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THE GARIFUNA

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The history of the Garifuna (or Garifune) begins before the year 1635 on the island of St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean. St. Vincent was inhabited by a tribe of Indians who called themselves Arawaks. The Kalipuna tribe from mainland South America invaded St. Vincent and conquered the Arawaks. The Arawak men were all killed and the Kalipuna warriors took the Arawak women as wives. The inhabitants of the island were then the union of these two tribes. The word "Garifuna", which means "cassava eating people", is probably descended from "Kalipuna". The Spanish called these people "Caribes" (Caribs) which means cannibals and that is the word from which "Caribbean" is descended.

In the year 1635 two Spanish ships carrying Nigerian slaves shipwrecked on the island of St. Vincent. At first, the Spanish, Nigerians and Kalipuna fought one another but eventually learned to get along and intermarried, thus creating the Black Caribs.

At that time, St. Vincent was a British colony and the Caribs tried to establish independent control of the island. The French supported the Caribs and there were many battles between the Caribs and the British. The greatest battle took place in 1795 and both sides suffered great losses. In 1796 the Caribs and the French surrendered to the British.

The British now had a problem. The Caribs were free men with black skin and St. Vincent was populated by slave-owning Europeans. The idea of a group of free black men living among them on the island was unacceptable so the British decided to deport the Caribs. The British hunted down and rounded up the Caribs, killing hundreds in the process and destroying their homes and culture. The remaining 4,300 Caribs were shipped to Balliceaux where half of them died of yellow fever.

In 1797 the surviving Caribs were shipped to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Along the way, the Spanish captured one of the British ships which was taken to Trujillo where the captured Caribs did well. Later, the Spanish captured Roatan Island from the British. The Spanish rounded up 1,700 Caribs on the island and brought them to Trujillo where laborers were much needed. The Spanish were not good farmers and Trujillo suffered accordingly. On the other hand, the Caribs were very skillful at farming so they went to work and did very well in Trujillo. Some of the Caribs were conscripted into the Spanish army where they served with distinction.

The first Caribs to arrive on the coast of Belize were brought there as woodcutters by the Spanish in 1802. They were put ashore in the area near Stann Creek and what is now Punta Gorda. At the time, Belize was held by the British and was called British Honduras. The Caribs continued to serve the Spanish army with distinction, earning medals of valor. At one point, the fortress at San Felipe (El Castillo de San Felipe) was commanded by a Carib. Gradually more Caribs moved to the Stann Creek area in British Honduras.

Because of their alignment with the Spanish, the Caribs found themselves on the wrong side of the political fence when Central America achieved independence from Spain. Those Caribs in Trujillo found themselves in the new country of Honduras where sentiments against Spain were strong. Large numbers of Caribs fled to the coast of Belize where other Caribs already lived in numbers. It is this migration that is celebrated annually as Garifuna Settlement Day. This is a major holiday in Garifuna communities celebrated on November 19th.

Gradually, the Caribs spread up and down the coast of Belize. During this century, some Caribs served on US and British merchant vessels during World War II and travelled the world. As a result, there are now small communities of Garifuna in Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York City.

The Garifuna culture is very strong with great emphasis on music, dance and story-telling and with its own brand of religion consisting of a mix of Catholicism, African and Indian beliefs. Because of their difference and independence, over the years the Garifuna have been feared and discriminated against by Guatemalans and variously accused of devil-worship, polygamy, voodoo and speaking a secret language.

In 1996, Garifuna Settlement Day was especially important. The government of Guatemala officially recognized the importance of the Garifuna community and President Arzu paid an official visit to the town of Livingston. The Garifuna culture is a unique treasure.

Bibliography
Rio Dulce Geography

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