Capturing the essence of Garifuna Settlement Day, Belize
Welcome to Dangriga and celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day. Going to be 3-4 days of music, food, dance and a little drinking...
Photographs by Tony Rath
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Celebrating the Garinagu
“This book is about the Garifuna, more commonly known in the anthropological literature as Black Caribs, a people who presently inhabit the Atlantic littoral of Central America from Belize to Nicaragua; there are also clusters of Garifuna in several Central American cities and in the United States.”
“I was immediately faced with the analytic problem of how to define the time and space boundaries of the sociocultural group with which I was dealing. When had they, in fact, become a distinct people? It was known that their ancestors had lived on the island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles and that their language was closely related to those still spoken among Amerindians in Amazonia. But the blackness of their skin belied the notion that they had no roots in Africa, even though neither their own folklore nor scientific analysis (before 1975) had provided any concrete evidence of that. Should the possibility of an African past be ignored or downplayed, as they themselves preferred in the 1950s? Most anthropologists chose to do that until very recently, even though the empirical evidence caused us to hedge some of the time. Douglas Taylor (1951:143), for example, has described the Black Carib culture as a ‘Negro cake composed of Amerindian ingredients’ and stated it was only in the ‘imponderable’ aspects that their culture differed from that of their Indian forebears. I emphasized the similarities to West Indian societies, suggesting it was not so much African as Afroamerican culture that had penetrated the Amazonian culture the earliest explorers called ‘Carib.’ (Gonzales 1959a). Beaucage (1970:47) working in Honduras about a decade after me, also has referred to the ‘racial shift’ in St. Vincent and suggested that the ‘Negro’ element possessed a greater ‘dynamism’ that enabled the newly formed culture to thrive in ways that its immediate predecessor had not. But he did not further dwell on the Caribs’ African past.”
- pgs. 3, 4, 5, “SOJOURNERS OF THE CARIBBEAN: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna,” by Nancie L. Gonzalez, University of Illinois Press, 1988
“In February 1975 a Smithsonian Institution team reported the find of two Negroid male skeletons in a grave in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This grave had been used and abandoned by the Caribs long before the coming of Columbus. Soil from the earth layers in which the skeletons were found was dated to A.D. 1250. A study of the teeth showed a type of ‘dental mutilation characteristic of early African cultures,’ and clamped around the wrist of one of the skeletons was a clay vessel of pre-Columbian Indian design.”
- pg. 31, THEY CAME BEFORE COLUMBUS, by Ivan van Sertima, Random House, 1976
“A contradiction is intertwined in the religious system of the Garinagu, namely mourning versus the ‘keeping alive’ of the spirits of the ancestors. It is striking that all of the rituals in which the influence of another religious system dominates – the wake, the funeral, the novena, the nine-nights wake and the end of the period of mourning – have mourning and the controlling of emotions as point of departure. In other words, learn to live with the fact that the deceased is no longer with us and make sure that they do not come back. The total opposite of this is the fact that every ritual with the traditional Garifuna faith as point of departure underlines the importance of the wishes of the ancestors. They have to be washed. The ancestors have to eat and be offered a feast in which they are present and can dance along using another’s body.
“Furthermore, the Garinagu sing directly to their ancestors during such rituals. This is in contrast to the Christian rituals in which God is asked to grant the deceased, with whom they no longer have any direct contact, absolution. Therefore it is not so strange that these two fundamentally different doctrines clashed for a long time. Up until the Sixties, the Christian establishments wanted to have nothing to do with the cult of the dead. At the beginning of the Seventies, a female buyai decided to provoke the Catholic Church, who shielded the largest group of Garinagu, in order to keep the socially relevant religious characteristics of the Garinagu alive.”
- pg. 110, “THE BELIZEAN GARIFUNA: Organization of identity in an ethnic community in Central America,” by Carel Roessingh, Dutch University Press, 2001
The ancestors of the people we now know as the Garifuna people, the people referred to before the 1970’s as “Black Caribs,” survived three near-death experiences within a matter of a few years more than two centuries ago. First, they were exiled from their native St. Vincent to a barren island called Balliceaux, where many perished; then they were deported to Roatan, an island off the republic of Honduras, and many perished on the British sailing ship taking them from Balliceaux to Roatan. In Roatan itself, many began to die, hence the decision to strike out for the Central American mainland.
These three near-death experiences must be considered within the context of the thousands of actual deaths. In other words, those who came near to dying themselves were constantly involved in the process of burying those of their brothers and sisters who were perishing – on Balliceaux, on the ship from Balliceaux to Roatan, and on Roatan itself.
It is our understanding that near-death experiences enhance the spirituality of an individual or a people. The ancestors of the people of African descent we now refer to as the “Creole” people of Belize, themselves survived near-death experiences after being enslaved and while being shipped as slaves from West Africa to North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean. Most enslaved Africans had first to walk in shackles from whichever village they had been seized in the interior, and many died on the forced march to the coast, where they were chained in holding forts. The journey across the Atlantic, with the slaves chained in the bottoms of ships in hell-like conditions, normally took between two and three months. The casualty rate was high.
The Creole people of Belize have lost almost all of their African religious traditions, and today most Creoles practice various Christian religions. Because the spirituality of the Creole people is submerged beneath the rituals, ceremonies, and hymns of religions of European and neo-European origin and administration, it is as if Creole spirituality, as such, where African retentions are concerned, does not exist, or it is invisible.
The Garifuna people, on the other hand, succeeded in preserving substantial elements of their African religious traditions and practices, and the Roman Catholic priests in British Honduras eventually allowed the Garinagu to include their ancestral traditions and practices within the broad framework of their Roman Catholicism. As a result, in Belize today we have a much more vivid sense of Garifuna spirituality, or duo, than we have a sense of what Creole spirituality there is.
The process wherein ancestral African religious traditions and practices were integrated with the Christian religions of the European power structure is referred to as “syncretism,” and this occurred perhaps most notably in Cuba and Haiti. We are saying that syncretism also occurred in Belize.
The Garifuna people were first referred to as “Black” Caribs, because there were Indigenous people on the northern coast of South America, Central America and the Caribbean islands, before the coming of Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of America – the New World, who were known as Caribs. The conventional story was that escaped or shipwrecked African slaves began to mingle with the original Yellow Caribs, and thus the Black Caribs came to be. Ivan van Sertima argued, however, that Africans had come to America on their own accord centuries before Columbus, so that the origins of the Black Caribs may be more mysterious than conventional.
In any case, it used to be that the Black Caribs in British Honduras emphasized their Indigenous ancestry, as opposed to their African ancestry. In the last two or three decades, there have arisen schools of thought which emphasize the African ancestry of the Garifuna people. This debate continues amongst the scholars of the Garifuna community.
When this newspaper was established in 1969, the Garinagu were still the Black Caribs, and there was no National Garifuna Council. In 1940, Thomas Vincent Ramos and a couple of other Carib men had approached the Governor of British Honduras asking for a day of holiday to celebrate the coming of the Caribs to the colony. It was the same British Empire which had attempted genocide on the ancestors of the Black Caribs at Balliceaux and Roatan, but in 1940 Britain itself was being bombed to pieces by Nazi Germany on a nightly basis. It may have been that timing was on T. V. Ramos’ side. The Governor granted the holiday, first celebrated only in Stann Creek Town, on November 19, 1941. The holiday was extended to Punta Gorda Town on November 19, 1943. In 1977, a People’s United Party (PUP) government extended the holiday to include the whole of Belize.
When the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) was formed on February 9, 1969, the executive’s first official trip outside of Belize City took place to Stann Creek Town in mid-March of 1969. This was at the insistent urging of the late Charles X “Justice” Eagan, who stressed to Evan X Hyde that if he was going to continue talking about Africa, then he had to go to Stann Creek Town.
UBAD, an Afrocentric cultural organization, had been organized by Creoles. Creoles were a people who had, to repeat, lost their African traditions and practices during their centuries of enslavement and colonial subjugation in Belize. Even though Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had been popular in black-majority British Honduras two decades before T. V. Ramos, himself a Garveyite, asked to see the Governor in 1940, Garvey’s “African redemption” movement had not included African religious traditions and practices.
In the case of Belize in 1969, the presence of the Black Caribs just 36 miles south of Belize City, a people who had succeeded in preserving African culture and religion, gave the Creole leaders of UBAD an opportunity to reconnect with their African ancestral roots. You know that this newspaper was established by those said Creole leaders of UBAD in August of 1969.
On the occasion of Garifuna Settlement Day 2016, therefore, this newspaper once again celebrates the Garifuna people of Belize. The Garifuna continue to play a very important role for those Creoles who have interest in our African ancestry and culture. The intent of the Europeans when they enslaved our ancestors in Africa and transported them to America, was to abolish all their African memories – names, clothes, music, dances, religion, whatever. Today, in the twenty-first century, Africans in the diaspora have made the journey back home to “Mama Africa” in many ways. In Belize, conscious Creole people owe a debt of spiritual continuity to the Garifuna people. On Saturday, November 19, we Belizeans celebrate the Garinagu.