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Historical notes on early Garifuna struggles to defend their land and culture

HighlightsHistorical notes on early Garifuna struggles to defend their land and culture

by Jerry A. Enriquez

The Garinagu were one of the first free groups of Afro-descendant peoples in the Americas.

The widely accepted version of the genesis of the Garinagu dates to 1635 when two Spanish slave ships with their cargo of captured Africans, travelling from the Bight of Benin to Barbados, were wrecked off the island of Bequia near St. Vincent. For over 150 years since surviving a shipwreck, these African descendants enjoyed a state of relative freedom as they lived in their secluded area on the island of St. Vincent. Recall that since the early 1500s, enslaved Africans were already being brutally trafficked in ships that took about 6 to 10 weeks to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean.

The survivors of that shipwreck and the community life that they built in St. Vincent, uniquely marked the Garinagu to be one of the first free black groups in the Caribbean and wider American region. To sustain life in their new homeland, some of these free Africans intermingled with the fierce and aggressive Kalinago “Red Caribs”, thus forming a dominant race of Garinagu “Black Caribs” that the Europeans met when they first arrived on the island. What emerged was a unique blend of traditional African culture and an assimilation of various aspects of Kalinago culture. The gradual boost in their population occurred when French-enslaved Africans escaped from other parts of St. Vincent or from other nearby islands, to join them. As free blacks, they guarded their territory against attempted incursions by marauding French and British colonists.

There is an emerging version of Garifuna history that attempts to link the origin of Garifuna to the 13th-century expeditions by Mali King, Abubakari II, based on Van Sertima’s compelling thesis of an African presence in the Americas before Columbus. However, that thesis is marred by many controversies among anthropologists, historians and other scholars. While Van Sertima explored African connections through the Olmecs in Mexico, Malian historian Gaoussou Diawara proposed that the Mali expedition landed in Brazil. Other scholars have disputed the thesis as speculative, as no evidence has been found to confirm pre-Columbian African presence in the Americas. Given the lack of historical evidence, it would be farfetched to conclude that the Garinagu who were found in St. Vincent in the 1600s were the descendants of the 1311 Malian expedition. That aside, the group of Africans who were found in St. Vincent built and sustained a dominant Garifuna life and culture that has impacted many to this day.

The Garinagu successfully defended themselves against attempts to subdue them by a French military expedition.

In the early 1700s, French missionaries and later French planters landed in St Vincent and found the Garinagu along the southern and eastern coasts of the island. In 1719, a French military expedition along with some “Red Caribs” tried to subdue the “Black Caribs” and failed. The victorious Garinagu allowed the French to stay and establish their farms along the West Coast near the “Red Carib” settlements. Between 1719 and 1764, when the British took over, St. Vincent and its Grenadine possessions, along with other islands of Dominica, St. Lucia, and Tobago, were pretty much left in the possession of the Kalinago and Garinagu.

The Garinagu engaged the British in two fierce wars to defend their territory.

Following the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France (1756 – 1762), the Treaty of Paris in 1763 granted possession of St. Vincent, and the other abovementioned islands, to the British. Immediately thereafter, the British declared all the land on St. Vincent to be the property of the Crown and that they were to be surveyed in 500-acre blocks and granted to British subjects only. The French and their enslaved Africans were permitted to remain on their property but had only leasehold rights. The areas where the Garinagu and the Kalinago lived were designated as Carib Reserves. By 1769, relations between the British and the Garinagu broke down when the Garinagu took one of the survey teams hostage after they crossed into Garifuna territory. Sensing further troubles ahead, Garifuna leaders headed by Joseph Chatoyer, also known as Satuye, contacted the French and negotiated for the sale of weapons and assistance to protect their homeland.

By 1772, given the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, the British resident planters attempted to expand their landholding in the Garifuna regions. Led by Satuye, the Garifuna population rebelled against the British colonial government of St. Vincent. In addition to the British soldiers on the island, two regiments of British soldiers from the United States colonies were sent to defeat the Garinagu. However, the inhospitable hot and humid tropical weather, diseases, and insufficient supply of American food led to the deaths of many of the incoming soldiers, as much as half the amount, shortly after they arrived and before they began fighting. The Garifuna fighters, roughly 1,500-3,000 of them, prevailed in their ambush and attacks. Consequently, the British were forced to sign a peace treaty with the Garinagu in 1773. That treaty would be the first that the British would sign with non-white people in the Caribbean since the Maroon Treaty of Jamaica in 1739.

As a result of that treaty, new boundaries were established for Garifuna lands, and the new territory that the British farmers wanted was legalized. The new boundary for the “Carib Territory”, relocated Garinagu to distant parts of the island in inaccessible mountainous regions that were unsuitable for commercial agriculture. By this time the population of Garinagu had grown considerably. All of them adopted French names, and many converted to Roman Catholicism as a strategic alignment with the French. Between 1779 and 1783, after declaring war on Britain, the French seized control of St. Vincent and other islands, but by 1784 the British regained possession. When the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s ruined that island’s sugar industry, it created a steep demand and great profits for sugar from the British Caribbean. Consequently, more land was needed from the valuable Garifuna territory, and it became apparent that the British had no intention to honour the peace treaty. The Garinagu strongly resisted giving up their land.

In 1795, the Garinagu, led by Chief Chatoyer and his brother Duvalle, and with some support from French revolutionaries, engaged the British in a full-scale rebellion. This time, about 4,000 British troops were sent to the island to bolster the resident forces. The tide of war turned in favour of the British and the final defeat of the Garinagu in 1797, after the death of Chatoyer and the subsequent desertion of the French fighters. In their final attempt to rid the island of the Garinagu, the British burnt over 1,000 of their houses, destroyed their crops, killed their leaders, confiscated all their lands and stores of food, and banished them forever.

Genocide, exile and survival of the Garinagu

By October 1796, over 4,000 surviving Garinagu men, women, and children were captured and transported to the barren rock island of Baliceaux off the coast of St. Vincent while the British were making decisions regarding a location for exile. Considerations were made to relocate the Garinagu to Africa, but that journey would have been too expensive. Other locations considered included the Bahamas and the peninsula of Samana in Hispaniola (within the area that is now the Dominican Republic) until the British finally decided on the island of Roatan.

Between October 1796 and March 1797, while the British were trying to decide a site for exile, nearly 2,400 Garinagu in Baliceaux died of either typhoid or yellow fever, which was aggravated by malnutrition. The remaining survivors were boarded on a convoy of eight or nine ships for departure on March 11, 1797, for a one-month perilous journey to Roatan via Jamaica, where a brief stop was made. Another 200 Garinagu died along that journey. When the convoy landed in Roatan on April 12, 1797, it was believed that Garifuna culture was near complete extermination. As for the lands in St. Vincent that were seized from the Garinagu, these were granted in large allotments, averaging nearly 500 acres each, to prominent British planters and war veterans.

Against all the odds, including their being battered by conflicts to protect their lands against marauding European colonists and attempts at their extermination, the Garinagu survived. They have maintained much of their traditional cultures in their mostly coastal communities despite also originally facing much discrimination in their new homeland countries of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and other communities that they established in other countries.

Select references:

Palacio, Joseph ed., 2013. The Garifuna: A Nation Across Borders, Essays in Social Anthropology, Cubola Books.

Gonzalez, Nancie L. 1988. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna

Cassanova, Escobando, Analysis of Van Sertima’s Afrocentric Claims in Mesoamerica.

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