A reflection on Garifuna History: After the celebration, what next?
Garifuna Settlement Day, which is observed on November 19th each year since 1943 in the southern districts and 1977 countrywide, draws many Belizeans together to celebrate the arrival of the Garinagu to Belize in 1823.
Around 1823, the Spanish republics were preoccupied with endless cycles of civil wars, assassinations attempts and revolutions. Around that time most Garinagu and their communities were (and still are) found in these republics, their population having spread across the region ever since their banishment from their homeland, St. Vincent in 1797 – about twenty five years earlier. 1823 was also the pivotal year in which the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America (then, a single nation comprising of the provinces of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) declared itself independent of Mexico.
The fear of persecution and the mere business of keeping alive within that environment of bloody revolution, necessitated the mass migration of Garinagu to join others who were already peacefully residing south of the Sibun River.
Each year, the celebrations seem to have drowned the fact that the mass migration of Garinagu in 1823 was really not their first arrival to Belize. As noted in Sir John Alden Burdon’s Archives of British Honduras Vol 2 : 1801 -1840, the decision to formally admit the first Garinagu into the settlement was made by Superintendent Richard Bassett at a Magistrate meeting held on August 9, 1802.
Nancie Gonzalez’s Sojourners of the Caribbean noted that even as early as 1799 or 1800 Garifuna men were already secretly hired by white timber businessmen to cut mahogany outside the legally designated territory. These men soon became skilled woodcutters and incomparable smugglers. It was most likely that with their assistance, Deep River and the Stann Creek area soon became occupied. That first clandestine arrangement might have provided the impetus for the white timber businessmen to later seek the permission of the Magistrate to import more Garifuna labourers.
With a total population of 2,881 persons in 1802, (of which 735 were free persons and 2,146 enslaved Africans) the settlement of Belize required a much larger labour force to meet the sharp increase in demand for mahogany in the European market.
The remaining strands of mahogany within the established territory north of the Sibun River had been largely depleted and new sources needed to be exploited south of the Sibun River, which was then outside the territory limits that was established by the 1786 Convention of London.
The persistent escape of enslaved Africans from the settlement to nearby territories also compelled the white forestocracy to seek new source of reliable labour. By that time, Garinagu had developed a reputation in the region as exceedingly friendly, energetic, intelligent, reliable and honest hardworking people who had been sought after as labourers in Spanish plantations.
Beginning in late August 1802 and again in December 1802, a total of about 150 Garifuna labourers were shipped from Roatan and neighbouring territories to the settlement of Belize to be employed to cut mahogany. As one of the first free Blacks in the Americas, the Garinagu were not allowed to live in the settlement for fear that they would join forces with the enslaved Africans to foment rebellion. Furthermore, because of their spiritual practices and their history of rebellion they were viewed with fear and great suspicion even while their labour was needed.
Consequently, they were only allowed to live south of the Sibun River where almost all of their communities have remained ever since. Slavery was still in existence then, until the Abolition of Slavery Act was put into force on
August 1, 1834 (over ten years after the mass influx of Garifuna to southern Belize) and the final instalment of Emancipation in 1838.
Only five years earlier, in 1797, the Garinagu were exiled from their homeland of St. Vincent after unsuccessfully attempting to defend their fertile communal lands against the British whose interest was to expand their sugar plantations. Failing to bribe and cajole the Garinagu to give up their lands, the British resorted to military force to engage the Garinagu in all-out war. When the Garinagu refused to surrender, the British hunted them down, burnt their houses and canoes, and destroyed their crops and food.
Between July 1796 and February 1797, about 4,338 Garifuna (mostly women and children) were captured and transported to the barren rock island of Baliceaux. There, about 2,100 died from typhus or yellow fever, which was aggravated by malnutrition.
On March 11, 1797, the 2,238 Garifuna survivors were loaded onto a convoy of eight to ten ships to be banished forever on the island of Roatan, hundreds of miles away. Over two hundred died on that perilous one month voyage. On April 12, 1797, 2,026 Garinagu (664 men and 1,362 women and children) were landed on Roatan and left to the mercy of the elements.
These stalwart ancestors formed the root stock of the estimated 400,000 Garifuna people and their richly unique culture that is predominantly found along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.
The arrival of hardworking Garifuna labourers in 1802 significantly impacted the economy of the settlement. Burdon’s Archives of British Honduras, 1801-1840, recorded that the shipment of mahogany rose steeply from 2.1 million board feet in 1802 to 4.5 million board feet in 1803, and 6.5 million board feet in 1804, although there was an unexplained sharp decline to 2.4 board feet occurred in 1805.
The hard labour of enslaved Africans and Garinagu as they roamed through wild jungles to harvest mahogany and other timber, established the foundation of Belize’s early economic history. Such foundation was recognized in Belize’s original Coat of Arms that reflected two Black men. Interestingly, Belize’s national motto, “Sub Umbra Floreo” – meaning under the shade (of the mahogany tree) I flourish – does not reveal who was the “I” who really flourished from their labour.
For well over a century and a half since their first arrival, Garinagu communities were also known to be very productive. Small farms and productive family plots provided food and income for the family. Fishermen harvested enough for their families and for sale in their communities. In the late 1800s several Garifuna farmers were selling bananas and coconuts to steamers from New Orleans for export. From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, the port at Commerce Bight provided a stable source of income for many in Dangriga. With their multi-lingual skills, Garinagu were also known to provide best source of teachers for expanding education to remote areas of Belize. Their vibrant music, dance and food and other aspects of their culture has enriched Belize’s multicultural landscape.
While there is much to celebrate and be thankful for, all is not well in Garifuna (and Black Creole) communities. The emphasis on celebratory drumming and dancing should not overshadow the socioeconomic realities that have persistently threatened the quality of life and positive human values in our communities. After the celebrations, then what?
Indeed, the labour of Garinagu and enslaved Africans in the early settlement of Belize was pivotal to its economic foundation and country’s formation and development. Yet their descendants continue to face increasing threats of economic and social marginalization.
Divisive political party loyalties have not only torn communities apart but have also discouraged any emergence of unifying and transformational leadership. By now it ought to be clear that when one fanatically locks himself or herself into the perspectives of political parties, reactions become predictable, defensive and conflict-ridden. This does not allow for fresh unifying perspectives for building strong, caring and prosperous communities.
Overall a sort of complacency and apathy have set in while issues of discrimination, historically exploitative socio-economic opportunities, high levels of poverty, lack of self-reliant productivity, alienation from resources, alcoholism, poor dietary habits and diabetes, disengaged youths, and conflicting cultural values have all continue to negatively impact Belizean Garifuna communities – as is similarly seen in Garifuna communities in Honduras.
Traditional values and knowledge about ancestral spiritual connections, medicinal plants, natural healing and healthy foods are being lost as many elders remain disconnected from the youths. Caring community relations are increasingly being lost to the onslaught of individualistic, materialistic values that disconnect people from their inner source, their families, communities and natural resources.
This situation can and must change, starting with the awareness the wellbeing of each person is inseparably linked to the wellbeing of all. The timeless values of Garifuna ancestors are embedded in their motto: “Au bu, amürü nu” (I am yours, you are mine). As in in the African spirit of Ubuntu they recognize that, I am only what I am because of all who have contributed to my growth and wellbeing, however insignificant it may seem. The individual, family and community support for the success of each member benefits the community and future generations. Such values can go a long way to return to the path of transformation. And we can’t rely on divisive politics to do this.
Just thinking out loud as the measured rhythmic Garifuna heart drum echoes the beat of our hearts – since Africa and since Yurumein.