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A review of Christopher Taylor’s ‘The Black Carib Wars’

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Dr Garrey Michael Dennie Tue, Oct 23, 2012

The history of the Garifuna people remains one of the least researched and hence less understood realms of the Caribbean historical experience. Two reasons account for this. First, as Christopher Taylor’s “The Black Carib Wars” spells out, the Garifuna were the last of the holdouts against British colonialism and their defeat and exile from St Vincent meant that it was the victorious British-Vincentian planter class who would construct and propagate a vision of themselves and a vision of the Garifuna that glorified the British forces and denigrated the Garifuna.{{more}}

With British historians having little incentive to provide a critical examination of this master narrative, and with the Garifuna’s exile to Central America effectively silencing the emergence of their own counter-narrative, the field of Garifuna studies grew very slowly. Second, Garifuna history was made in the Caribbean, with St Vincent serving both as the ancestral homeland of the Garifuna and as the arena of intense combat between the Garifuna and the British. But, as Christopher Taylor’s research convincing demonstrated, the most rigorous examination of the Garifuna historical experiences demands access to sources which are not to be found in St Vincent, but are located in England and France. What this meant, of course, is that for a long time, linguistic, logistical, and financial constraints would inhibit Caribbean scholars in general, and Vincentian scholars in particular, from having easy access to the sources necessary to permit a sustained inquiry into the history of the Garifuna.

The sum effect of these two points is that the literature on the Garifuna, particularly their battles in St Vincent, still remains sparse and in need of a major infusion of new research, particularly research directed at seeing the history of the Garifuna through the eyes of the Garifuna themselves.

“The Black Carib Wars” represents one such effort. It stands as an important addition to the literature on the Garifuna because it allows us a glimpse into the Garifuna’s understandings of their world. Time and time again through the reliance on the words of the Garifuna, Taylor makes clear that the Garifuna understood that they were fighting to protect their right to keep ownership of their land, that they were fighting to protect their right to live in the country of their birth, and that upon these points, there could be no compromise. Here, in fact, lies the greatest strength of Taylor’s work. He is able to amass a tremendous amount of evidence from a critical corpus of sources – both French and English – which brings to life the tenacity, courage, and ingenuity of the Garifuna as they expertly managed their relationship with the French and the British, both in war and in peace, to arrive at the same end: the protection of their sovereignty.

This story is not new in and of itself. What is new, and is a triumph of the book, is that it does this in greater detail than perhaps all previous works. More particularly, it does so by bringing to light not simply the deeds of the well-known Chief Chatoyer, but more crucially, it sheds a light on the deeds of a parade of rarely mentioned Garifuna leaders who were active participants in the fight against British colonialism. In so doing, Taylor underlined how and why the Garifuna nation stood united against an enemy whose resources far surpassed those of the Garifuna.

Taylor’s work, however, is not without its weaknesses. The book is particularly weak in its presentation of the relations between the Garifuna and enslaved Africans who sometimes ran away from their slave masters to join the Garifuna and at other times fought against the Garifuna on behalf of the slave masters. “The Black Carib Wars” does not provide a convincing explanation of these contradictory responses, probably due to the fact that the author sought to describe these behaviours rather than to explain them. Explaining these contradictions, however, would have allowed “The Black Carib Wars” to stand not simply as a contribution to our understanding of the Garifuna, but our understanding of slavery itself.

“The Black Carib Wars” demonstrates that at several moments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Garifuna leaders offered sanctuary to runaway slaves – even after agreeing with the British to return such persons, and even knowing that offering sancturary to enslaved Africans could actually jeopardize the security of the Garifuna themselves. What in fact we saw happening here in St Vincent was the emergence of what we can call proto-Black nationalism, a nascent recognition by the Garifuna and enslaved Blacks that they were capable of making a common front against the slave masters. Indeed, the British murdered one Garifuna chief precisely because he offered a refuge to runaway slaves and refused to turn them over to the slave masters. It is therefore a delightful historical irony that the modern Vincentian nation, consisting primarily of the descendants of former slaves, now celebrates the Garifuna leader, Chatoyer, as our first national hero, thereby validating the earliest expressions of unity between the Garifuna and enslaved Africans.

If “The Black Carib Wars” is silent on the revolutionary potential of the union of enslaved Africans and the Garifuna in forging a proto-Black national consciousness, it clearly laments and is even perplexed by the fact that the British deployed enslaved Africans to help them prosecute the war against the Garifuna. For those who study comparative slavery from ancient times to the modern world, what surprises here is not the use of slaves as combatants. That history is more than 2,000 years old. We see this in ancient Rome, we see this in the early Islamic empire, we see this in the American civil war; indeed we see this in multiple slave societies through time and space. In the Caribbean, however, this is a rarely witnessed phenomenon. In general, from the perspective of slave masters, slave soldiers make sense for two reasons. War is dangerous. People die. From the point of view of the slave masters then, it clearly makes more sense to send someone else to face that risk rather than face it themselves. Why then would slaves fight? Because from the point of view of the slaves, it is preferable to fight a war where you might die rather than refuse to fight and then certainly die for resisting the orders of the slave masters. That was the choice enslaved Africans faced: the probability of death in fighting the Garifuna or the certainty of death in defying the master. Wherever one finds slave soldiers, it is that calculus that informed slaves’ participation in war. Black Carib Wars therefore opened a window on what has been a barely visible phenomenon in Caribbean slave societies although it lacked the analytic clarity to fully explain how slaves’ participation in combat was itself a powerful demonstration of slave masters’ control over slaves.

The point being made is actually quite simple: in joining the war effort against the Garifuna, enslaved Africans did not act out of their own volition. Legally, they could not say no to any command from the slave masters. The slaves therefore acted instead out of compulsion. Under these circumstances enslaved Africans and Garifuna had justifiable reasons to fear one another. But both of them were victims of the same arch villain: the avaricious British planter class. However, to the extent that The Black Carib Wars brings attention to this phenomenon, it has added one more credit to itself in expanding our knowledge of the Garifuna historical experience. Equally importantly, it has opened up new areas of inquiry that future researchers must pursue.

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