26 May 1966

British Guiana gets its independence to become Guyana.

Guyana became an independent nation on Thursday, 26 May 1966, but the independence celebrations began four days before and continued until 29 May. Public buildings and business places were brightly decorated with streamers and buntings bearing the colours of the Guyana flag. On the evening of 25 May, a grand cultural performance took place at the Queen Elizabeth Park. Dignitaries in the audience of thousands included the Duke and Duchess of Kent, representing Queen Elizabeth, and representatives of foreign governments. Then at midnight, the Union Jack, the symbol of British colonial rule for 163 years, was lowered and the new flag of Guyana, the Golden Arrowhead, was raised to the top of the mast. Just before the flag raising ceremony before a huge crowd, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and Opposition Leader Cheddi Jagan publicly embraced each other, indicating their satisfaction that Guyana had finally won its political independence.

With the raising of the new flag, fireworks burst across the sky in various parts of the country. Then around mid-morning, the State opening of the Parliament of Guyana took place. It was preceded by a military parade accompanied by much pomp and pageantry. Significantly, for this occasion, a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh decorating the wall of the Parliament chamber was removed and replaced with a portrait of Prime Minister Burnham.

The meeting of Parliament was chaired by the Speaker, Aubrey Alleyne. The Duke of Kent read a throne speech on behalf of the Queen, after which on behalf of the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, he handed over to Prime Minister Burnham the constitutional instruments designating Guyana an independent nation. Immediately after, there were speeches by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and Leader of the Opposition Cheddi Jagan.

Burnham, in an appeal to Guyanese nationalism, declared: “The days ahead are going to be difficult. Tomorrow, no doubt, we as Guyanese will indulge in the usual political conflicts and differences in ideology. But today, to my mind, is above such petty matters. For today Guyana is free.”

In welcoming independence, Dr. Jagan seized the opportunity to point out that the Burnham Government was abusing its powers through the extension of the state of emergency beyond the date of independence. This, he said, was generating fear throughout the country and was detrimental to the struggle for peace and security.

He also highlighted the view that his party was “the victim of repeated constitutional manipulations designed to keep it out of office.” He added, “We are confident that despite these manipulations the People’s Progressive Party can be triumphant at future elections if these are fairly held.”

Later that afternoon, Sir Richard Luyt was sworn in by the Duke of Kent as Guyana’s first Governor General at a ceremony in the ballroom of Guyana House, the official residence of the Governor General.

During the period of the independence celebrations, many public events were also held. These included carnival-style parties, exhibitions, float parades and public rallies addressed by Burnham and his Ministers.

On achieving independence, Guyana became the 23rd member of the British Commonwealth. The new state received instant recognition internationally. However, in its note of recognition signed by Foreign Minister Iribarren Borges, the Venezuelan Government stated that it “recognises as territory of the new State the one which is located on the east of the right bank of the Essequibo River”. The Venezuelan note claimed that the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela ran “through the middle line of the Essequibo River, beginning from its source and on to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean”.

In a response to the Venezuelan Government sent on 18 August 1966, Burnham rejected this assertion and expressly stated that the “Guyana constitution stipulates that the territory of Guyana embraces all that area, which immediately before the 26th May, 1966, comprised the old Colony of British Guiana, together with the area which by Act of Parliament may be declared as part of the territory of Guyana.” He added: “The territory which extends between the middle line of the Essequibo on the east and the boundary of the old Colony of British Guiana all along the rivers Cuyuni and Wanamo on the west, was already included on the 26th May, 1966, judicially and administratively, within the old Colony of British Guiana and forms part of the State of Guyana.”