Who are the Garifuna?

The Garifuna, otherwise known as the black Caribs, can be located in Belize, Honduras and Guatemala today and their story is a special one.

The Garifuna are of mixed descent, and this mix is very evident from their history. To understand this mix, we have to look at the island they came from.

St.Vincent sits in the Windward islands close to South America and had been inhabited by the Carib Indians from around 1300. The Caribs were reputedly a warring tribe, who defeated the peaceful Arawaks or Taino people, who had previously displaced the Ciboney.

Some Caribs remained on the island, whilst others ventured on.

History books tell you that Columbus landed on St.Vincent in 1498, however there is no proof or record of this occurring.

St.Vincent is a mountainous island, which discouraged the Europeans (French, English and Dutch) from venturing towards it and when they did, the Caribs managed to repel them.

St.Vincent became known as ‘the free land’, which prompted African slaves to  escape plantations in Barbados and travel via boat or even swim to the neighbouring island.

It is said that the Caribs would lure Spanish ships onto the rocks with their warriors travelling in canoes that could carry up to 60 people. Once the ships were run aground, the slaves on board would be rescued. One such ship was a Dutch vessel which is recorded to have sunk, with the slaves on board being rescued, in 1675.

Although it is said that the ship sunk without Carib intervention, it tells a different story when you learn that although the African slaves were chained up below the decks they were the only ones to survive the supposed ‘shipwreck’.

The rescued slaves intermarried with the Caribs forming what was the Black Caribs or Garifuna.

It wasn’t just black slaves that increased the population, Caribs from other islands also found sanctuary on St Vincent.

In 1655, one of the Black Carib chiefs had his two sons enticed away by the French into slavery. Once it became known who they were, they were taken to

St.Kitts where they were convinced to allow a French priest onto the island of  St.Vincent to preach Christianity.

The French then settled on the west side of the island.

Meanwhile, friction was growing between the Black Caribs and the original Caribs, who seized on an opportunity to rid themselves of the Black Caribs, by enlisting the aid of the French troops.

However, when the French marched through the mountains towards the Black Caribs, the original Caribs became doubtful that the French would succeed against the Black Caribs and avoided joining the battle.

The French, going into the fight alone and led by Major Paulian, were met by guerilla tactics and most of the force were killed, including the Major.

Once defeated, the French settlers were still permitted to stay on the island, but not on Carib land. When one French settler did build on their land everything he owned was burnt, showing the dominance of the black Caribs over the French.

The English came to the island next, having previously been awarded the territory in 1627, when it was gifted to Lord Carlisle, and again in 1722, when it was awarded to the Duke of  Montague. However, their attempts (most notably in 1686) to take the island were met by force and they were unable to gain a foothold.

When the English, under Braithwaite, eventually landed in St.Vincent, they spoke  with both sets of Caribs, but immediately understood the threat that the Black  Caribs posed.

It soon became clear that the land that was most that would be most prosperous to the Europeans was the land that the Black Caribs were settled on.

The English tried to coax the land off the Black Caribs, but they had met their match with the chief of chiefs Joseph Chatoyer, who wasn’t interested in their ruses. When the English eventually tried encroaching on his land, Chatoyer burnt them out.

Battles ensued and the Black Caribs kept the English at bay.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1772, St.Vincent was deemed a British Colony and General Monckton was rewarded for endeavours elsewhere with some of it’s land, which was in Black Carib territory.

Regiments were brought in from America and it took them until 1773 to take the land ceded to Monckton.

The Black Caribs were still a force to be reckoned with and the English decided to make an agreement between themselves and the Caribs. The Caribs were undoubtedly unable to read this document, but instead used the time it bought them to assess the strength of the English.

The Black Caribs waited until some of the English force had left the country and in the meantime obtained arms from the French. In 1779 the Black Caribs successfully attacked, with the support of the French from the seas and on land.

The Black Caribs were once again in control and this would last until 1795, when the English sent envoys to the French settlers to gain their support, as they were being forced to pay for the French forces.

When the Black Caribs decided they were ready to rid themselves of the Europeans, the final Carib war started. The English had become aware and although everything started well for the Caribs under Duvall and his father, Chatoyer, the fight culminated in a battle at Dorsetshire Hill on March 14th 1796, where Chatoyer was killed by Major Leith. Shocked by the death of their leader, the Caribs retreated.

The Caribs continued to fight, going back to their guerrilla warfare, but their success  without Chatoyer was limited. When Abercrombie arrived with 4,000 men, the Caribs were easily subdued and surrendered on 10th June.

Many Caribs escaped captivity and shortly afterwards the Caribs were given an opportunity to leave St.Vincent in boats. Some 5080 men, women and children, including Duvall, left the islands in search of a new home.

They departed on the 11th March 1797 and little is known about their plight afterwards, however it is said that they attempted to land on the coast numerous times and were attacked each time, until they ended up in Belize, Honduras and Guatemala.

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