The overwhelming majority of the history, cultural heritage, and overall essence of the Caribbean as we know it today is rooted in a 400-year tragedy of which the whole world is, no doubt, very familiar. The slave trade that brought tens of millions of Africans to the region is not, however, the only such incidence of forced repatriation the Caribbean has ever known. Today, November 19th, we remember the plight of the Garifuna.
Among the smallest, yet most dynamic cultures to come out of the Caribbean, the Garifuna trace their history back to a shipwreck in 1635 that claimed two Spanish slave ships off the coast of St. Vincent. The escaped slaves who came ashore were welcomed by the Kalinago people living in St. Vincent at the time. The groups intermarried, giving rise to a new group of dark-skinned mixed-race African/Amerindian people known as the Garinagu, later Garifuna.
In the years that followed, the Garifuna developed a distinctive cultural heritage, complete with its own language, music, art, traditions, and spiritual beliefs, flourishing as free black people in St. Vincent. However, as the 1600s turned to the 1700s and colonial European powers started to take more of an active interest in St. Vincent, Garifuna fortunes changed dramatically.
In those days, control over St. Vincent volleyed back and forth between the British and French. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the Brits full sovereignty, setting off a war with the Kalinago, and by extension, the Garifuna. By 1796, the fighting was all over, but the British weren’t satisfied. They wanted the Garifuna out.
History is unclear as to why, though most say the Garifuna fought so ferociously during the brief war that the British were afraid to have them stick around.
And so it was that a good 5,000 Garifuna were soon rounded up (a good many more were simply slaughtered) and shipped from St. Vincent to the tiny uninhabited Grenadine island of Balliceaux, pictured above. About half of them died there. The rest were eventually moved again, this time clear across the Caribbean Sea to the island of Roatan, off the eastern shores of Belize.
In short order, the entire Garifuna culture and way of life was effectively erased from its place of origin in St. Vincent.
Thankfully, though, the Garifuna story did not end there.
On November 19, they celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day, commemorating the arrival of the first Garifuna boats from Roatan to the mainland. Celebrations take on a carnival-like feel complete with parades, parties, the election of a Miss Garifuna, and re-enactments of the first Garifuna boats coming ashore.
These proud people have certainly made a nice home in Central America, carrying on the old cultural traditions despite the hardships of the past. They also haven’t forgotten their roots in St. Vincent, and in particular, Balliceaux.
The small and still uninhabited Grenadine island remains sacred ground to the Garifuna. In fact, a pilgrimage is undertaken to the island annually, drawing Garifuna people from all over the world back to this remote spot where their history almost died.
Here they honor their ancestors and the past with prayers, drums, tears, thanks and praises in what must be among the most moving cultural experiences our region has to offer.