Lessons from the experiences of our Garifuna ancestors by Jerry A. Enriquez


 printed in Amandala, November 17, 2013 and reprinted with the permission of Jerry A. Enriquez

This piece offers a compelling story of the journey of the Garinagu people. In my opinion It also reflects a common history of the Creoles and Garinagu of Belize. The realities are that parents,  brothers, sisters and cousins were likely on different ships, all enslaved in Africa and taken across the Atlantic Ocean in an arduous voyage, however a shipwreck sets a different path for the Garinagus. Jeremy offers an uncensored view of the realities of slavery and oppression in the Caribbean.  AL

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The annual Garifuna Settlement Day celebration, which was founded in 1942 by visionary Garifuna leader Thomas Vincent Ramos, is the foremost event to remind Garinagu about their genesis, exodus, and survival against historical odds that were meant to exterminate their existence and identity as a people. The celebration also occurs in the Garifuna diaspora and on different dates at Garifuna communities in Honduras (April 12), Guatemala (Nov. 26) and Nicaragua. This year’s celebration theme is: – “Awanse wamá lidan aban lau lareini bungiu luma habayarahan áhari. (Let us progress in unity with God’s goodness and the protection of our ancestors.”

Arguably, without the pause for reflection that this day brings, the people’s collective memory of significant events in their experience would have long been destroyed by colonial forces. Hence the importance of all to be cognizant of the old West African proverb, “Until the lion and lioness learn to keep their history, the history of the hunting will always glorify the hunter.” One’s history must not only expand the awareness of the prevailing impact of past values and conditions on life today. Its lessons must be used to guide present and future realities. The experiences of our ancestors have a lot to teach us.

The popular history about the genesis of the Garinagu is that in 1635, two Spanish ships loaded with captured Africans (men and women) from the Bight of Benin in West Africa and destined for enslavement on plantations in the Caribbean, were wrecked by a storm off the island of Bequia in the Grenadines.  Most of these Africans survived the wreck and crossed over from Bequia to St Vincent where they found a home and intermingled among the Island Caribs who had helped in their rescue.

That history, however, is simplistic and distorts a much more complex reality. Ivan Van Sertima’s thesis argues the presence, in the Americas, of Africans from the Mali Empire during the 13th century. This was long before the encounter by “Chris-teef-us Come-bus us”. Be that as it may, the most significant series of events that has had the most profound impact on the character, history and contemporary Caribbean began with the flood of Europeans, starting with Columbus, who for over four centuries exploited every resource while cruelly subjugating enslaved Africans and indigenous people to fulfill their desire for material enrichment.

There were reports, such as in Nancie Gonzalez’s Sojourners of the Caribbean, of contact between island Caribs of Dominica and enslaved Africans occurring in the late 1500s and that such contact was also likely to have also occurred with St. Vincent Caribs several generations before the shipwreck.

Slavery was brutal. It included severe whippings by European masters, severing of body parts, hanging, or throwing slaves in boiling cauldrons of cane syrup. Many escaped. Over time there was a constant increase in the number pure-bred Africans who fled enslavement in Barbados and other islands to nearby St Vincent where the indigenous Caribs provided a sanctuary. The flow of ocean currents, wind, and short distance made it relatively easy for escapees to reach St. Vincent in small crafts. By the end of the 1700s the Black Carib (Garinagu) population on St. Vincent had grown considerably.

These two groups of people – the Africans and the indigenous bronze-colored Caribs – came to share a culture of resistance that was necessitated by the realities of the times in which they were living.  The Garinagu were forced to defend their territory, their freedom and their existence from marauding Europeans greedy for expansion of their colonial possessions and determined to acquire these at any cost and by any means necessary.

As early as 1772, the Garinagu vowed that they would never submit or give up their lands and preferred to die first. After several failed attempts at cajolery and intimidation to remove them from their land, the British engaged full force. In 1796, the Garinagu fought fiercely but were no match for the superior military might of the British.

When they refused to surrender, they were hunted down, their houses and canoes were burned, and their crops and food were destroyed. 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 embarked in a convoy of ships to be banished forever on the island of Roatan hundreds of miles away. (Those who remained in St. Vincent were strictly forbidden from any expression of their culture.) 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 we have today.

From their first settlement at Roatan these survivors spread to mainland Honduras where, gradually through baptism of their offspring to Roman Catholicism their family names such as Huayba, Palangure, Babiar, Sambula, Chatuye, among others, were changed, as the church required, to their Spanish compadre’s surnames such as Arzu, Castillo, Palacio, Cayetano, Enriquez, Ramos and others that they now have today.

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On August 1802, five years after the war and their expulsion from St Vincent, a group of 150 Garifuna were imported to the settlement of Belize to cut mahogany for the British forestocracy. This importation was necessitated by the shortage of labor due to the escape of enslaved Africans from the settlement to nearby Petén and Mexico. Technically, the Garinagu were not allowed in Belize. They were considered dangerous and there was fear that they would foment slave rebellion.  Hence it was mandated that all Garinagu must remain completely outside the settlement, south of its Sibun River boundary.

The first Garifuna settlement was Dangriga. From there they spread further south through the vast expanse of uninhabited forest and coastline all the way to the Sarstoon River extracting mahogany. (Interestingly, both Afro-descendant groups whose labor enriched the empire remain marginalized.) ON November 19, 1823, there was the mass influx of Garinagu to Belize with others continuing to join family members over the years. They became well known for their resilience, self-reliance, courage, diverse productive skills, natural intelligence, strong work ethic and superb maritime skills.

Since their arrival, the Garinagu have continued to make outstanding contributions to the development of Belize though various fields most notably agriculture, education and culture. This remarkable story of Garifuna survival and progress while defending and maintaining their distinct ancestral culture and language through all odds speaks to the strong determination, resilience and unity of purpose of the ancestors.

Today the Garifuna people are faced with a new set of complex challenges that will define whether or not they have the determination, commitment, strength and visionary leadership that enabled the survival of their ancestors.

The subtle downplay of our African ancestry by some leaders, while highlighting mainly that of the indigenous Caribs, (historically done with apparent intention to distinguish a difference between former enslaved and free Afro-descendants) distorts and undervalues the equally rich contributions of our African legacy. Such denial stifles the critical need for concerted approaches by both Belizean Afro-descendant groups to confront common adversities that continue to marginalize both groups. Divisive political party loyalties over the greater interests of our people have polarized families and communities while compromising the call for unifying and transformative leadership so desperately needed among our people.  Issues of discrimination, historically exploitative socio-economic opportunities, poverty, lack of self-reliant productivity, alcoholism, poor dietary habits and diabetes, apathy, disengagement of the diaspora, competing cultural interests, all continue to affect our people. In a profound way, the threats that we face starts from conditions within our individual and collective consciousness and values.

Perhaps what is being increasingly lost is the deep spirituality that was central to Garifuna survival and progress, and the passing on of timeless values from the ancestors through each generation. In the days of our ancestors, the leaders served as healers, counselor, custodian of the people’s cultural values, and spiritual warriors to protect the people from danger. They realized that the desire for the greater good of their people is drawn from spiritual sustenance. The leaders had unwavering integrity to resist cajolery and bribery by the British against their people. They were shrewd, reflective and insightful, united, and looked out for each other and the greater good of all.  Through these timeless values, they realized (as in the spirit of Ubuntu) that the well-being of each is inextricably linked to that of the other. If these values become increasingly absent among our young men and women, our people’s future well-being will continue to be threatened.

To maintain the values that have preserved and strengthened a people amidst most challenging times, the long journey that we now have to take now is not across the perilous ocean. Neither can it be taken by looking up at the skies with eyes closed. That long journey must be taken deep within ourselves. Therein lies the goodness of God and the whispers of our ancestors that this year’s celebration theme requests and which we all need to follow.

“We Keep Going Forward” Towards What Destination? by Jeremy A. Enriquez


A Journey through Garifuna History:
After 210 years in Belize, “We Keep Going Forward” Towards What Destination? by Jeremy A. Enriquez
Published in Amandala, (www.amandala.com.bz)
Sunday Nov. 18, 2012

Reprinted on twocanview.com with the Permission of Jeremy A. Enriquez

Jeremy A. Enriquez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeremy A. Enriquez provides a very important and many times missing part of Belizean History.  Our plight as African descendants (Garinagu and Creoles)  has a very important interwoven historical significance.  Please read as Jeremy present the Garinagu important contribution to the development of Belize.  A.L.

 

Amidst the challenging socioeconomic realities of Garifuna communities and the constraints of Garifuna leadership to collectively define, promote and pursue development opportunities for their people, the annual revelry that defines Garifuna Settlement Day has served to reaffirm among Garinagu their cultural survival against all odds throughout the two centuries that they have lived in Belize. The mere survival of Garifuna culture after the attempts by the British superpower to exterminate it is still quite an exceptional feat to celebrate.

Following the unsuccessful defense of their homeland territory of St. Vincent against the British invaders in 1797, the Garinagu were rounded up loaded in ships and exiled almost two thousand miles away to the most barren sections of the island of Roatan, then another British territory. About two decades earlier, the British had considered returning this rebellious group of fierce warriors to Africa but that would have been too costly. Roatan was a strategic decision. It ensured that the Garinagu would be permanently separated and kept very far away from their homeland and from other British territories such as Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica or Trinidad and Tobago where slavery still existed. This forced deportation was to ensure that the Garinagu fomented no other rebellion. Those who were allowed to remain in St. Vincent were legally banned from all expressions of their ancestral culture until its extinction.

This year marks 210 years since the Garinagu first arrived in Belize. They came in 1802 as the first group of free people to settle in Belize: – decades before the Mestizos settled the north in the late 1840s and before the Mayas returned in the 1880s in flight from brutally oppressive labor conditions in Guatemala.

Technically, the Garinagu were not welcomed in Belize as the settlement was still a slave society. There was fear amongst the English settlers in Belize Town that the Garinagu, as free blacks who were well known for the fierce war that they fought at St. Vincent only five years earlier, might not be completely loyal to them and might even foment rebellion among the slaves. Consequently, a strict ban was imposed to prevent them from staying in the settlement for more than forty eight hours and a hefty fine was set for anyone who hired or employed any Garifuna within the settlement. In compliance with the law, Garinagu formed their own settlements south of the Sibun River border where they have remained ever since. Seeds of discrimination and mistrust were also planted by the masters among the slaves to ensure that the two groups of Afro-descendants – one enslaved and the other free – remained separated. Such seeds have largely remained firmly rooted in the collective psyche of the royal descendants such that to date there remains the lack of genuine interest in the roots of their common bond and the systemic exclusion of Garinagu from higher offices in the public, judiciary, diplomatic and other services.

Today, relative to all Afro-descendant people throughout all the Americas and the Caribbean, the Garinagu remains one of the very few who have kept their unique African-indigenous hybrid ancestral language, their ancestral spirituality, food, music and other aspects of their traditional culture all intact. For that reason on May 18th 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, proclaimed the Garifuna language, music and dance a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. These alone are exceptional accomplishments to proudly celebrate.

Besides all that, however, within the bubble of Belize’s rather colonially-oriented and city-centric versions of its historical awareness and discourse, there seems very little knowledge and appreciation of the critical contribution of the Garinagu in shaping the nation’s economic, territorial, and cultural history.

Shortly after the first group of Garinagu arrived in Belize in 1802 and perhaps as early as 1799, as a rare group of free blacks in the region during the time of slavery, they became the primary agents for two of the most prevailing European interests: – (i) the commercial interest of Belizean woodcutters to expand Belize’s lucrative mahogany interests further south beyond the legally established Sibun River boundary, and (ii) the evangelizing interests of European, later American, priests to expand the Catholic faith to various ethnic groups all over Belize.

By the late 1790s, the major economic activity in the Belize settlement was the harvesting of mahogany for export. Mahogany had replaced logwood which had declined in demand since the 1770s when the use of synthetic dye became more popular. Prior to the arrival of the Garinagu, the Belizean logwood contractors were forced to grapple with two major economic challenges that threatened the very existence of the settlement. Firstly, virtually all the stands of mahogany within Belize’s legally established territory had been depleted. In order to satisfy the steep demand for mahogany in Europe, it was critical for the Belizean contractors to expand their operations south of the Sibun River – a territory which was outside the limits of Belize’s boundary as established in 1786 by the Convention of London.

Secondly, the plan for expansion of the woodcutting operations was constrained by a severe labor shortage in Belize. In the 1790s, several of the slaves (who comprised seventy five percent of the population of the Belize settlement) had escaped to nearby Spanish territory in Mexico or Peten. Given the frequent and heavy losses of slaves, and constant threats of slave rebellion, the woodcutters desperately needed a reliable source of labor. They would either have to import more slaves and risk further losses or hire labor from among the Garinagu. By that time the Garinagu had made themselves well known in the region for their intelligence, independence, resilience, discipline, strong physique, hard work and excellent maritime skills. Consequently, they became eagerly sought after as the prime source of labour for the mahogany industry.

Emboldened by their resistance against Spanish invaders in September 1798, and with the prospect of a new and reliable source of labor, the Belizean contractors decided to ignore the established Sibun River boundary of the Belize settlement and expand their operations further south. In 1802, they sought and were granted permission by the Superintendent of the settlement, R. Basset, to import 150 Garifuna labourers from Roatan to be employed as woodcutters. With some government assistance, many of them were shipped and many more managed to find their way to the southern coast of Stann Creek and Toledo Districts.

The early influx of Garinagu in 1802, and the subsequent major influx in 1823 to seek refuge from civil wars in Central America, provided a major boost in the pool of labor to expand the operations for the Belizean timber contractors. For decades, the eager, hardworking and skilled Garifuna woodcutters penetrated the dense forests south of the Sibun River all the way to the Sarstoon River. The ill-feelings they harboured against the British following their deportation a few years earlier had been set aside as they focused on own their economic survival. It was not unusual for Garifuna women and children to accompany the men to the lumber camps. The stable pool of labor from the Garinagu derived great economic benefits for the Belizean contractors and the settlement. Along with the booming mahogany trade, the communities that the Garinagu established helped to lay the foundation for the expansion of Belize’s territory from the Sibun to the Sarstoon River, until it was formally incorporated as part of Belize in the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859.

Given the tremendous involvement of the Garinagu to ensure a lucrative supply of mahogany, it is unfortunate that Belize’s history hardly admits that one of the two black men symbolized in Belize’s Coat of Arms is the Garifuna man. The other is the enslaved African Creole man whose forced labor harvested all the remaining stands of mahogany north of the Sibun. The tremendous labor of both groups formed the backbone of the economic history of Belize – shoulder to shoulder, under the shade of the tree.

As for the Garifuna women, their primary productive work was in agriculture. It was they who produced much of the foodstuffs, chickens and pigs for sale in Belize.

Over decades, the tough rigors of their work in forestry, their strong maritime culture, their harsh history of battle against European powers and subsequent deportation, their Catholic background, as well as their productivity, natural intelligence, facility for language and resilience had all molded among the Garinagu the pioneering spirit and work ethic that made them and their descendants prime candidates for the Catholic church to establish its schools throughout the remotest areas of Belize.

They were the first group of Catholics to arrive in Belize. The first Catholic church was established in 1832 amongst those residing near Mullins River. The earliest date recorded in which a Catholic priest conducted missionary work in Punta Gorda was in 1841. In May 1845 Jesuit priests built a church and established its first mission in P.G. long before there was any mission other parts of the country.

Garifuna men were well known to provide many of the best school teachers in the colony. To be employed as teachers they had to possess a reasonably solid and above average education, qualities of leadership, good character, a pioneering spirit and the physical and mental stamina and adaptability to survive harsh, rugged life in these remote settings. They were also recognized by the Jesuits to possess a natural ability to teach and the mental aptitude to learn different languages. From the 1870s to the 1970s, Garifuna men were trained and deployed by the Jesuits as teachers/catechists to spread education and the faith to rural communities all over Belize. Primary education was the tool used to facilitate indoctrination into, and spreading of, the Catholic faith. It is not surprising then, that as a natural progression from the foundations laid by their ancestors, a number of Garifuna men became priests and a number of women became nuns. Bishop O. P. Martin, formerly a Garifuna teacher, became the first Belizean Roman Catholic Bishop. Although the Garinagu became steeped in Catholicism, however, the secrets and practices of their ancestral spirituality remains firmly rooted, even among their priests and nuns.

Interestingly, as the brightest and the best Garifuna leaders were deployed to serve other people and other communities throughout the length and breadth of Belize over several decades, this brain drain has arguably diluted the likely powerful development impact on their own Garifuna communities to result in the impoverished and vulnerable socioeconomic conditions that these communities face today.

Despite the solid economic and cultural contributions that Garinagu has made to Belize’s development, the legacy of embedded colonial value system has continued to keep them marginalized and often treated as second class citizens in their own country. This same colonial mindset and value system is also evident in the condescending behavior towards indigenous peoples who seek to maintain their own ancestral cultural values. Such state of affairs is yet to be uprooted in order to transform our society into a truly inclusive Belizean one. At the same time as Garinagu remain proudly inspired by the tremendous contribution of their ancestors, someday when the current generation becomes the future ancestors, the new generation will ask: How dedicated and effective were the elders in promoting and pursuing opportunities that ensure the wellbeing of current and future generations? Given the power of ancestors in Garifuna culture, what sort of ancestor will you be? Wawansera Mémeba Lau Lubafu Bungiu hama Áhari – We Keep Going Forward with the Power of God and the Ancestors.