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The Carib story – Reflections on aspects of our national heritage

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On Saturday March 15, I delivered an address at the opening of the Garifuna National Conference, held at the Peace Memorial Hall. My presentation was on the theme of the Conference, “Back to our Roots – Strategies for Survival and Sustainability of Indigenous Peoples.” At the end of the opening session a Carib youth came to me and told me that he now felt better about himself.{{more}}

This is not something that should be taken lightly and was an issue to which I had drawn attention. I also had in mind an encounter some years ago with a Carib lady who was annoyed that, at least, at the school which her daughter attended, they still spoke of the Caribs as being cannibals. These are part of a broader issue about which the Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’O is very strong. It really has to do with the impact of colonialism on people who were colonised.

Wa Thiong’O is of the view that the destruction of a peoples’ culture was the greatest weapon in the possession of the colonial power. He accepts the fact that the military technology of the imperial mother was superior to that of the persons who were being colonialised. But he goes on to suggest that military power was only significant when guns are held over the people. But in a colonial situation, culture is more formidable. If you convince the people that they are inferior and dismantle their culture, then you can control them indefinitely. This is something dealt with by others. I like how Dr Carter Woodson, founder of the Journal of Negro History and author of the Mis- Education of the Negro puts it. He was making the point in a different context, but it amounted to the same thing. He stated, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” I am also reminded too of Bob Marley’s “Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery.” In other words, emancipation is not complete until we rid ourselves of mental slavery.

The British used this weapon effectively through education and religion. The Caribs were robbed of their identity. They were objects rather than subjects of their history. They lost confidence in themselves, hated themselves and were confused about their identity. They had to live for a long time with the issue of cannibalism hanging over their heads. This stigma took hold of them and destroyed their identity and pride. This weapon was used against all colonial people. Blacks were, by the same token, victims of this onslaught on their culture. They were supposed to have come from a people who were barbaric. Africa was painted as primitive. Indeed, when the Shaker religion was banned in 1912, one of the things used against them was that they were “remnants of African barbarism.”

The unfortunate thing about this is that black persons coming out of slavery fell victims to this divide and rule trap and looked down on the Carib peoples. This is something that, to some extent, probably still exists.

A lot has obviously changed. The emergence of scholars among descendants of indigenous peoples who, particularly after 1992, began to recover their own history, did begin to make a difference. The declaration of Chatoyer as our National Hero would, in our case have made a great contribution to overturning some of the myths, although some of us in SVG still do not accept our National Hero being someone dressed in loincloth. I mention this, because I am aware of a recent attempt to do a mural depicting Chatoyer, but having him dressed in European garb.

The other point that we need to reflect on is who are these Carib descendants? We speak about Kalinago people, meaning Red Caribs and Black Caribs, today called Garifuna. I am of the view that there is a lot of confusion about this. We assume that shades of colour will determine who belongs to which group. There are some difficulties with this, but I will leave this matter for another time. Of great concern to me is that today we seem to be erasing the Kalinagos/Red Caribs from our history, from the struggles of our people. The group that defended our country most viciously in the early years and prevented European colonisation were the Kalinago people. They had been resisting Europeans since the arrival of Columbus 16th he period of the 16th and 17th centuries. They really set the stage and delayed European intervention. The British and French began establishing settlements in the smaller Caribbean territories in the early decades of the 17th century, but Kalinago resistance kept St Vincent safe from them. In the 18th century, the Red and Black Caribs worked together.

The British, in their attempt at divide and rule, created the impression that the Black and Red Caribs were perpetually at war, but the evidence works against this and there are many examples to dispute this. To use one example, the Frenchman Moreau de Jonnès when he visited St Vincent in the 1790s, was taken to a communal house where he met Black and Red Carib warriors and their chiefs. (See also historical notes in this issue).

There is really a lot about the history of the Caribs that needs to be clarified. While we speak of the heroic role of Chatoyer and the Garifuna people, let us not create divisions. They were one people.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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