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Afro-Descendant & Indigenous: In Orinoco

by John Perry

Some time in the 17th century, a vessel carrying enslaved people from the west coast of Africa ran aground near the Caribbean island of St Vincent, close enough to shore that the survivors swam to land, disposed of their captors and settled alongside the Indigenous Carib-Arawak people, who already offered a safe haven to runaway slaves from other islands. The Afro-Indigenous culture that resulted came to be known as ‘Garifuna’ (meaning ‘Black Carib’). Their language derives from that of the Arawak, a people whose pre-Colombian origin is in the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela.

I was told this history by Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines since 2001. He had been visiting the village of Orinoco in Nicaragua, where some two thousand Garifuna now live. Orinoco is in a remote part of the Caribbean coast, accessible only by boat, and nearly 2500 km from St Vincent. The Garifuna diaspora is a consequence of the brutal treatment they received from the British when they were eventually colonised.

Gonsalves, a committed anti-imperialist, described how the Garifuna successfully fought off French and British attempts to create a colony in St Vincent for more than a century, until the British eventually arrived with more powerful weapons. The Garifunas’ most formidable warrior, Chief Joseph Chatoyer, was killed by a British major in 1796 (and in 2002, shortly after Gonsalves took office, he was named a national hero).

Most of the Garifuna were deported a year later to a barren island in the nearby Grenadines – ‘only suitable for lizards and iguanas’, according to Gonsalves. A few who had managed to hide in the jungle areas of St Vincent were eventually pardoned by the British, but there was no forgiveness for the exiles. Some died of starvation; others tried to return to St Vincent. The survivors were shipped to the other side of the Caribbean and abandoned on the much larger island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.

Free of British persecution, the Garifuna soon began to travel voluntarily, establishing colonies that still exist in Nicaragua, Belize, Guatemala and mainland Honduras, all places then still under British rule or influence. Despite being dispersed across hundreds of kilometres of coastline, they retained their language and customs, such as their music and their way of preparing cassava bread. Gonsalves said that the Garifuna in Orinoco have the same traditions as their counterparts in St Vincent, despite more than two centuries of separation. They are self-governing, and the Garifuna are a recognised Indigenous group in Nicaragua with legal title to their communal lands.

The 47 Garifuna communities in Honduras, however, for centuries largely ignored by central governments, have in the last two decades been subject to constant persecution. Roatan and the mainland coast it faces have become important tourist destinations, and the land owned by the Garifuna stands in the way of new resorts. Building sites have been bought illegally or occupied by force.

There have been dozens of assassinations. The day before I met Ralph Gonsalves, three young Garifuna were shot dead in the village of Travesía. It was exactly two years since four young Garifuna activists from El Triunfo de la Cruz were kidnapped by an armed gang dressed as police officers. Despite international pressure, there has been only a desultory investigation and the families have received no news as to whether the activists are dead or alive. Honduras’s new left-wing government, headed by Xiomara Castro, inherits a long list of uninvestigated attacks on community leaders and a difficult task in recovering the trust of the Garifuna.