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The Kalinago/Garifuna Story – Some reflections

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Before I go into the meat of my reflections, I want to draw attention to an issue that has been lingering for some time among some sections of the population. Some have not accepted Chatoyer as National Hero, because they doubt his existence. Many have met me and asked how come there is no family named Chatoyer in SVG and how come he didn’t leave any children? The answer is simple, since they were sent into exile.{{more}} We know that following Chatoyer’s death, his son, whom they called ‘Young Chatoyer’ was among those in authority before being sent into exile along with Duvallé. Joseph Palacio, Belizean anthropologist, in his oral history research reported the story that has been handed down over generations, of one Gulisi, who claimed to have been the daughter of Chatoyer. To add to this, for some strange reason, the citation read at the ceremony to proclaim him National Hero identified him as Kalinago, but we know that he was Garifuna/Black Carib.

Sometime last year, the Dominicans renamed their Carib Village ‘Kalinago Village’. This has led me to do some reflection on our situation, where a great deal of confusion exists. I often make the point that after 1797, the story of those ‘Caribs’ who remained has been largely forgotten. In fact, visitors to St Vincent and the Grenadines have been surprised that there are Carib descendants here. Many know about the Garifuna in Central America, but assume that their expulsion was the end of the Vincentian ‘Carib’ story.

Although there is a negative image associated with the word ‘Carib’, a name given to them by those who usurped their land, I continue to use that name, unless there are specific references to one of the groups. We have not clearly clarified who are these people. Are they descendants of the ‘Yellow Carib/Kalinago’ people or of the ‘Black Carib/Garifuna’ people? Even in the historical literature this confusion exists. When one examines the literature, the Europeans who told the story were often not clear as to the distinction between Africans and ‘black Carib’/Garifuna. In 1804, one African slave, Rosalind, aged 21, had escaped and lived for sometime in the woods with ‘Charaibs’ and ‘negroes’. On her return to the Hope estate where she had to tell her story and describe the group with which she lived for some months, she ‘said there were some Charibs among them and some negroes that spoke French. She said she knew the distinction of Caribs’. So, at least there were those who knew, but they were not the ones telling the story.

The traditional story that was told was that the ‘Yellow Caribs’ did not fight against the British and were therefore not sent into exile. One will assume, based on this, that the majority of ‘Caribs,’ remaining were ‘Yellow Caribs,’ but this is clearly not so. Unless shown otherwise, I agree with anthropologist, Nancie Gonzalez, who based on her ethnographic research, concluded that by 1763, “Island Carib had become Black Carib…that by the middle of the eighteenth century the ‘Black Caribs’ of St.Vincent were culturally and biologically indistinguishable from the so-called Yellow Caribs. Yet European observers, burdened by a racist imagination and ignorant of Mendelian genetics, insisted on distinguishing between darker, more combative Caribs and lighter, more tractable ones – and in imposing policies that preserved the distinction.”

One of the common strategies of the colonisers was to divide to better rule. They continued to sow divisions between ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ Caribs, even though there is a lot of evidence that they worked in unison. When one looks at French sources, this comes out clearly. Alexander Moreau, historian and soldier, had been appointed by the French government to assist the Caribs in their struggles against the British. He visited in 1795 and was met by the Yellow Carib chief, Pakiri. He was taken to the communal house, where he found ‘gathered together the chiefs and warriors of the two tribes, the Red and Black Caribs’. In 1722 when Captain John Brathwaite visited to stake claim to the country on behalf of the Duke of Montague, he met on board his ship with the chiefs of the Black and Yellow Caribs who, on being told his mission, indicated to him that had he mentioned it when they were ashore, they would not have been able to protect him. They told him further that “they would trust no Europeans; that they owned themselves under the protection of the French, but would as soon oppose to their settling amongst ‘em or any act of force from ’em …as they had lately given an example (to the French) by killing several.’ They knew of no King who had the authority to parcel out their land to one of their dukes. Having realised that the original ‘yellow caribs’ had seriously declined in numbers, it suited them to draw the distinction between black and yellow caribs to support their argument that the island belonged to the yellow not black caribs. They used this distinction to convince their home government that the ‘Black Caribs’ had no basis for claiming possession of St.Vincent.”

So, there is a lot of misinformation in the mainly British literature that we have been using to tell the story of the Caribs and their struggles. Increasingly, more French sources are being tapped and their story differs in many respects from that of the English. In looking at this, we always have to remember that the French had a closer relationship with the Caribs than had the British. The reason for this is not a mystery. When the French arrived, they were mainly into small farming, unlike the British, who were into sugar production and desperately wanted to grab Carib lands. This angered the Caribs.

(To be continued).

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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