The Garifuna peoples live on the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras and Roatan, an island that now belongs to Honduras. There are communities in St.Vincent and in the largest of North American cities, notably New York. Theirs is an interesting, intriguing story – and an invaluable part of the American landscape after the turmoil of colonization, slavery and suffering shook everything up for a while.
History picks up the story in 1635 when Spanish ships with captured West African people were ship-wrecked close to St.Vincent. The indigenous Island Carib people took them in. St.Vincent , at that time, was not colonized – in the late eighteenth century, Britain was awarded the island by some deal or other with the French. In 1797, Garifuna surrendered to British forces, deporting 4000 Garifunans with the blackest skin first to a nearby island and then to Roatan. Half of these people died during that journey and their new home could hardly support the rest so they got permission from the Spanish authorities to settle on the Central American mainland coast. Since then, they have managed to prosper and have always remained a free people preserving their unique way of life, traditions and language which is a blend of two Carib indigenous languages with many English and Spanish words. Their number system sounds like French.
It is a story full of questions about their time on St.Vincent. At first, it seems they were enslaved by the Caribs living there but then some inter-breeding and cultural synthesis took place. And then, the British made their cruel attempt to divide the society that had evolved…
Happily, today, the Garifuna Nation seems strong and well connected – celebrating together in April every year, their arrival on the Honduran mainland from Roatan and other important cultural events. They have a particular form of music and dance, traditional medicines, food and drink, all of which make their existence on the Caribbean coast an important component of each state’s push for tourists – while many of the people themselves are returning from life in New York, L.A. or London or, at least, have family members there. I was surprised to see such a firm identity surviving the Spanish-speaking hegemonies of the area, not least the problems Central America has suffered – I shouldn’t have been. The Garifuna know who they are.