The Guyana/Venezuela Boundary

The Guyana/Venezuela Boundary

by Peter Halder

      In 1830 Venezuela became independent from Spain. A year later, in 1831, Great Britain united the three colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara into a single colony – British Guiana. The Dutch founded the colonies of Essequibo and Berbice in the early 17th century and added Demerara later. The colonies changed hands among the Dutch, French and English during European wars. In 1814 they were ceded to Britain.

The independence of Venezuela and the creation of British Guiana led to the need for both countries to define the border between them.

Britain took the initiative to determine and define its western boundary with Venezuela. In 1840, Britain engaged the services of the famous international explorer Robert Schomburgk to traverse the entire county of Essequibo, beginning from the left bank of the Essequibo River, to determine where the boundary should be drawn.  

Schomburgk came up with a boundary line that excluded all traces of Spanish occupation, influence or culture. Guyanese who know Essequibo would recognize that the names of villages and areas are in the vast majority Dutch, some English and a few French, none Spanish. Essequibo is a Dutch name. The Dutch settled Essequibo in 1615 and made it a colony. Its capital was Kyk-over-all where a Fort was built and still exists. The governance of Essequibo was through a Dutch Court of Policy, the remains of which still exist.

Venezuela objected to the Schomburgk boundary and claimed the entire Essequibo and its eastern boundary as the left bank of the Essequibo River, some 53,000 square miles or more than half of Guyana.

The different positions of the two led to an international boundary dispute. The large, rich and military powerful United States of America gave its full support to Venezuela and its claim out of concern for British colonization in its sphere of influence and saw the boundary as an act by European Britain to expand its presence in Latin America. The support also gave effect to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. US President James Monroe, in his 2 December 1823 address to Congress, articulated a new political order in the Americas and the role of Europe in the Western Hemisphere. “The American continents are hereafter not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.” Venezuela relied entirely on the United States to prosecute its claim to Essequibo and therefore a new boundary.

The border dispute between the United States and Venezuela on the one side and Britain on the other raged for several decades. The US and Venezuela eventually demanded that Britain submit the dispute to international arbitration. Britain at first refused but conceded after President Grover Cleveland threatened war. Britain and Venezuela signed the Treaty of Washington under which the dispute would be submitted to international arbitration. Venezuela and the US and Britain agreed in the Treaty on a five member Arbitral Tribunal, comprising two members selected by Britain and two by Venezuela. The two members selected by Venezuela were of impeccable character and legal luminaries. They were the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court and a another Supreme Court Justice. Venezuela’s distinguished and sizeable legal team was led by Benjamin Harrison, a former President (23rd) of the United States. and included Mr Severo Mallet-Prevost, a Junior Counsel. Britain’s two members were also men of legal distinction as was its legal team. The fifth and final member and President of the 5-member Tribunal was selected by the four. He was a Russian Jurist of high distinction, Frederic de Martens.

It is significant to point out that in the Treaty of Washington signed by Venezuela and Great Britain, both parties agreed to accept the Tribunal’s award as a ”… FULL, PERFECT AND FINAL SETTLEMENT…” of the border between the two countries. Venezuela was to later renege on its agreement.

The Tribunal began its hearings in June of 1899 in Paris, France, and handed down its Award in October of 1899. The Award was unanimous…it received the imprimatur of all five members.

Under the Award, some 5,000 square miles of the territory of the then British Guiana were awarded to Venezuela. It included the natural resource rich Orinoco Basin. It is apropos to mention that Venezuela’s size is 352,143 square miles as compared to Guyana’s mere 83,000 square miles.

The Venezuelan and US Governments made statements immediately after accepting the Award. Venezuelan was exceedingly pleased with being awarded the Orinoco Basin.

The British Government despite the loss of territory and pursuant to its undertaking to accept the Award as full, perfect and final, accepted the Award.

A Demarcating Team comprising representatives of Venezuela and Britain set about marking the boundary based on the Arbitral Award. The boundary was defined and a map by both sides prepared. The map defining its eastern boundary was accepted by Venezuela and by Britain and duly published and circulated. The same map is still the official map except that in recent times, right-wing groups in Venezuela have added Essequibo to it as a zone of reclamation.

The death of Severo Mallet-Prevost, the previously mentioned Junior Counsel, resurrected the boundary question in the mid 1940s, some 45 years after the 1899 Award and when nearly all or all of the principals of the Tribunal had passed away. Surely the principle of limitation should apply. In the courts of all democratic countries, appeals are required to be filed in a timely manner. Mallet-Prevost had left a letter/memorandum, only to be opened until after his death, in which he rejected the Award. He had prior to his death received Venezuela’s highest National Honour. His memorandum opened a Pandora’s Box and revived Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo.

An eminent writer, Professor Clifton Childs, examined the claims of Mallet-Prevost and rebutted all with facts. Childs’ article was published in the 1950 American Journal of International Law.

Venezuela raised the border matter at the United Nations in 1965 prior to Guyana becoming independent on 26 May 1966. The date was significant. At that time, there were growing fears in the United States, Britain and Venezuela about the foundation and growth of communism in British Guiana. The major Party, the PPP was a Marxist Party and its Leader was an avowed Marxist/Leninist. There was also concern over the relationship between the PPP and the USSR Communist Party. It was also a time when world power was bipolar… the US and the USSR were the two poles of power. The situation created a Cold War.

Observers posited that Venezuela’s resurrection of its border with Guyana was a Sword of Damocles in case Guyana’s relations with the USSR threatened US and British interests in the region.

In order to permit accession to independence, Guyana signed a Geneva Agreement in February of 1966 under which Venezuela and Guyana would examine and discuss Venezuela’s claim that the 1899 Award was “null and void” because it was based on compromise and not international law and that the Tribunal acted ultra vires by making decisions on river navigation and Customs Duties, inter alia. Venezuela’s claims were a mirror of the Mallet-Prevost posthumous letter. During nearly twelve years of meetings of the Commission, Venezuela failed to offer or provide any evidence in support of its contention that the Arbitral Award was null and void. Instead, according to reports, it promoted the joint development of the Essequibo region.

The ink had barely dried on the Agreement when the Venezuelan Military in October 1966, invaded Guyana’s eastern half of Ankoko Island in the Wenamu River, the boundary between the two countries, occupied it and continues to occupy it until today. It has also recently committed other acts of aggression.

The Geneva Agreement was replaced by the Protocol of Port-of-Spain in 1980 but Venezuela unilaterally withdrew from the Protocol. The Guyana/Venezuela border question then passed into the hands of the UN Secretary-General, via his Special Envoy/Good Officer, to seek a solution under Chapter Six of the UN Charter: Pacific Settlement of Disputes.


The Guyana/Venezuela boundary dispute was resolved by Treaty Law, to wit, International Arbitration in 1899 and the “full, perfect and final” Paris Award. The legal tenets of estoppel, res judicata and time limitation also apply. There therefore exists no border dispute per se, only Venezuela’s specious and spurious claim that the Arbitral Award is null and void. That assertion is a legal res and the UN Special Enjoy should therefore enjoin both parties, pursuant to the legal settlement mechanism in Chapter Six, Article 1, of the UN Charter, to submit the matter to the International Court of Justice for adjudication, in the same way that, as exists in and is the custom and practice of States, appeals against the decisions of a Court are submitted to a higher Court. If Venezuela refuses, then Guyana should demand that the matter be submitted to the UN Security Council since a number of acts of aggression by the Venezuelan Military, including the seizure and continued occupation of Guyana’s eastern half of Ankoko Island, constitute threats to peace and security and particularly since the Venezuelan Military is sympathetic to and supportive of the Zone of Reclamation (Essequibo) Group. Venezuela also opposed Guyana’s application to expand its Continental Shelf. A bilateral Treaty/Agreement on Maritime Boundaries is necessary but Venezuela may be running true to form by using it as a Trojan Horse to re-invigorate its claim to Essequibo, a popular pastime there. Venezuela is aware that if indeed the Boundaries are defined and demarcated based on the current status quo of Guyana’s territory, and they are accepted by Treaty and practice, they will establish by Treaty law and Customary International Law that Essequibo is the sovereign territory of the Republic of Guyana. And it will have to return the eastern half of Ankoko Island in the Wenamu River (boundary) to Guyana.


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  • Dmitri Allicock  On October 17, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Venezuela’s presumptuous and aggression to our beautiful naked Guyana must be strongly rejected and condemned.

  • Dmitri Allicock  On October 17, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Typo- Naked aggression

  • Deen  On October 18, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Thanks Peter Halder for this very informative and educational article..
    It is certainly clear that Venezuela does not have a valid claim to Essequibo or any part of Guyana. Venezuels’s persistent aggression is a result of its size and power…another David and Goliath situation.
    Guyana is a rich and beautiful country and both Venezuela and Suriname have been trying in vain to get a part of it….with baseless claims .
    “Dem wrang and dem playin strang.”.

  • Malcolm  On October 26, 2013 at 12:35 am

    British Guiana was never a real country and so Guyana will always have problems trying to become one. There is an old British legal maxim that you cannot pass a better title than you have. Britain never had a good title to that land.

    • Carlos  On May 5, 2014 at 3:59 am

      This article fails to mention that the British had recognized the Esequibo River as the natural boundary between British Guiana and Gran Colombia in 1825. When Venezuela seceded in 1830, that was still the natural boundary and Venezuela tried many times without success to again certify that river as the frontier. Therefore, neither Britain nor Guyana today have any legitimate claim to any land west of that river. Furthermore, the article doesn’t mention the fact that there were not just one but 3 Schomburgk lines, all of which were rejected by Venezuela, and the conditions under which the US and UK pushed Venezuela to accept the arbitration. This and many more things.

      In conclusion, this article only tells half the story. The half that the Guyanese government has been feeding to its people to keep its people ignorant so as to be able to discredit Venezuela’s claim.

      If you want to know more, let me know.

  • de castro  On January 11, 2014 at 7:20 am

    If Guyana is to “belong” to anyone/anyother it belongs to its original inhabitants….
    aboriginal amerindians….Amazonia belongs to its original inhabitants
    “jungle folks” who are nomadic settlers …unlike all the other European
    settlers who put claim to discovering it.
    Unlike the “colonisers” the Indians share the jungle with others and
    respect its natural habitat…..tribes did settle their disputes in battles
    but it was more “self defence” that “conquest”….they were accused of canibalsm
    by outsiders not understanding the “religious” beliefs of tribes in victory.
    They ate their enemies to accept the spirit of their victims…..and it was
    a source of “food”….more the spiritual food….In contrast the american Indians
    scalped their victims for thropies …hunters do so today with animals of the wild.

    UN are peace keepers not “territorial” deciders….disputed bounderies
    should be resolved by all parties concerned and not by intervention from
    outside….UN can oversee the discussions even invite parties for discussions
    but the decision must be settled by dialogue not militarily but politically.

    If no decision can be reached then no one has right to occupy.
    Except the nomadic tribes in the areas of amazonia.
    The Amazon belongs to no one….if any its original inhabitants.

    My spin

  • martin  On February 21, 2014 at 2:04 am

    In my opinion, People should live anywhere in the world without any problem. we shouldn’t have any countries in this world. this world belongs to GOD and no else but GOD. God the creator of all didn’t put countries in this world and said this part belongs to so n so n so on. So what’s the point of fighting over something that didn’t belong to us in the 1st place? We were born with nothing and we will die with nothing. this life is nothing but a test from God. this world will be destroyed. our motivation in this world is to obey god as much as possible n earn paradise from him in the hereafter. this world is temporary. who cares about this world, we only here for a time. nothing in this world should matter to us but GOD. all of mankind are all children of adam n eve, so instead of fighting with each other we should live in peace with one another.

  • de castro  On February 21, 2014 at 5:23 am

    I share your sentiments but my jury is out on the GOD issue.
    Scientists have been busy trying to prove the non-existance
    of GOD but maybe they should concentrate there efforts in
    trying to prove “beyond all reasonable doubt” that there is one.
    My spin
    Religion on the other hand try to “persuade” “influence” us in the
    belief that GOD exists…a good god. My god is good bad and ugly.
    A natural god. God in nature. Am a lover of God and nature.
    My spin

    As for Adam and Eve or Kane and Abel ….I question the motives/creators
    of these stories. I do believe in evolution as per Darwin’s thesis but with a spin
    “Survival of the most adaptable of the species”…and its natural progression.
    Mankind has evolved and is still evolving …fortunately limited to 100+
    lifespan……trees live for centuries !
    At 70 with a possible but high probability that I have another 30+ natural
    lifespan remaining it is my dream to return to the “wild” sharing the Amazonian
    forests with the “uncivilised” humans animals insects and plants that live there.
    As near as I will ever get to god.

    My spin entirely….hope I have not offended other believers/non-believers

    Kamptan PS Peter s enlightenment above and trade winds has made my day.

  • Greg DeCastro  On February 21, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I was reading an Article in the Economists, Science and Technology section. What struck me was an Article about the nature and origin of the Neanderthal man.The Neanderthal as you may know is last stage of mankind before he became Homo Sapiens. Not only was this species of mankind physically ugly, he was also mentally cruel and capable of inflicting dire punishment on his opponents, whether man or beast. Scientists have discovered that its DNA is most common in Europeans. It certainly explains why they were always so keen on conquering other peoples and lands.

    Now, look what shit they have created for us in Guyana and Venezuela? Not to mention they went to Africa and taught the black African tribes how to kill efficiently with guns and other sophisticated weapons. instead of using spears to kill only 3000 per day, they were taught to kill that much in minutes.

    Thanks to the Neanderthals from Europe.

    Just my opinion.

    Greg D..

    • de castro  On March 17, 2014 at 9:22 am

      My dear brother welcome to the “revolution of evolution”
      not the one of “revenge” which is “sweet” but of “peace and reconciliation”
      of humankind.
      Not wishing to defend or condone “barbarism” of past let us try to forgive but never
      forget… was not only the greed and avarice of “colonisation” that was ugly
      it was “naivety” of the times ….
      It was not all evil “colonisation” …. it was also dreams of a better life
      elsewhere. NEANDERTHALS did not only hunt animals in the wild…
      tribes did go to war against tribe ..not much has changed today
      although “motive” may be different….
      Greg we are rewriting history …write on brother….time waits for no one.

      Enjoyed your take as always with a smile on my “ugly” face
      Salud mano

  • #EsequiboEsVenezuela (@AntroCanal)  On July 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Under Uti possidetis juris, essential foundation of American public law regarding limits, the Republic took over full ownership of the territory which in 1810 belonged to the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which extended to the river in Guyana Essequibo. Like Spain, considered all foreign occupation west of that river as territorial encroachment in violation of the Treaty of Münster in 1648 by which Spain recognized Dutch territories, the latter possessed.

    Documentation relating to diplomatic missions sent by the Great Colombia to London, reveals that official was released to Britain that the border between Venezuela and British Guiana running down the Essequibo, without that power as categorical statements objected. In this respect, it is ofsingular transcendence the statement made by the Minister Plenipotentiary, Manuel J. Hurtado, when negotiated and obtained the recognition of the Gran Colombia by the United Kingdom.

    England withdrew recognition of the border in 1840 to publish the Schomburgk line as a border call attempt, exposed to discussion lmítrofes countries. The finding of a composite map of British Guiana by Schomburgk in 1835 in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society ofLondon has revealed that prior to that it was considered as the first line Schomburgk there was another, the original Schomburgk line, roughly coincident with that claimed by Venezuela.

    Britain is not presented, as was appropriate, this original Schomburgk line examination of the arbitration tribunal, depriving it of a decisive convición element.

    The border issue, created prematurely by Schomburgk, was characterized in the nineteenth century by successive advances of his line with the same name usurped increasing portion of Venezuelan territory west of the Essequibo: the 1835gave only 4,920 km2 British Guiana, 1840 the usurpation reached 141 930 km2 of 1887-167830 km2, reaching the highest British claim that tried to include Venezuela 203 310 km2 of which were located within Venezuelan populations as Guasipati old and known as,Tumeremo and others.

    Using his economic and military power, Britain violated the 1850 agreement, formalized by crosses between the British legation note and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Venezuela, through which both countries had agreed not to occupy the territory as arbitrarily it ambition.

    Britain then tried to give legal value to the occupation by force, despite protests Venezuelan diplomatic notes given in the Foreign Ministry. It is noted that both the Metropolitan and Colonial Government had reiterated on many occasions publicly warning to those who will be entering the territory claimed by Venezuela, who had to have the guarantee of the Government of His Majesty.

    In an attempt to provide mapping support to successive encroachments of Venezuela, Britain published from 1887, and represented to the Court of Arbitration, a series of maps in which the call Schomburgk line appears adulterated. Pursuing a policy outrageous colonialist, Britain decided to occupy the territory within the Schomburgk line adulterated which first referred to by the British Government in October 1886, or nearly half a century of termination that maps and twenty one years of his death. The incident promoted in 1894 by a British officer in front of the confluence of Yuruan, in territory that Britain had recognized as the undisputed Venezuelan up to eight years before the event, and especially the occupation Amacura litorial to the river, showed British ambition to seize Venezuelan territory to the very mouth of the Orinoco.

    The Government of the United States and the public of this country, they realized that if the mouths of the Orinoco passed into the hands of Great Britain, it achieved its hegemony in northern South America, the U.S. intervention in 1895 stopped the British advance on Venezuelan territory, and forced Britain torefer the matter to arbitration.

    The negotiation of the Treaty of Arbitration of 1897 was led by the United States and Britain in circumstances in which the momentary tension arose between the two powers happened a stage of cordial entente qualified understanding by historians of both countries. On important clausesthe Treaty, Venezuela gave a different interpretation from that agreed by the negotiators. Despite his resignation, our country was in the case of sign to prevent further damage.

    So it is understandable that tell the public opposition of the country, the Venezuelan government was forced to bring the matter to a tribunal whose composition, by prior arrangement between Britain and the United States would not enter any Venezuelan, though whether it was part of the British officials, creating a so-called development blatant Award.

    The arbitration tribunal, chaired by Professor Frederick Martens Russian, was obliged under the Treaty of 1897, to decide the question in strict law. However, as the culmination of a process in which the right of theforce is imposed on the force of law, the Court ended in what many described as farce contemporary documents. As this farce elements have proven the following facts:

    That the President of the Court, Frederick Martens, coerced the American arbitrators to admit the time line known as the Award under the threat that otherwise he would vote for a border even more unfavorable to Venezuela.

    That one line, previously prepared in the Colonial Office three months before the Court, was adopted by the British and Russian officials, and imposed on the American arbitrators.

    That judgment call was the result of a compromise of the Russian President with referees British Court.

    That the arbitrators exceeded their powers even to convict and self regulate on waterway transport of Barima and Amacura Venezuelan rivers, for which they were not entitled.

    That exceeding its powers, the arbitrators acted against arbitral Treaty not to issue a statement of law but of commitment, apart besides the relevant part, essential to any legal judgment.

    That the Court were presented by Britain doctored maps, and charts, and hid her documents, then in possession of the British Government, the examination was of decisive importance for the proper decision of the case.

    Venezuela has been named repeatedly repudiating 1899 Award from the infamous date of enactment until today.

    The argument that the award of the Arbitral Tribunal is definitive and irrevocable and can not, therefore, be reviewed, without foundation, and is inappropriate. That would certainly irrefutable argument if there were noevidence, verified by further research, that the Award suffered from substantial defects that invalidate it completely and make it appear as the work of coercion, of malice and injury. Bygone era of colonialism and ominousconquest during which, thanks to his immense power, imposed over the globe its domain, Britain must admit that the award is invalid because the defects affecting substance and form, and which need to be reviewed. Prestige would suffer moral decline of Britain other for intransigence on their part, Venezuela was forced to denounce before the world public the dark details of the process that led to this award, justice reproach.

    In consequence of the above, our Organization, Mi Mapa de Venezuela incluye nuestro Esequibo, give full support to the just claim that Venezuela has raised the UK to give back the territory that rightfully belongs, and which was strippedarbitrarily by the Award, the result of flawed circumstances, singularly favored by the atmosphere of the time, when the colonialist policy of the Great Powers were in full swing and prevailed over all other considerations.

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