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The Carib Garifuna Story (Part 5)


Paul Lewis’ interesting and very informative article that appeared in last week’s edition of The News newspaper provides me with a point of entry to this my final article in this series. First, a brief comment on the matter of honorary citizenship!

I agree with Paul that the matter of honorary citizenship has to be a national and not a party issue. I suspect that the NDP knows this and has promised a document that will be presented to the public.{{more}} How they deal with it after is the question. My problem with the questions raised about honorary citizenship is that Canada, Britain and the US, among others, have been used to certify what constitutes ‘honorary citizenship’. I am not aware that any of those countries had populations that were exiled. I say this to make the point that the St Vincent Garifuna situation is a very unique one and therefore cannot be viewed in traditional terms. But this is something which obviously has to be worked out. I agree, too, that the argument about the granting of full citizenship is totally unrealistic for reasons that Paul himself indicates.

The issue that I want to touch on is the one being voiced about the presence of Black Caribs before Columbus, a view that was taken from an article by Harold Lawrence, “Mandingo Voyages across the Atlantic” in Van Sertima’s African Presence in Early America. Van Sertima’s thesis, as Lewis indicated, got a devastating review from Central American scholars published in Current Anthropology, volume 18, no. 1, 1997. They stated that, “There is hardly a claim in any of Van Sertima’s writings that can be supported by the evidence found in the archaeological, botanical or historical records.” It laments his few references ‘to primary sources, to archaeological site reports or up-to date publications by scholars who have…done original work.’ Despite this, I am of the view that the African presence in the Americas before Columbus was quite possible.

My problem is in its relationship to St Vincent. Why only St Vincent? One of the earliest, if not the earliest reference to Blacks in St Vincent was by French missionary Armand de la Paix who, in 1646, noted that Blacks and Caribs from St Vincent fought side by side against Frenchmen from Martinique on or before 1635. But I am bothered by other things. Who did these Africans meet when they arrived? The Arawaks? The indigenous Caribs? If so, did the Caribs at some point gain the upper hand, for the early struggles against the Europeans from 1492 were led by the Caribs (Kalinagos), with no mention being made of an African presence? Sieur de la Borde’s An Account from the Jesuit Missions, notes in 1674 while speaking about the Caribs that, “There are a great number of negroes who live with them, particularly on St Vincent where their stronghold is. They have so multiplied that at present they are as powerful as them (the Charaibs).” Lawrence admits that the Caribs were not Africans, but were ‘influenced by or modified by an African, presence.’ I have indicated previously that blacks came from three sources – Carib raids on European settlements in the northern Caribbean, escaped slaves, particularly from Barbados, and a shipwreck off Bequia. The date of this shipwreck has been in question, but is in the Carib oral tradition. I have examined some of the early writings of Europeans who touched on St Vincent for supplies or simply passed nearby, and there is no mention of an African presence, suggesting that it came later.

Lewis calls on me to recognize the centrality of the role of the Kalinago, which, as he mentioned, I have done on numerous occasions. Saturday morning’s Global Highlight’s programme (the only time I heard Ramos) was certainly not the place for such a discussion. Undoubtedly, the early struggles against the Europeans were undertaken by the Kalinagos (Yellow Caribs), but I have accepted the position taken by Nancie Gonzalez that by the 18th century, particularly from the middle of that century, the Carib societies had become one. The Yellow Caribs had dwindled in numbers from their struggles against the Europeans and interbreeding with the Africans. Genetic studies done both in St Vincent and Central America have shown the presence of the genes of both Carib and African. Even in the final war, despite efforts to downplay this, the Yellow Caribs were very much present.

I have also made the point that after 1797 scholarly interest turned to the Garifuna in Central America. Lewis sought to remind me of publications in the press, by newsletters and presentations at conferences which sought to highlight some of the issues affecting the local indigenous community. Apart from CJM Gullick’s attempt to trace the life of the Caribs who remained here from 1797, there are not many others. Some research has been done for University theses, but these were mainly on the contemporary conditions of the indigenous people. There is not a great deal of information about their struggles in a society in which they were marginalized, about the entry of post-emancipation blacks into Carib communities, the effects of the eruptions and hurricanes, among other things. This would obviously inform public history, but it is lacking. Gullick’s efforts I find inadequate. He does provide us with valuable historical information, but this is set against his attempt to learn what the Caribs in the early 1970s knew about their own history, and about a number of issues, such as Black Power. He makes a big thing about this, but how much did the Caribs or Vincentians generally know about Carib history in the early 1970s, apart from what might have been mentioned by Ebenezer Duncan or other texts available at that time?

There is obviously a lot more that can be said, but there are more urgent issues calling for debate in SVG.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.