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The Carib/Garifuna Story (Part 2)

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The tale of the ‘Caribs’ as cannibals was started by Columbus. He did not understand the language of the Indians he met in the northern islands, but indicated that they told him that Indians to the south ate human flesh. Thus began the use of the word ‘Carib’. Columbus’s aim was obviously to justify their enslavement. The French and English used the divide and rule tactics to show and perhaps sow major divisions between Black and Yellow/Red ‘Caribs’, in their efforts to usurp these peoples’ lands and to colonize them.{{more}} Skin pigmentation was used as part of that process. Not only were these divisions exaggerated, but they were projected over the whole period of existence of the groups. It was only in times of war or threats that the ‘Caribs’ selected a paramount chief, as they did with Chatoyer. Normally they lived in small communities with their own chiefs. Some 26 chiefs signed the 1772 treaty at the end of the 1st ‘Carib war’, so-called. Chatoyer, when he first appeared in the literature in 1768, seemed to have been chief of Grand Sable, which was perhaps their major settlement. There were obviously divisions at times between so-called Black and Yellow ‘Caribs,’ but the groups worked together, particularly in defence of St Vincent (Yuremein) and there are many examples of this. Alexandre Moreau De Jonnes, the Frenchman, was appointed as the French liaison person to coordinate military assistance to St Vincent, for an expected British attack.

He visited St Vincent in 1795, before the start of the 2nd ‘Carib’ war. He was met on arrival by a Red ‘Carib’ chief Pakiri and taken to the village where he was brought to a communal house “containing an assembly hall at least 80 feet long; there I found gathered together the chiefs and warriors of the two tribes, the Red and the Black Caribs.” He conferred with them. Pakiri, who was his host, informed him that the major interests in his life were the defence of his country and the love of his daughter. Eliama, his daughter, had a reputation as being among the most famous warriors. Black Carib women ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Flower of the Forest’ were adept in the use of artillery and during training “never missed the target once.” Moreau was recalled for a secret mission to Martinique, then held by the British. On his return to the village where he had been hosted by Pakiri, he found that it had suffered a British attack and all had been killed, except the ‘maid’ of the chief’s daughter, who had hidden with a dog in a cave at the back of the woods. Eliama, who was wounded, was pursued by enemy ‘trackers’ and managed to get to La Soufrière where she threw herself into the volcano.

In the face of defeat, many of the ‘Caribs’ had taken shelter in the woods, but the lands on which they planted their food were destroyed by ‘negro slave trackers’ used by the British. Moreau states, “These negroes crept through passages believed to be inaccessible, and getting near to the rear of military positions, they reached the redoubt which served as a refuge for women and children and a storehouse for munitions and food. They sacked everything, pitilessly killing the harmless occupants, pillaging and burning the provisions which would have sustained them and the Carib warriors. The warriors, hearing of this disaster lost courage.”

Some 4,300 ‘Caribs’ were captured or surrendered and taken to Balliceaux. A large number were decimated and only 2, 200 left for Roatan on March 11, 1797, with 2, 026 arriving there on April 11, 1797. The convoy of ships, 8-10, went from Balliceaux to Bequia, then to Grenada and to Jamaica for supplies and repairs. The names of about 30 chiefs who landed at Roatan are recorded, among them one called Dubale, which could conceivably have been Duvalle. Chatoyer’s son had been listed as Satulle. Their arrival in that part of the world was at a time when the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were impacting on colonies in the Americas. In fact, when they landed at Roatan, the British convoy overwhelmed a small Spanish fort and garrison, forcing it to surrender. The Wars of Independence followed not too long after. The military skills of the Caribs seemed to have been known and their help was sought from both the Spanish and British but with an understanding of the geo-politics learnt in St Vincent, they were able to forge, or in some cases forced to make alliances as they found necessary.

Nancie Gonzalez, whose views I share, has written extensively on the exile of the ‘Caribs’ and their settlement in Central America. She visited St Vincent “primarily because so many Caribs spoke of St Vincent as though it were Mecca.” She argues that by 1763 Carib society had entered a new phase, where Island Carib (Yellow/Red Caribs) had become Black Carib. Carib territory had been severely diminished, and war became the order of the day, replacing the trading and raiding patterns that had earlier existed. Their exile in 1797 disrupted a process that was seeing the evolution of ‘new social and cultural forms.’ Christopher Taylor argues, “Garifuna people take pride in their past as a free people living for generations according to their own customs on St Vincent. Their language passed down from the Amerindian side of their heritage, bears living witness to their radically different history. In colonial times they were known to antagonists and allies alike as Black ‘Caribs’, a name which encapsulates their mixed African/Amerindian heritage…” Those sent into exile would have interacted with other Blacks in Central America, but they retained a strong sense of identity, which explains their constant reference to St Vincent /Yuremein as the homeland of their ancestors.

To be continued.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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