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A Documentary History of the Guyana-Venezuela Border Issue

By the late Dr Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired).
© Copyright 1998

 Revised January 2013


Part One - Dutch and British Colonisation (1500-1895) (Chapters 1-8)

Part Two - American Intervention (Chapters 9-12)

Part Three - The Arbitral Award (Chapters 13-14)

Part Four - Renewal Of The Venezuelan Claim (Chapters 15-18)

Part Five - From the Geneva Agreement to the Protocol of Port of Spain (Chapters 19-28)

Part Six - 1970-1981 (Chapters 29-32)

Part Seven - Build Up Of Tensions (Chapters 33-37)

Part Eight - Ending The Protocol (Chapters 38-42)

Part Nine - Involvement Of The United Nations (Chapters 43-56)

Appendix 1 - Venezuela's Conflicting Claims

Appendix 2 - Sketch map showing the boundaries as claimed by Great Britain and Venezuela

Appendix 3 - Boundary between Guyana and Venezuela showing the division of Ankoko Island

Appendix 4 - Map showing the twelve-mile belt of sea extending from the coast of Guyana

Appendix 5 - Map showing boundary lines of British Guiana, 1896

Appendix 6 - Early map of the northwestern parts of South America showing the Guiana region (by G. Blaeu, 1635)

Appendix 7 - Map of Guyana (circa 1940) showing the locations of Amerindian tribes

Appendix 8 - Seventeenth century map showing the Guiana region

Appendix 9 - Map showing Raleigh’s journey up the Orinoco River

Appendix 10 - Sixteenth century sketch showing the city of Manoa d’El Dorado

Appendix 11 - Map of the upper Cuyuni River region

Appendix 12 - Map of the Dutch colonies of Berbice and Essequibo-Demerara

Appendix 13 - Map showing the disputed territory

Appendix 14 - Map showing the Brazil-Guyana boundary award in 1904

Appendix 15 - Map of Guyana showing areas claimed by Venezuela and Suriname

Appendix 16 - Political map of Guyana


When in 1830 Venezuela finally won its independence from Spain, the new nation was anxious to have clear delimitation of its borders. In pursuance of this objective, Venezuela raised the issue of its eastern borders with Great Britain whose colony of British Guiana (as Guyana was then known) bounded Venezuela on the east.

In 1840, Great Britain attempted to delimit the western boundary of British Guiana when Robert Schomburgk, assigned by the British Government, conducted a comprehensive survey. However, Venezuela declined to accept the line recommended by Schomburgk - who included the basins of the Essequibo and the Cuyuni Rivers as British Guiana's territory. By claiming the entire Cuyuni basin, Schomburgk marked his line almost near to the Orinoco River, thus placing the boundary further west than is currently the case. On the other hand, Venezuela declared that all lands west of the Essequibo River as its territory.

This dispute continued until 1897 when President Cleveland of the United States of America, who championed the Venezuelan side of the issue particularly after 1895, forced Great Britain to submit the matter to arbitration. To this end, Venezuela and Great Britain in 1897 agreed to the Treaty of Washington which submitted the dispute to an Arbitral Tribunal on which both countries were to be equally represented.

The Tribunal duly met in 1899 in Paris, France, and handed down its Award, describing in detail the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. Venezuela willingly accepted this Award and fully honoured it until 1962. In that year Venezuela declared that the 1899 border agreement was null and void, and again resuscitated the claim that all the land west of the Essequibo River - an area of about 50,000 square miles representing nearly two-thirds of the territory of British Guiana - was the territory of the Spanish-speaking republic.

Records were again examined and although Venezuela had no case, the Governments of Venezuela, Great Britain and British Guiana in February 1966 signed an agreement in Geneva, Switzerland, by which a Mixed Commission was appointed to seek satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy arising over Venezuela's contention of the nullity of the 1899 Award.

While this Commission was in existence, Venezuela on a number of occasions occupied Guyanese border territory and was accused by the Government of Guyana (independent since May 1966) of interfering in Guyanese internal affairs.

The matter dragged on until June 1970 when, by the Protocol of Port of Spain, both Venezuela and Guyana agreed to shelve the dispute for a period of at least twelve years. This Protocol came to an end in 1982 when Venezuela refused to renew it. Subsequent discussions by the two governments, under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, eventually led to both governments agreeing to request the Secretary General of the United Nations to find a method for bringing about a settlement. The UN Secretary General in 1990 appointed a "Good Officer" to meet with representatives of Guyana and Venezuela to examine various proposals. Since then, these meetings have continued at regular intervals.

It must be pointed out that this part of Guyana claimed by Venezuela is extremely rich in forest, water and mineral resources. It is known that the Imataka Mountain area which extends into both Guyana and Venezuela has huge deposits of iron ore. In addition, manganese deposits are located in the North West District of Guyana, while gold and diamonds, among other minerals, are found in the Barima, Mazaruni, Cuyuni and Potaro districts. There is also the possibility that petroleum deposits lie under the continental shelf off the Essequibo coast.

This documentary history of the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy has been compiled from published records which have a direct bearing on the issue. The material for the Chapters 2 to 8 has been taken from the public document entitled The Case on Behalf of the Government of Her Britannic Majesty, which was presented as part of the British Case before the Arbitral Tribunal in 1899. Large parts have been reproduced in full, though some minor modifications in the vocabulary used in the Case have been made. The Venezuelan contentions before 1899 are included in some detail in the course of these seven chapters.

Chapter 9, dealing with the intervention of the United States of America has been written after much consultation with the contemporary histories of the USA, Venezuela and Great Britain; while Chapters 10, 11 and 12 utilise materials from the Report of the United States Commission on Boundary Between Venezuela and British Guiana. Chapter 13, which describes the granting of the Arbitral Award, employs material taken from the records of the British and Venezuelan Cases before the Arbitral Tribunal.

The succeeding chapters have been compiled from documents and other materials published by the Governments of Guyana and Venezuela, from statements and other materials published by the People's Progressive Party (PPP) of Guyana and, to no small extent, from newspaper reports during the relevant periods.

This account is not intended to be an academic exercise and to enable easy reading, the convention of appending references is not followed; instead all quoted references are mentioned in the text itself.

In the course of this documentary which covers five centuries of Guyanese history, there is some repetition of certain facts, but it must be made clear that this has been found to be unavoidable. It is, nevertheless, hoped that this documentary history will enable the reader to follow the development of the dispute, and to observe the diplomatic and other measures applied, from the inception of the border dispute to its present situation, as clearly as possible.

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