Join Date: Apr 2004
THE RECONNECTION OF THE GARIFUNA PEOPLES ( by Dr. Adrian Fraser)
In February 2001 a Belizean arrived in St. Vincent as part of a University of the West Indies sponsored ‘Artiste in Residence’ programme. The gentleman, Pen Cayetano, entered the taxi that was taking him to his temporary place of abode beating his drum furiously and passionately, much to the constermation of the taxi driver. Cayetano had grown up in a community where there were constant references to St. Vincent as their motherland. He had, for a longtime, yearned to visit this country and was finally given the opportunity to do so. His drum became a vent for his pent-up emotions. He had finally reached home.
Mr. Cayetano hails from the Garifuna community of Belize, a people who have traced their roots to 18th century St. Vincent. They are the descendants of the Black Caribs who were exiled trom St. Vincent in March 1797. These people are the product of the inter marriage between the Caribs (Kallinagoes) of St. Vincent and African slaves who took refuge among them. For centuries they had resisted European attempts to take control of St. Vincent and to deprive them of their lands, until finally surrendering to the British in 1796. After having been kept on Balliceaux, a tiny island of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for about seven months, some 2,248 of them who remained from a captive population of 4,338, were put on board a convoy of eight vessels and sent into exile to Roatan, an island off Honduras. From Roatan they moved to mainland Honduras and then to other countries in Central America. Today the Garifuna people form distinct parts of the population of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Following the pattern of migration from the mid-twentieth century, Garifuna communities now also exist in the United States of America, with an estimated population of between 75,000 and 100,000. Efforts are being made to build a monument at Balliceaux in honour of those who were forced to leave these shores and the thousands who died there. Belizean visitors to Balliceaux have often been overcome with emotion as they landed on this tiny island where so many of their ancestors were kept and died.
The connection between the descendants of the Belizean Garifuna people and the Black Caribs of St. Vincent had fora longtime been a well-kept secret, until the indigenous people used the 500th anniversary of the coming of Columbus to reflect on their past and present Life, and the Garifuna took the opportunity to strengthen the reconnection process.
While the Central American Garifuna communities made efforts to preserve aspects of their culture and their uniqueness as a group, in St. Vincent their customs and way of life became fused with the post emancipation Afro -Vincentian culture. Some of the traditional foods and customs, such as the making of cassava bread, boat-building and basket making became essential elements of Vincentian culture without their origin being fully recognized. It is ironic that in the homeland even the language has been lost. This should in fact not be surprising since the main culture bearers were among those exiled in 1797 and those remaining had to adapt themselves for survival.
The most recent development in this quest for reclaiming identity and reconstructing their history took place on March 14, 2002 when the Great Carib (Garifuna) Chief, Chatoyer, was declared first National Hero of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the day made a national holiday. Chatoyer, who is also revered bythe Garifuna people in Central America, was Paramount Chief at a very critical period in the struggle to retain the independence of St. Vincent and to preserve the lands on which his people lived. He died in 1795 during the battle that led to the final defeat of the Caribs. The recognition of the importance of the Carib Chief to the life and struggles of his people has long been recognized. The British have established a monument in a prominent place in the Anglican Cathedral to their Major Leith who, it was alleged, had killed Chatoyer in a duel. The account of his death given by the British has been disputed, and is believed to have been part of efforts at psychological warfare.
Chatoyer was also immortalized in a play, the “Drama of King Shotaway” , that was performed in NewYork in 1823, twenty-eight years after his death. The play was written by Mr. William Henry Browne. It is believed that he was a Garifuna member who had experienced the battle of 1795 in which Chatoyer was killed. Mr. Browne is regarded as the Father of BlackTheatre in the United States of America and this play is said to be the first about a black person.
The recognition given on March 14 to this leading figure in the history of the Garifuna/Black Carib people will undoubtedly focus attention on his and his people’s contribution to the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They had held the might of Europe at bay for centuries, St. Vincent being among the last of the Caribbean countries to be colonized. It will also contribute to restoring the confidence and reconstructing the identity of a people who had been victims of a colonial past and who have had over the years to face the accusation of being cannibals that had been widely propagated in colonial history.
The Black Carib/Garifuna population in St. Vincentthat remained following the exile, had for long lived on the margin of society, many of them in communities that had been devastated by volcanic eruptions in 1812 and 1902 and had, to all intents and purposes, been cut off from mainstream Vincentian life. A lot has changed over the years, a result of political developments and the growing consciousness of the people. The reconnection of the people, among other things, will help in the reclaiming of their history, identity and pride; and in reconstructing and restoring their central place in the eady history and development of St. Vincent, or Yuremi as it is known in Garifuna language.
The history, artifacts and other symbols of the Black Caribs (Garifuna people) are essential parts of the history and culture of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Many of the forts and places where the different encounters took place, remain and tell their own story, among them the cannons at Fort Charlotte that point inland. Beside the information they provide to the Vincentian people, they also add to the rich heritage and cultural-tourism infrastructure. Sections of the Central American Garifuna community are developing a case for reparations and are seeking ‘symbolic’ citizenship of this country. The story of the Garifuna people is a unique one that needs to be told, since among other things, it is pivotal to understanding their position in Central America and also the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; and indeed the rest of the Caribbean region in which St. Vincent was one of the last outposts of Carib resistance.
St Vincent & The Grenadines