Celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day

Nov 10, 2011 (Caribbean News Now – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) –
The Garifuna people are one of the few remaining African ethnic groups in the entire Caribbean and Latin America who still maintain their culture. Some historians believe that these people were from the Mende ethnic group and migrated from West Africa to the Americas centuries before the other native people arrived in this region and gave rise to the Olmec, who were the ancestors to the Mayas.

Other historians believe that these people were brought by the Europeans to be slaves in the Caribbean but due to a shipwreck off the island of Saint Vincent, they escaped and intermingled with the native Kalinagu Indians, acculturated with them and gave rise to a new ethnic group, the Galinagu, which later gave birth to this new group called Garifuna.

In the mid 1600s, the French were the first European people to notice that people of African descent were living on the island of Saint Vincent. The French people wanted to take over the island by converting the Carib Indians to Catholics. The Carib Indians resisted the French and drove them off their island.

After a war between the French and the British in 1763, the two countries signed the Treaty of Paris in which the French gave the island of Saint Vincent to the British. The Garifuna and the Carib Indians fought against the British in several battles to resist their attempts to take over their island.

On March 11, 1796, the British finally succeeded in winning the war against the Garifuna and the Caribs, after killing their king Chotoyer. The Garifuna people were then assembled and interned on the island of Baliceaux as prisoners of war.

They were later deported to Roatan, Honduras, where they arrived on April 12, 1797. The Garifuna people were then handed over to the Spanish crown and most of their names were changed from French names to Spanish names. There are still a few original Garifuna names that exist among these people up to this day, such as Parchue, Elijio, Sambula, Sambola, Satulle, Avaloy.

The Garifuna people hated Roatan and asked the Spanish to give them permission to live elsewhere in Spanish Honduras. During that time, the British were occupying territories that were claimed by the Spanish in Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua that were disputed.

According to anthropologist Nancy Gonzalez in her book Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ehnogenesis and Ethnohisory of the Garifuna, the British had intentions of using the Garifuna people to fight on their behalf against the Spanish for the country of Belize. This makes a lot of sense because the Battle of Saint Georges Cay occurred one year later, when the British defeated the Spanish on 10 September 1798.

Later on, in 1823, a civil war occurred in Honduras and some of the Garifuna people who were fighting on the wrong side were massacred, which caused many to leave Honduras for Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

On 19 November 1823, Elijio Beni and Satulle took a group of his people to Dangriga Town, Belize, where they settled up to this day. Since then, they have been celebrating their arrival to the shores of Belize. Other Garifuna settlements would later be established in the southern part of Belize on lands granted to them by the British Crown in Punta Gorda, Barranco, Seine Bight, Georgetown and Hopkins.

In 1941, a young visionary leader, who was born in Puerto Cortez, Honduras, by the name of Thomas Vincent Ramos, would come to live in Dangriga Town and he founded the Garifuna Settlement Day Committee. He petitioned the then British governor to give the Garifuna people a holiday in the southern part of Belize and his request was granted in the year 1943.

I have always asked myself why the British granted the Garifuna people a holiday out of all the other ethnic groups in Belize. The only logical reason could be that they felt guilty after removing them from their native land and dumping them in a strange place called Roatan, which they hated for the bad drinking water and a soil that had no fertility to grow their food.

In the year 1977, the government of Belize passed legislation to make 19 November a public and bank holiday throughout the entire country of Belize. In Honduras, some Garifuna communities celebrate April 12 as their day to reflect on the day their ancestors landed on the shores of Honduras from their native homeland Saint Vincent.

Today, the Garinagu nation numbers about 800.000 people and they live in the countries of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the United States. No matter where they live, they have maintained their culture and many of them are engaged in cultural activities to preserve their resilient ethnic group.

Their religion, Gobedah, which is practiced in a religious ceremony called “Dugu” or “Shugu”, and language “Garifuna” mixed with Carib, Arawak, African and French play a vital role in their culture and they continue to engage in their religious practices despite some criticisms from those who consider themselves Christians. A majority of the Garifuna people are Catholics but still believe and practice their ethnic religion.

Their religious services are done under the supervision of their religious designee called a “Buyei”. The Garifuna religion has its roots in most forms of African religion, which is based on ancestral rites. Ancestor worship is deeply rooted in domestic, kinship, descent relations and institutions. This religion has a similarity with other religions that are practiced by people of other ethnic groups on this planet. The religion plays a significant role in the preservation, protection and practice of the Garifuna culture.

___ (c) 2011 the Caribbean News Now (Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands) Visit the Caribbean News Now (Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands) at www.caribbeannewsnow.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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