Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Garifuna, also known as Garinagu, are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and subsequently moved to Belize.
Garifuna mainly live on the coast but are also very present in towns and villages. Some Garifuna live alongside the Creole population in the main towns.
Garifuna communities live mainly on agriculture, fishing and foreign remittances sent by relatives abroad. Some are also involved in the technical trades. Garifuna who live in the rural areas mainly pursue a subsistence lifestyle, while those in the urban areas live similarly to their Creole neighbours, pursuing professional occupations.
The Garifuna (a.k.a Black Caribs) are of mixed African and indigenous Kalinago-Taino (Carib-Arawak) origin. (See also Guyana)
They are the descendants of the African survivors of human cargo ships that were wrecked off the island of St Vincent around 1675. These West Africans, along with the steady stream of maroons escaping slavery on other Caribbean islands, found refuge and started families with the indigenous Kalinago (Carib) population. An Afro-indigenous culture developed that existed independently of the region’s colonial forced labour plantation system. They became known as the Black Caribs or Garifuna.
The so-called ‘Black Caribs’ together with the indigenous Kalinago created a formidable fighting force that resisted European colonizing efforts in the region for over a century, forcing both the British and French to recognize St Vincent as one of several ‘Neutral Islands’ (See Dominica and Saint Vincent)
Conflict between the British and the Black or Fighting Caribs, led by defiant Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer (Satuye) continued until 1796, when improved British armaments forced them to accept permanent exile as prisoners of war.
In April 1797, over 5,000 ‘Black Caribs’ (Garifuna) were transported on British ships and abandoned on the deserted Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. Many later moved to the mainland of Honduras and became allied with Spain.
The Garifuna fought with Spain against British pirates and military attacks. They also took the Royalist side in the Central American Independence wars against Spain and as a result became a highly marginalized population in post-independence Honduras. (See Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua).
Support for the defeated Conservative forces brought charges of treason in the 1830s and prompted a further maritime dispersion to coastal areas in neighbouring Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. The first settlement in Belize was established at Dangriga, which still holds the largest Garifuna population in the country.
Problems later in Honduras with the Tiburcio Carias liberal dictatorship in 1937 led to another exodus. Twenty-two Garifuna men in the community of San Juan were forced to dig their own graves and then executed following false charges of treason. The rest of the community escaped to Belize and established the village of Hopkins.
On the relatively isolated coast Garifuna were able to maintain their language, and other cultural practices. In their communities women did agricultural work, men engaged in fishing and artisan activities and traded their produce along the Central American coast.
In Belize, Garifuna men also worked as loggers in mahogany camps and earned positions of responsibility within the company hierarchies. They also sought income opportunities in US banana enclaves in Guatemala and Honduras and became merchant mariners on fruit company boats or migrated to the US.
The Garifuna in Belize now have six communities which have taken a leadership role in maintaining global Garifuna culture. There has been some cultural assimilation into the dominant Creole culture. However in their communities Garifuna have continued to maintain their other traditions.
Understanding of Creole culture has enabled the Garifuna to have the government declare November 19th as Settlement Day in Belize to mark the arrival of Garifuna in the country. This celebration includes reenactments of the landing of the first Garifuna boats in Belize. These are performed in various urban areas and include performances by cultural drummers and dancers and the sale of traditional foods.
Coming from a country with a 90 per cent literacy rate and having English as a first language has also meant that Garifuna from Belize who migrate to the US are in much better position than others in Central America to have access to further education and to better paying administrative jobs.
Furthermore the intellectual environment of Anglophone Belize and its cultural connection to the English-speaking Caribbean has meant that Belize Garifuna have been in the forefront of research into Garifuna regional history and in the organization of Afro-descendants in Central America and the over 100,000 Garinagu migrants who live the US.
The struggle to maintain their community is largely a cultural one as Garifuna have retained a number of Afro-Caribbean traditions in addition to their language.
Garifuna have traditionally been discriminated against and demonized by some, principally because in a Creole culture with a tradition of enslavement and Euro-centred assimilation, Garifuna have sometimes been negatively stereotyped as being too elemental and rural.
Nevertheless the Garifuna have continued to maintain their distinct customs and kept on regarding themselves as being justifiably different as a result of their steadfast maintenance of ancestral culture and their unique history of successful anti-slavery maroon resistance. (See Jamaica).
Nevertheless in recent years the Garifuna minority have become increasingly more allied to the dominant Creole population in light of a mutually shared African ancestral origin and the tendency of younger generations to interact within a common modernist transnational cultural framework.
As an often stereotyped Afro-indigenous minority, the issue of perception is of continuing importance to the Garifuna of Belize. This is both from an Afro-descendant as well as an indigenous perspective.
Garifuna have joined the Kalinago (Caribs) of St Vincent, Dominica and Trinidad in protesting to the executives of the Disney Corporation in the US about the portrayal of supposed Caribs as consumers of human flesh for food in the popular film Pirates of the Caribbean.
Michael Polonio, the president of the National Garifuna Council of Belize, was among those who forwarded a protest letter concerning the need to correct the negative and denigrating stereotype of the island Caribs in the movie. While this stereotype has a seventeenth-century origin it still very prevalent in many current school textbooks and public access documents.
Like other Kalinago descendants organizations in the region, the National Garifuna Council of Belize is very concerned that the myth of Carib cannibalism is still being perpetuated and so widely disseminated, even though anthropology experts agree there is little historical evidence to support this. Furthermore they feel that the use of this stereotype in such a powerful popular cultural medium as cinema can only serve to extend the gross exaggeration to an even wider global audience.
Of all the Kalinago-descended groups in the region who protested this occurrence, the Garifuna of Belize are probably the best equipped to pursue the matter further.
Updated December 2017