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The Carib/Garifuna Story


Recently the word Garifuna has formed part of the conversation of many of us. Who are these people? Simply put, they are the descendants of the Caribs who were exiled to Central America in 1797.

Let us first understand that there has been a great deal of misinformation in the past in telling their story. Scholars among indigenous peoples and others who have taken an interest in the subject have been questioning traditional interpretations.{{more}} The indigenous peoples living in St Vincent when the Europeans reached these parts, were the Yellow/Red Caribs who came from Central America. They were subsequently joined by African slaves. French Catholic missionary Père Labat, who visited St Vincent in 1700, writes, “Beside the Indians the island is also populated by negroes, most of whom have escaped from Barbados…In former times the Caribs brought the slaves back to their masters or sold them to the French and Spaniards. For some reason, that I am not aware of, the Indians stopped doing this and regarded these runaways as an addition to their nation.”

This is one of the ways by which blacks came to be part of the Carib nation. It is known that escaped slaves came not only from Barbados, but also from the French islands, the currents/winds facilitating their escape. This was obviously a major issue, for all of the treaties dealing with the Caribs from 1688 contained clauses urging the return of escaped slaves. That of 1772, following the first war with the Caribs, states, “Runaway slaves in the possession of the Charaibs are to be delivered up, and endeavours used to discover and apprehend the others; and an engagement, in future, not to encourage, receive or harbour any slave whatever; forfeiture of lands for; and carrying off the island a capital crime.” The fact that this was mentioned coincides with the point made by Labat that they had ceased returning them. Slaves were encouraged to escape, knowing that they could find refuge among the Caribs. Some suggest that this was the main source from which Blacks came.

Following the control of the northernmost islands by the Spaniards, the Caribs, in an effort to stem their encroachment on their lands, made occasional raids on their settlements and took away slaves. The other source from which Blacks arrived was from a shipwreck off the coast of Bequia in 1635. This date is questioned, some putting it at 1675, which appears too late. There are versions which speak of a revolt rather than shipwreck. The Caribs brought them to the mainland where they added to the black part of the population. Christopher Taylor, in his 2012 book ‘The Black Carib Wars – Freedom, Survival and the Making of the Garifuna,’ informs us how he got interested and involved in the study of Garifuna/Carib history. He had been visiting Nicaragua and was looking at a baseball game in Orinoco on the Nicaragua Atlantic coast when he was told a story that set him on that path. He heard that the Garifuna people there originated from a shipwreck off St Vincent. This he got from the people themselves. George Davidson, who had lived at Byera for two years, stated in a letter to one of John Wesley’s missionaries that he was informed by the Black Caribs themselves that they date their origin to the shipwreck.

The other version of the arrival of Blacks to these parts, come from the Guyanese linguist, literary critic and anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima, whose book ‘They Came Before Columbus’ argues that Blacks arrived in these parts before Columbus. His version of their presence in St Vincent has not been widely accepted by historians. Central American social scientists have provided a devastating critique of his findings. For me, it is conceivable that Blacks might have been in the Americas before Columbus, but there is nothing to link them to St Vincent. If that was so, we need to explain then when the Yellow Caribs came and how they were able to get an upper hand. So, this is questionable.

What I have done so far is to look at the accounts of the addition of Blacks to the indigenous Carib population. It is out of the intermingling/intermarriage of Africans and Caribs that we had the emergence of a new group, the Black Caribs.

Recent genetic studies done of Carib populations in St Vincent and Central America show that the populations were a result of racial mixing. They show proportions of African and Amerindian mixing in the genetic pool, a greater proportion of African genes in the case of the Central Americans, because of the different encounters they had. In St Vincent, the studies show a great mixing of Caribs and non-Caribs since the deportation of 1797.

In our understanding of our early history, we become trapped in the version provided for us, one that relied heavily on people whose aim was to get Carib lands. The name Carib was given by the Europeans and was not what they called themselves. The name Carib is related to or is a variant of cannibal. This was deliberately done to mark these people as cannibals. Our early history, taught until recently, referred to the Caribs as cannibals, but no one has ever seen them eat human flesh. A Barbadian scholar, Richard Moore, in his book, ‘Of Caribs and Cannibals’, declared that based on his exhaustive research, he has found no such evidence, nor has anyone else. It is now known that the word for the Yellow Caribs was Kalinago and for the Black Caribs Garifuna. Chroistopher Taylor states, “By the late eighteenth century, disease, warfare and emigration had reduced the Yellow Carib population …by which time the terms Carib and Black Caribs are all but synonymous in colonial accounts.” (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.