Early Garifuna History
By: Joseph R. Flores
The History of the Garinagu culture begins
in South America, where people who spoke Arawak; an Amerindian
language, fashioned a culture based on farming, hunting and fishing.
By 1000 AD some of them had moved up the Orinoco River to the
Caribbean Sea and it's islands, where they established a new way of
Later, other people, whom history has called "Caribs,”
moved into the Caribbean out of the same area. They traded with the
Arawaks, sometimes raiding their settlements, and eventually
pushed them out of the smaller islands, taking their women as wives.
This mixture of Carib and Arawak created a new race of people,
called; "Island Caribs.”
In the 1500's the Europeans came to the Caribbean islands,
bringing Africans as slaves to carry out the agricultural and other
manual labor. The Island Caribs fought fiercely to protect their
islands, but succeeded in holding only two; Dominica and Saint
Vincent, or Yurumei; as they called it.
In 1635, two Spanish ships carrying slaves ship-wrecked off
St. Vincent and the slaves on board escaped, taking refuge among the
Carib Indians. The Caribs welcomed and protected the Africans, and
in time allowed them to marry the Caribs. The Africans then adopted
the languages, culture and traditions of the Yellow Island Caribs.
The intermarriage brought about a rapid growth of hybrid
mixture of African and Yellow Indian Caribs. From this union arose a
half-bred race possessing some Caribs and African characteristics to
which the name Garifuna or Black Caribs to distinguished them from
the others, who were called Red or Yellow Caribs. Today, they are
more often known as Garifuna (or Karaphuna, in Dominica) which is
closer to the original word by which they called themselves so long
ago. More correctly they are called Garinagu.
By the 1750 the Black Caribs of St. Vincent were numerous and
quite prosperous. They had war-chiefs, some with several wives who
did most of the farming. The men hunted and fished and made trips to
nearby islands to trade tobacco and baskets for arms, munitions and
other European manufacture goods. French settlers lived in St.
Vincent then too, but there was enough land for all, and few
Then, in 1763, the British came to St. Vincent and over the
next several years tried everything they could to get the Black
Caribs to give more of their fertile lands to them to plant
sugarcane. Finally; in 1772 the Caribs were provoked to open
warfare. The French sympathized with their Black friends, and sided
with them in trying to get rid of their common enemy. For 32 years
the struggle went on and off, with both sides incurring many losses.
Finally in 1795, the British determined to end the conflict
and take over the entire island. They brought in special troops;
including elements made up of their slaves to put on a major
military campaign. By the summer of 1796 the French had had
enough and surrendered, but the Carib continued fighting.
The British burned their houses, canoes and crops and eventually;
sick and nearly starving, the Caribs surrendered too. A total of
4,644 men, women and children were taken prisoners and sent to the
island of Baliceaux, until it was decided what to do with them.
While there, under dreadful and crowded unsanitary conditions, more
than half of them died from diseases.
In February 1797, the order came to send all surviving Black
Caribs to the island of Roatan, just off the Honduran coast. At the
same time, they returned the so-called "Red" or lighter
skinned" Caribs to Saint Vincent. By then, the two populations
were very mixed. Single families would have had some light and
some darker-skinned individuals: Thus it's likely that forced
separation according to skin color only made the situation more
Although the British left them with food supplies, tools, fish
hooks and lines, cuttings and seeds, it would have been very
difficult to have cleared and planted before the rainy season
began-specially because the people were weak and miserable from
their long ordeal. Therefore, they begged the Spanish on the main
land to come to Roatan and rescued them. On May 19. 1797, the
Spaniards did so.
Once the Garinagu had moved to Trujillo, the men worked as
soldiers and fisherman. They also cleared land so the women could
plant food crops. In this way they provided enough food for the
entire European coastal population, which had been near starvation
Ethnological studies have proven that
the Garifuna, are the only black people in the Americas to conserve
their native culture.
Throughout more than 300 years, the
Garifuna culture has undergone constant changes as the Garifuna
people respond to the new demands placed on them through contact
with other cultures. They still share a great deal with the Indian
of the Amazon such as language, the yucca, fishing, dances and
several religious practices and beliefs. However, their
African ancestors have also left a deep mark in their dances,
oral traditions, drum styles and agriculture.
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