre, located a short distance along the coast from Kourou, has grown considerably since the initial launches of the Véronique rockets. It is now part of the European space industry and has had commercial success with such launches as the Ariane 4 and Ariane 5.
The first stamps to be used in French Guiana were general issues for the French colonies, used from 1860. In 1886, French colonial issues were overprinted Déc 1886/Guy. Franç and given a new face value. Similar provisionals with different dates of issue appeared until 1888. In 1892, the overprint was changed to Guyane. The first stamps inscribed Guyane were also issued in 1892, using the ‘Navigation & Commerce’ design common to the French colonies. In subsequent years, several large sets were issued. Between 1941 and 1944, stamps were prepared by the Vichy regime in France. As these stamps were never actually put on sale in French Guiana only the mint specimens are listed in the catalogues. The last stamps were issued in 1947; since then, regular stamps of France have been used.
Scott #124 was released in 1929, part of an eventual 43-stamp set utilizing just three designs. The image of “Shooting Rapids, Maroni River” was used on a total of eighteen different stamps between 1929 and 1940, all perforated 14×13½. The 50 centime denomination was printed in dark blue and olive gray.