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The Garifuna: Why we must care

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Tue Mar 10, 2015

This week, Vincentians pause to remember the Garifuna. It is good that we should do so. The truth here is quite simple: that more than 200 years ago, a people sprung from the soils of St Vincent, that is to say, the union of Africans and the indigenous Kalinago people, would be forcibly removed from the land of their birth.{{more}}

Known by the British as the Black Caribs, but answering to themselves by the appellation, Garifuna, their defeat and exile set in motion in St Vincent the broader processes of slavery and colonial rule that would define the Caribbean experience for the vast majority of our history. In St Vincent, however, because the Garifuna contested British claim to St Vincent, a genuine slave society would not be established here until 1797. Hence, when slavery ended in 1834, it meant that St Vincent had experienced only 36 years of slavery, an extraordinary outcome when measured against the experiences of neighbours such as Barbados, who underwent 200 years of plantation slavery. Absent the Garifuna’s heroic resistance against British colonial rule, Vincentians would have been enslaved for a much longer time with all of its attendant horrors. For this at least, we owe them thanks.

We owe them thanks as well for something that is quite new to the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines: our incorporation into an intellectual universe that centres the experience of the Garifuna as a remarkably important dimension of the African diaspora and the processes of adaptation through which people of African descent responded to the circumstances of exile and exploitation visited upon them by colonial masters. The Garifuna offered a wrinkle in this mix that is found nowhere else in the Americas: the emergence of a people who merged their African origins with indigenous American origins to produce not only a new genealogical product, but embraced it as the very essence of their being. What this Second International Conference on the Garifuna is therefore clearly demonstrating is that scholars from across the world see the Garifuna experience and St Vincent’s part in that experience as a very important story that needs to be told.

That we should study our own history is a given. That others should study us as an important part of the forces of globalization that 200 years ago annihilated peoples and re-created others, to this we owe homage to the Garifuna struggle.

For today’s Vincentians, however, perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Garifuna story is their claim to St Vincent and the Grenadines as their ancestral land. For some, and perhaps unsurprisingly so, this collides with their own sense of patriotism. Some might indeed wonder, if the Garifuna make these claims of belongingness to St Vincent, does it not challenge the legitimacy of the claims of Vincentians who inherited the land from which the Garifuna were driven? That of course would be to mis-conceive the Garifuna’s conception of St Vincent and the Grenadines as home. The Garifuna do not see Vincentians today as usurpers of their homeland. For them, St Vincent and the Grenadines is in fact sacred land, home to their ancestors, a place for the veneration of their dead and the remembrance of their living. For them, Vincentians today stand as the gatekeepers of a place of deep spiritual value to the Garifuna themselves. And that too should give Vincentians pause. For we now have a dual responsibility. To construct and protect the St Vincent and the Grenadines we love for our generations to come. And knowing that in doing so, we are also protecting the sacred shores of the Garifuna people for generations to come.

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