The Garifunas emerging from oblivion
Monday, April 30, 2007
By Dr Rubén Silié
The Garifunas are peoples from the colonial period. Their distinctiveness lies in the fact that their establishment did not respond to metropolitan initiatives, since their origin was associated first of all, with the sinking of two black slave ships along the coasts of St. Vincent and with the movement of slaves, who, fleeing from the cruelties of that social system of exploitation, found refuge in the mountains inhabited by the indigenous peoples of that island, and from there they moved on to the neighbouring islands.
The move from one island to another was linked to the Garifunas' confrontations with the authorities of various European countries, who sought to reduce them to submission in order to return them to slave labour or hoped to occupy the territories where they were located.
Later on, the advancement of English exploitations along the Central American coasts resulted in many workers relocating to that area, which in turn led to those coasts being populated with Africans.
The African settlers were accepted by the native peoples and managed to create small communities where they survived the attacks of their persecutors. There they developed agricultural cultivation techniques inherited from the original Caribbean inhabitants, which, combined with their ancestral knowledge brought over from Africa, allowed them to develop an entire tradition of cultivation and eating habits that has endured up to today.
As in many other Caribbean islands, the territories changed hands on a regular basis, sometimes by negotiations among the metropolises and on other occasions by actions of direct conquest over the said territories. In other words, one day they could be under English rule and the next French or later on Spanish.
Between 1795 and 1797, there was a displacement of the inhabitants of St. Vincent, who were taken to the Continental by the metropolitan authorities, firstly to one of the islands of Honduras and subsequently to Nicaragua, Belize Guatemala and Costa Rica.
The process of populating the eastern region of Central America was developed under the same systems of the island territories, based on the sugar industry, then on the banana plantations and much later, on the exploitation of precious woods.
Another characteristic of that zone is that through the isolation of the Caribbean coast of Central America, at certain periods, there were black peoples who remained autonomous, without any European presence, as a result of which they managed to establish their own traditions.
From the 1880s, the economic structure of the zone entered into a process of greater metropolitan control, since English domination was established and was joined by the new imperial force of the United States of America, which burst into the zone with extreme force.
That period experienced the development of the banana and lumber economy, for which it was necessary to import labour from the islands, mainly from Barbados, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and San Andrés.
However, the depression of the 1930's affected the economic development of the plantations, just as in most Caribbean countries and from that moment, the zone began to experience an economic decline that drove the population into poverty, which still persists in that region.
This gave rise to a trend of internal emigration to the capitals of their respective Central American countries and another trend toward the exterior, primarily to the United States.
Today, those years of colonial exploitation are reflected in the conditions of existence of the Garifunas, who are recognised as an excluded and isolated people, which socially, makes them highly vulnerable.
It is as a result of this that the governments of the region are expressing growing interest in helping the Garifunas to overcome the ills that affect them. That explains the Central American Summit to commemorate two hundred and ten years of Garifuna presence in Central America, which was held on April 10 in Honduras.
In that vein and in keeping with the intergovernmental interest expressed, the Association of Caribbean States is promoting the project "The Social, Cultural and Economic Integration of the Afro-Caribbean and Garifuna Communities of Central America".