By Wellington C. Ramos
When my Garifuna people were removed from their homeland “Yurumein”, now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines on March 11, 1797, their nation state was dismantled by the British. They then passed decrees to forbid my people from speaking their language, practicing their religion or to engage in any cultural preservation act. The darker skin Garifuna people were then removed to the island of Baliceaux as prisoners of war, unlawfully imprisoned, tortured and the survivors subsequently removed to the British colony of Roatan in Central America off the coast of Honduras where they landed on April 12, 1797.
The British were now happy because in their minds they have gotten rid of the "troublemakers” in the region. Our people fought to resist colonialism and slavery against the colonial giants Spain, France and Great Britain and were successful in many battles. This label, troublemaker, is still being used today by the leaders of many governments in the Caribbean countries, when their citizens stand up for their rights against them.
My people were handed over to the Spanish like cargoes on a ship and their names were changed to cut off any ties with their families in their motherland St Vincent and the Grenadines. Little did the British realize that the physical removal of the Garifuna people also contained the spirits of their ancestors, which are embedded in us. These are the spirits that give our people the power to endure suffering and be resilient to all enemy forces who are trying to control and dominate us.
The Europeans were aware of some of these forces and made attempts to get rid of them through the use of Christianity. The French brought the Catholic faith to our people and the British brought the Church of England, now known as Protestant. Most Garifuna people today are Catholics because of their long relationship with the French. Some of them are not even aware of what this church did to massacre their people in Martinique, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines under the supervision of Jesuits and Dominican priests. These two religions were always at war with each other in Europe and the hatred among these nations, extended to all their territories on this planet earth.
Only about 2,500 of my people survived that terrible journey to this strange land Roatan, Honduras. The British people were delighted but our Garifuna people were weighing their survival strategy. The Spanish and the British knew of the military skills of our people and both of them wanted to exploit it. They had plans to use us to fight for territories for them so we were in a negotiable position.
In 1802 some Garifuna people asked the British for permission to live in British Honduras, an adjacent colony of theirs now known as Belize. After this permission was granted, they left and ending up settling in Dangriga town. From the time they landed in this place, they made it clear to all that they were never slaves and did not intend on become any.
The British deliberately told them to settle and remain in the south to avoid any contact with the black slaves they had in the territory. They also wanted the Garifuna people in that region to be the bait for the Spanish if they were to attack Belize because the British and the Spanish were fighting over it. Due to the indoctrination of their slaves, they taught them to believe that they were better than the Garifuna people. Some of them still maintain that false belief up to this day, causing a rift between the Creoles and the Garifuna in Belize and the other countries in the Diaspora.
Divide and conquer is still being used by many leaders to control and manipulate weak minded individuals and people. Why would my people request to go and live with the British, who invaded their country, unlawfully imprisoned them and then removed them to a strange land Roatan? The only sensible explanation I could extract from this is that it is better to be with an enemy that you know well, as opposed to be with an enemy that you do not know. The Garifuna people knew the British inside out but the British only knew the Garifuna people from the surface.
There are several things that the British, the Europeans and many others do not know about the essence of this rich and resilient culture. Most of it has to do with to value our land, culture, religion, language, environment, self, family, nation and to always pay respect to our ancestors for their contributions to our existence as a people. These are the values that make us a nationalistic people and we have always fought to retain them even if it leads to our death.
For us death is something we are not afraid of because we all must die but our spirits shall remain forever. When I was a child growing up in Dangriga, I used to visit some homes and when I looked in the ceilings of these houses I would see coffins. I asked the older Garifuna people why they had their coffins inside their homes and they said they had to prepare for that day because it will come no matter what. Some of my people even had their friends and relatives sew the clothes they wanted to be buried with. With these types of values one can see why the Garifuna people were nationalistic because they did not fear death.
Our people survived mainly through fishing, farming, trading and the making of arts and crafts for centuries. If a person was to visit the Garifuna communities from St Vincent and the Grenadines and all the countries where the Garifuna people reside today, they would see all these activities taking place that they brought with them from their homeland “Yurumein”.
My great grandfather Seferino Petillo, whose father was from Triumfo De La Cruz, Honduras, owned a boat as a tradesman and travelled weekly from Dangriga, Belize, to Labuga, Guatemala, and then to the coast in Honduras. He and his family also had their homes in Dangriga and farms to grow their food. In all the Garifuna communities most families own their homes and have farms to grow their food. These are the reasons why the Garifuna communities were all independent in the Diaspora countries.
Over the years, Garifuna nationalism has declined because most of our people are individualistic instead of remaining collectivist. These individuals are more interested in using our culture to promote their own personal interest and agendas over our people who they claim to lead. No person can be or should be a leader for any group of people, if he or she is not advocating for the collective interest of the people they claim to lead.
Why has this been happening for decades now, while our people are becoming more dependent, less resilient and nationalistic? Because we the Garifuna people have allowed them to get away with it and we must blame ourselves for it. Garifuna people have a difficult time going up against their relatives or fellow Garifuna brother or sister if they are doing injustice to our people. Garifuna nationalism has not died; our engines can be cranked up with short notice.
If we want to make some progress, we will have to change this old way of thinking because an enemy within is as dangerous as an enemy outside. Plus, a wrong is a wrong even if it is committed by one of our relatives or somebody who is Garifuna like ourselves. No Garifuna individual, including myself, has a monopoly on ideas because we have too many intelligent people. However, we must bear in mind that an intelligent person can do something stupid and a stupid person can do something intelligent. As human beings we all must learn from our mistakes.
The conditions our Garifuna people are living under today are worse than when I was growing up in Dangriga, Belize, in the 1960s. The state of poverty and dependency has increased to a point where it is disgusting to witness. We must change this state of affairs in our communities. I ask that we conduct a “needs assessment” in all of our Garifuna communities today, namely, “Yurumein” St Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and the United States of America. After it is conducted, we develop an “economic development plan” for all the communities in the countries where we reside.
The Garifuna Nation must commit itself to using a Garifuna community in each of the Garifuna countries as a sample model for future infrastructural, sustainable and economic development for our people. This will require the support of all of our Garifuna people and organizations worldwide. Economic sustainable development and the preservation and promotion of our culture are inseparable.