Not to be confused with the former West African colony of French Guinea.
French Guiana (pronounced /ɡiːˈɑːnə/ or /ɡiːˈænə/, French: Guyane française; French pronunciation: [ɡɥijan fʁɑ̃sɛz]), officially called Guiana (French: Guyane), is an overseas department and region of France, located on the north Atlantic coast of South America in the Guyanas. It borders Brazil to the east and south, and Suriname to the west. Its 83,534 km2 (32,253 sq mi) area has a very low population density of only 3 inhabitants per km2, with half of its 250,109 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.
The area was originally inhabited by Native Americans. It was colonised by Frenchmen and other Europeans, who introduced African slaves and later Asian labourers and among refugees from Laos.
The official language is French, while each ethnic community has its own language, of which French Guianese 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.
Jews arrived in French Guiana by the way of the Dutch West India Company. Later on September 12, 1659, came Portuguese Jews from Brazil. The company appointed David Nassy, a Brazilian refugee, patron of an exclusive Jewish settlement on the western side of the island of Cayenne, an area called Remire or Irmire. From 1658 to 1659, Paulo Jacomo Pinto began negotiating with the Dutch authorities in Amsterdam to allow a group of Jews from Livorno, Italy to settle in the Americas. On July 20, 1600, more than 150 Sephardic Jews left Livorno (Leghorn) and settled in Cayenne. The French agreed to those terms, an exceptional policy that was not common among the French colonies. Nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of the population left for the Dutch colony of Suriname.
Over the decades, the Leghorn Jews of Cayenne immigrated to Suriname. In 1667, the remaining Jewish community was captured by the occupying British forces and moved the population to either Suriname or Barbados to work in sugarcane production. Since the late 17th century, few Jews have lived in French Guiana. In 1992, 20 Jewish families from Suriname and North Africa attempted to re-establish the community in Cayenne. A Chabad organization exists in the country and maintains Jewish life within the community. Today, 800 Jews live in French Guiana, predominately in Cayenne.
Cayenne, the capital, has played a pivotal role in Jewish history because it is there, on “Devil’s Island,” where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned after being falsely convicted of being a German spy. It was after he witnessed the infamous Dreyfus trial that Theodor Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” which, because it concluded that Jews needed a national homeland, became the philosophical underpinning of modern Zionism.
Devil’s Island is actually one of a group of three small islands off the coast of Cayenne and can be clearly seen across a narrow, shark-infested channel from Royale Island, where the administrative headquarters of the prison community were located. Today, the group is officially known as the “Isles de Salud” (islands of good health). Even though Royale Island has been sanitized and has become a popular tourist resort, one can still see the cells that housed the more fortunate prisoners and cannot help but sympathize with Dreyfus, who spent four years in solitary confinement on the neighboring island.
Cayenne City, the capital, is a pleasant and unremarkable French colonial city with the mandatory Avenue du General de Gaulle as its main thoroughfare and a number of squares filled with public buildings, monuments and gardens. Fort Ceperou and Fort Diamant are both 17th-century military outposts. Other attractions include a museum and the picturesque Remire-Montjoly Beach.
Georgetown, Paramaribo and Cayenne are all relatively easy to reach by air from Miami, as well as from London, Amsterdam and Paris. While accommodations are not up to North American or European luxury standards, each city has “name brand” hotels as well as more modest lodgings. For travelers wishing to explore the interiors of the Guianas, it is important to have all necessary inoculations and is advisable to travel with groups organized by tour operators that specialize in wilderness and adventure travel.