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Christopher Taylor’s “The Black Carib Wars – Freedom, Survival and the Making of the Garifuna”

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Christopher Taylor is described as a journalist who works for the Guardian newspaper of London. His interest in the Garifuna, he states, started twenty years ago in a village in Nicaragua where he came across stories of the origin of the people there. Listening later to the music of a Garifuna musician from Belize, he began to enquire about the real history of the music and consequently of the people. He had an opportunity to visit SVG with a Garifuna delegation in 2009 in his attempt to understand the history of these people. His interest led to the production of the book, The Black Carib Wars which was published in 2012. This work is perhaps the most comprehensive done on the two Carib Wars and on the life of the Carib peoples up to the time of their expulsion from this country. What is perhaps most admirable about this work is that it draws on French sources, using documents from the French Archives, which as he says, “contains archives relative to France’s colonial empire”, paying particular attention to documents relating to the periods of French occupancy in St Vincent. Certainly not as he says, French rule, since French rule can only be applied to the period 1779-1783 when St Vincent was captured from the British by French forces. The documents from British sources cover most of the official documents, the Colonial Office, documents from the National Archives at Kew Gardens, the British Library, military documents, War Office files and the Calendar of State Papers. He uses extensively official correspondence on the subject from both French and British sources.

On some of the more contentious issues, he gives the prevailing points of view, leaving it for most part to the readers to come to their own conclusions, but at times, making it clear where he stands. The story which has been quite prevalent about Chatoyer offering what is now Young Island to Sir William Young for a white horse, he dismisses, stating, “Given that Chatoyer’s territory lay many miles to the north, any such offer would have been playful at best.” In recounting some of the recent information gathered from oral sources in Belize, he mentions where some of them do not tally with the historical records.” He reinforces the point that the Garifuna people left no written documents and so it was necessary to piece the story together from English and French sources that were “often openly hostile to the Black Caribs.”

In looking at the origins of the Black Caribs, he uses the story of the shipwreck off Bequia, but draws attention to the different dates given for that shipwreck. He does, however, emphasize much more than others have done, the presence of Africans who were seized by raids on Spanish territory in the northern Caribbean. Special mention is also made of runaways, particularly from Barbados, which advertised frequently in St Vincent for runaways, citing Governor Valentine Morris who indicated that runaways presented one of his biggest problems. On the matter of cannibalism, he makes reference to Labat and also to W. Arens’ The Man Eating Myth, ending with the point that “It was certainly striking that numerous missionaries had actually spent years living among the Caribs without being consigned to the pot.”

Taylor, perhaps more than any other, has outlined the prominent role played by the Caribs in the war that led to the capture of St Vincent by the French in 1779. As he indicated, over 1,000 Caribs took part in that battle, “by far the largest component of the invading force.” Chatoyer and two others joined the French negotiations at the end of the war. One of the issues that has been down played in the accounts of the defeat and surrender of the Caribs in 1796 was the role played by the black rangers, a group of slaves, used specially to fight against the Caribs. “These negroes crept through passages believed to be inaccessible … They sacked everything … pillaging and burning the provisions which would have sustained them and the Carib warriors. The warriors hearing of the disaster lost courage…” Taylor focuses a lot of attention on this.

Taylor’s work begs the question whether Buccament was not in fact the centre of French activity in St Vincent. He touches on the Yellow/Black Caribs issue, drawing attention to a young French artillery officer who informed about a ‘national council’ of Yellow and Black Caribs that he had witnessed. It also brings more information to bear on a number of other matters pertaining to the period of struggles to defend the country against invaders. While other works have focussed most of their attention on Chatoyer and Duvalle, Taylor also looks at other Carib leaders such as Tourouya and Bigot, some of them, of course, having died before the final battle. Taylor’s book is one which all persons with an interest in the

Carib wars and the history of the Carib peoples should read. It is well researched, not only using extensively the original documents, but looking critically also at most of the important secondary sources.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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