A journey through Garifuna history: After 210 years in Belize, “We Keep Going Forward”towards what destination?
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 havelargely 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 remain 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 their own 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 in 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 remain 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 have made to Belize’s development, the legacy of an 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 contributions 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.