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The history of the Garifuna, our history

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Fri, Mar 16. 2012

Opportunities to hear the history of our people articulated in our own words and with our own voices are rare.

One such opportunity presented itself earlier this week, when the Garifuna Heritage Foundation (TGHF) hosted an international conference from March 10 to 13, here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.{{more}} At this inaugural conference, several stimulating papers were delivered, and films shown, which shed new light on the history, heritage and culture of the Garifuna; a part of the Vincentian heritage, about which many of us know very little.

The word “Garifuna” was not a part of the vocabulary of most Vincentians until maybe a couple decades ago, and frankly, the introduction of the concept that an entire nation of people dispersed around the world, look to Yurumein (St. Vincent) as their ancestral homeland, was viewed with bemusement, skepticism or even suspicion by some. We were more familiar with the term “Black Carib”, which is how people of African and Carib descent are described in most of our history books.

What this conference did, is present to us, the findings of scholarly research into the historical and present circumstances of these people, and their place in the context of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the world.

It is also interesting to note how much interest this topic has attracted in international academia. The persons who presented papers were a diverse group, a few of whom have no immediately obvious connection to the Garifuna or SVG. Regrettably, the agenda was so packed, there was not sufficient time to delve into the extensive discussions which each paper merited.

From the presentations, one observed that there has been a change in language, a change in how we speak about our history. We now hear that what happened when the Black Caribs were banished to Balliceaux was not exile, but genocide, and that the two Carib wars in the late 18th century were not just battles by the Caribs to retain their land, but rather, an existential struggle, a fight for sovereignty and nationhood.

We learn that in the literature, there has never been a consistent representation of the indigenous people. Who exactly were the Kalinago, the Yellow Caribs, the Red Caribs, the Black Caribs and the Garifuna? How were the groups differentiated? Were differences among them created or emphasized as a means to a sinister end? If the majority of the residents on Yurumein in the late 18th century could be classified as Black Caribs, rather than the lighter skinned Yellow or Red Caribs, then the case could be made that these Blacks were interlopers, mere runaway slaves, with no legal claim to the land. There would therefore be no injustice in banishing them, which would make it easier for colonizers to say the island was inhabited by only a handful of indigenous Yellow Caribs and therefore open to being taken.

One of the voices heard during the conference was that of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves. Although he was not listed to speak, his brief intervention at the Conference on Monday reminded those present of his outstanding credentials as a university professor.

Without referring to notes, he spoke in detail, of the way in which the boundaries of the land which the Caribs were allowed to claim as their own, kept being pushed back, until all that was left was the area north of Rabacca. His presentation was masterful, and formed, at least to the casual listener, a sound basis for reparation claims.

For too long, we have been mere consumers of historical knowledge produced by others to justify their actions. The information presented at the conference was therefore of tremendous value in our effort to understand who we are as a people. For generations, we have viewed ourselves through the eyes of the colonizers; it is time that the other side of the story be told.

We congratulate TGHF on having successfully hosted this ambitious conference and call on them to widely disseminate the lectures as soon as possible, by showing them on television and through publication of the papers presented.

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