Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bay Island Creoles and Garífuna are the only Afro-Honduran communities regarded as distinct ethnic groups within the country, having preserved an ethnic and cultural difference from the mestizo mainstream. They are also associated with traditional ancestral lands.
According to the 2013 census, there are 12,337 people who self-identify as Bay Island Creoles. The majority of Bay Island Creole communities have more in common with other English-speaking zones along the Caribbean coast of Central America than with the Honduran mainland.
They have maintained their essentially Afro-Caribbean identity and linguistic separateness despite pressures to assimilate. Along with working on foreign vessels, fishing has been a major source of income. Nearly 20 per cent of Bay Island Creole males still works on merchant ships, which perpetuates the tradition of finding employment off the island and sending money home.
Significant mestizo migration to the islands, lack of employment, the decline in fish stocks and the ongoing destruction of the coral reefs is especially affecting the ability of Bay Island Creoles to maintain their livelihood and culture.
Early Spanish colonial Honduras initially held great promise as an abundant source of precious metals. The first Africans arrived in 1540 to replace the rapidly declining, enslaved indigenous labour pool, especially in the silver mines, which proved more promising than gold retrieval. By the 1600s, many enslaved Africans had escaped and mixed in with indigenous people, poor Spanish migrants and freed blacks to form the range of identities that constitute the mainstream Honduran rural mestizo peasant culture.
The second important stream of Africans was brought by British colonists. They came to the Bay of Honduras in the 1600s and 1700s for plantation work and natural resource extraction. Many of these mixed with the Miskito population.
The other important Afro-Honduran group to arrive during the colonial era were English-speaking Afro-Caribbean Creoles. These were free persons who migrated to the Bay islands in the 1840s, along with a few white Cayman Islanders. Later they were joined by other Creoles from Jamaica and the Mosquitia.
Bay Island Creoles practised a self-sufficient lifestyle centred on fishing and agriculture and produced many of the basic commodities they needed. Throughout the nineteenth century, they existed as an autonomous economic and cultural entity with little or no contact with the Spanish-speaking Honduras, preferring to link their culture and economy to Belize.
From the 1920s, Bay Island Creoles began to abandon their agriculture-based lifestyle. English language skills enabled better-paying jobs for males on the Honduran mainland plantations and merchant ships.
Although Honduras was given sovereignty over the Bay Islands by the British in 1860, in exchange for Belize, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the first official steps were taken to ‘hispanicize’ the islands. Starting in the late 1940s, Bay Island Creole children were routinely punished for speaking English in school, and English language instruction was forced underground into private home schools.
Nevertheless, assimilationist measures and ‘hispanicization’ did not gather significant momentum until the 1990s, with considerable mestizo in-migration prompted by the rapid growth of tourism. Mestizo immigrants from the mainland now comprise over 60 per cent of the Bay Island population.
These changes have prompted Bay Island Creoles to redouble their efforts to maintain their cultural identity and language preferences.
Garífuna and Creoles, as Afro-Hondurans, have a history of organizing together against racial discrimination. In the 1970s they founded the Fraternal Black Honduran Organization (La Organización Fraternal Negro Hondureño, OFRANEH) which still plays a prominent role in Honduran civil society.
Positive developments have occurred in Honduras where the authorities have increasingly created national programmes for indigenous peoples and people of African descent.
Despite being recognized as autochthonous with a history of acute marginalization, English-speaking Bay Island Creoles are not yet strongly organized to address their social and economic issues as a distinct population group.
After years of negotiation primarily by the Native Bay Island Professional and Laborer Association, progress has been made in the development of the Cultural Bilingual Education Program for the Bay Islands, and increased special training for education and health workers. This points to the growing official acceptance by all levels of government in Honduras of the multicultural and pluri-linguistic nature of Honduran society, and the right of its ethnic groups to preserve their identity.
On the other hand, the Bay Island of Roatan is now an attractive tourist destination and locale for expatriate residents. The 1998 amendment to the Honduran Constitution allowing foreigners to own property has resulted in more than 75 per cent of the land on the Bay Islands now being foreign-owned. Afro-Honduran Creoles and Garífuna hang on to only a very tiny share.
These local groups traditionally maintained ecologically sustainable practices and are now particularly concerned about increasing housing density and the deterioration of terrestrial and marine ecology, which is permanently altering the overall physical and cultural environment.
Updated May 2018
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