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The Carib/Garifuna Story (Part 4)


Based on questions asked of me and comments made on radio, I have decided to shift the way I intended to end this series and to focus on some other related issues. First, it needs to be mentioned that the final chapter on the early history of St Vincent has not be written, that is if there could be any final chapter on any historical issue. One of the major matters at play is the fact that the Caribs left no writing of their own. No one has been able to decipher what is written on the petroglyphs, but they are believed to have religious significance. {{more}}

Archaeologists have been able to provide a lot of information about the early history, but this is limited to material things and what can be deduced from them. In any event their writings have an enormous influence in reconstructing that history. What makes the matter even more difficult is that most of what we hear or read about our early history is based on the writings of their enemies, the British. One of the accounts of the Caribs that has shaped our understanding of their history is Sir William Young’s “An Account of the Black Charaibs in the Island of St Vincent’s.” One has to read his account critically because of its obvious bias. Young was one of the Commissioners dealing with the land issue following the control of the island provided by the Treaty of Paris of 1763.

On August 10, 1765, two years following the beginning of British control, the Commissioners wrote to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, indicating to them that what was likely to benefit the colony most was to have the Caribs removed, “as many of them as can be prevailed upon to quit.” This was followed by another letter in July 1769 stating, “…we have the greatest reason to think that suffering the Charaibs to remain in their present state will be very dangerous…” The letter referred to the difficulty of accessing where they resided, “…they will from thence be capable of committing all outrages unpunished; of harbouring the slaves of the inhabitants of this Island, as well as of all the neighbouring islands; of sheltering amongst those vagabonds and deserters from the French.” So, the removal of the Caribs had been hatched a long time before 1797.

Other accounts came from “Early English and French Voyages in the late 1560s.” Many of these followed voyages of Drake and Hawkins in their search for trade and slaves and their efforts to explore the expected riches of Guyana. These early encounters, particularly with the St Vincent Caribs, were quite limited. Even when the Caribs provided them with resupplies for their ships, they feared being eaten by them. One has to ask why were they not eaten by the Caribs, if, as they claimed, they were cannibals? The accounts by French missionaries came from the late 17th century.

From 1674 we began to hear of the presence of Blacks among the Caribs. Jesuit RP Simon noted that there are a great number of negroes who live among them, “some of them are fugitive maroons who were taken in war,” but the greater number he felt was from a wrecked Flemish or Spanish ship close to the island. It is known that the Caribs attacked Spanish plantations in the northern Caribbean, taking away some of their slaves. In a 1985 publication CJM Gullick indicated that the first mention of ‘negroes’ in St Vincent was in 1646. Some researchers believe that the Black Caribs had their origin in the early 16th century, but had by the beginning of the 18th century become ‘a distinct social element’. It is known also that quite a number of the blacks who became part of the Carib communities were escaped slaves from Barbados and some of the French islands, the pattern of the trade winds, particularly from Barbados, making this quite easy. Different treaties, including that of 1773, made provisions about runaway slaves. Clause 8 of that treaty stated, “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….”

We have neglected and are only now beginning to pay attention to French sources, which although having their own biases, give us a different account and it must be pointed out that the French had a closer relationship with the Caribs, who saw them as allies against the British. In this too, one needs to look at the French Catholic missionaries who lived among them. Father Mark and the Mayreau Environmental Development Organization have provided us with two useful books that we need to read. The first, “The Caribs” was based on the translation of a work by Rev Father Adrien Le Breton. That translation was done by Father Divonne, who served in Mayreau for a number of years, but had discovered the document in the French archives. Fr Breton, we are told, lived among the Caribs in St Vincent between 1693 and 1702. The other work, authored by Father Mark, “The French Church & The Caribs”, as the name suggests, deals with the early missionaries who worked in St Vincent. Why it is important to look at these is that the French had a closer relationship with the Caribs. The work by Father Breton paints a completely different picture of the Caribs compared with what we had traditionally been told. Hopefully, looking at both British and French sources will provide us with a more rounded picture.

The other issue, which space does not permit me to deal with now, has to do with the belief that the Blacks were here before Columbus.

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.