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Kalinago/Garifuna story: some reflections

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(Continued from last week)

Although I have suggested that there is need to pay more attention to French sources, I am not unaware of their biases. However, using both sources with some good detective work, it will be possible to develop a more balanced picture of the life of our early peoples. We should not get the impression that in the encounters with the British, the Caribs were being manipulated by the French who, of course, had their own struggles with the British. The Caribs, certainly Chatoyer, clearly understood the geo-political situation and knew that the French and British were enemies, but preferred to side with the French, who at that time did not have the kind of obsession with their lands that the British had.{{more}}

Although a number of gaps still remain in our understanding of that early history of the Carib peoples and continued research has to be undertaken to get around the biases of the French and English, there should be a greater interest in those who remained after 1797. After 1797, the focus shifts to Central America and we see them today simply as the descendants of those who had earlier engaged in those heroic struggles. But these people have a history of their own and would undoubtedly have contributed to the development of Vincentian society since 1797.

The Caribs were never enslaved, but were the ‘principal boatmen employed in shipping sugar on the dangerous windward coast’. It was said that they ‘are perfectly fearless on the water.’ Their skills at boat making and basket weaving were in high demand. They represented St Vincent at different imperial exhibitions. At the Forestry exhibition in Scotland in 1884, the country received a silver medal and two bronze medals – for fibres and basket and wicker work and for a model of a dugout canoe. In 1891, at the Jamaica Exhibition at which the country was represented by three Yellow and three Black Caribs, they became an instant hit, attracting attention to their hut where they demonstrated their basket-making skills, the Governor visiting them on several occasions. According to TBC Musgrave, in his booklet prepared for the Jamaica Exhibition, their baskets ‘which are made in nests, fitting into one another, are so constructed as to be water-tight and to last for years.” Lady Blake, wife of the Governor presented them with ‘six very fine cutlasses, with nickel plated blades and handles of horn.’ They won some of the highest awards, including a Diploma of Honour, ‘only given in cases of especial excellence’.(RM Anderson). Their contribution to Vincentian culinary art and in other areas still needs to be told.

Following the expulsion of 1797, the authorities seemed to have underestimated the numbers who remained in the woods. Governor Bentinck, in 1798, stated that “their numbers are much greater than we thought.” Even up to the period after emancipation, the authorities in England were trying without success to get reliable figures of the earlier inhabitants still in St Vincent. The censuses were unreliable, that of 1844 listing Caribs on the Leeward as Black and those on the Windward side as Coloured.

Apart from this confusion, propagated by visitors’ accounts and by the authorities’ willingness to see them as separate groups, it was clear that they lived together. Stipendiary Magistrate Colthurst, writing in his journal based on his period in St Vincent from 1835 to 1838, made reference to the distinction between the groups; “We discovered in some of the persons we saw the true yellow Carib countenance, but this is rare, from the various people of colour, as well as the whites, having intercourse with them. Both the negro and black Carib, as well as the whites, impart their endless tints to this unhappy aboriginal race, so it is only by mere chance the fullbred Yellow Carib is met with.” He went on to state that “We found these poor Caribs living severally together, and in evident harmony.” He was referring to the Carib village at Morne Ronde, where he visited a Carib school with a Carib schoolmaster. “This man,” he said, “seemed to be nearly of pure Carib blood and was evidently fit to instruct.” Those were lands granted to the Caribs in 1805. TBC Musgrave had also made reference to the black Caribs at Morne Ronde living under a headman, the one then being John Francois. He referred to another Black Carib settlement ‘at a place called Greigg’s in the mountains.’

Frederick Ober, a naturalist, who in the late 1870s spent a few days at Sandy Bay in a two-room wattled and thatched hut, had as his neighbour a Black Carib, ‘Captain George’, who was married to a Yellow Carib, ‘a woman of uncontaminated Indian blood’. Their children, he said, ‘did not resemble in complexion either him or his wife.’

Given their location in the foothills of the Soufriere, the Caribs were affected over the years by a number of disasters and became scattered across different communities. They were affected not only by the 1812 and 1902 eruptions, but also by the 1831 hurricane, 1875 rains and floods, the 1886 hurricane, an 1895 storm, 1896 floods and the 1898 hurricane. They became very much dislocated. Some left for Trinidad after the 1812 eruption and others joined them later. There were efforts to send some to Jamaica following the 1902 eruption, but this was stoutly resisted. They had to keep shifting from area to area because of the dislocations that seriously affected Windsor Forest (formerly DuValle), Frasers estate (north of Wallibou) and Morne Ronde, Owia and Fancy. Many blacks had, following emancipation, moved into the Carib communities, including those of Fancy and Owia. Despite our expected interest in their early struggles to defend St Vincent, we have to lift the profile of those who remained and to try to speak to their contribution to Vincentian life, despite enormous difficulties.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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