When West Africans on their way to the New World’s slave markets escaped in 1635, they intermarried with Caribbean islanders to create a new and distinct culture.
19 November 2018
The boats came at dawn along the shores of the town of Dangriga on the coast of Belize.
Onboard, vibrantly dressed men, women and children carried homemade flags and waved bright green fronds of coconut palm branches as they approached the shore. On land, a crowd waited, ready to cheer as feet stepped out of the boats to touch sand.
We were never enslaved – that is a point of pride for the Garifuna people
On a similar morning in 1832, the Garifuna people – descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people – made the same journey from St Vincent Island in the Caribbean, finally able to call Belize home after being turned away by the British government three times. Every year on 19 November, the Garifuna celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day, marking their arrival in Belize (which was then a British colony) and their many contributions to the Belizean landscape.
With this re-enactment of the boat landing, as well as oral history intoned by village elders and music, dancing and food, the national holiday attracts visitors from throughout Belize and the world. It immerses them in why the culture is so unique – and why its people are fighting to keep their heritage alive in an increasingly modern world.
Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates the arrival of the Garifuna people in Belize (Credit: Charles Wollertz/Alamy)
Ask most Garifuna people and historians about the creation of the Garifuna people, and the common story is that West Africans on their way to the New World’s slave markets escaped after two ships wrecked in 1635. Of the hundreds of slaves, those who managed to survive swam to the Caribbean island of St Vincent where they were welcomed by the Carib and Arawak people and created a distinct culture of food, music, dance and language.
However, the Garifuna American Heritage Foundation in Los Angeles suggests Mali Empire Africans may have arrived on the island as early as the 1200s and the shipwrecks just added to the population. Other historians say the shipwreck story is the result of centuries of oral storytelling and that St Vincent wasn’t even near any regular slave trade routes. Whatever the truth, the shipwreck belief remains the ‘accepted’ history for the majority of Garifuna people.
“We were never enslaved,” said H Gilbert Swaso, former mayor of Dangriga and historian of the Garifuna culture. “That is a point of pride for the Garifuna people.”
The Garifuna people are the descendants of West Africans and the Carib and Arawak people (Credit: Roi Brooks/Alamy)
A 1660 British peace treaty granted ‘perpetual possession’ of the Caribbean island of St Vincent to the Garifuna, but less than 10 years later broke the treaty and reclaimed the island. In 1796, after years of raids and skirmishes with the British, the Garifuna – who were by then the dominant population on the island after generations of intermarrying with the islanders – were defeated, then deported and marooned on the Spanish-owned Honduran island of Roatán.
Despite being left on a strange shore, they again flourished, and again they were persecuted. Following a republican revolt in Honduras in 1821, the Garifuna took flight once more, and in 1832, arrived on the Belize coast. They embraced their new home with optimism.
“The Garifuna requested to settle in Belize and were turned away three times,” Swaso said. “At some point, the government admitted the Garifuna to Belize, but they had to stay away from the main cities, and if they did enter the city, they needed a pass. So, the Garifuna settled south, and one of the largest settlements was in Dangriga and then Punta Gorda.”
The Garifuna were turned away from Belize three times by the British government before they were allowed to settle there in 1832 (Credit: Zach Holmes/Alamy)
The fight to have the Garifuna culture recognised officially by the Belize government wasn’t easy. Even though they were accepted into the country, the Garifuna were discriminated against and fought to keep their heritage. The Garifuna language, which comes from the Arawak and Carib languages of their island ancestors, was discouraged in schools, and their spirituality was condemned by churches.
“When the Garifuna suffered spiritual discrimination by the Roman Catholics [which was then Belize’s dominant religion], we incorporated some of their saints into our religion and survived,” Swaso said. “When we were discriminated from entering cities, we created our own cities. When we were discriminated against in schools, we became teachers and lawyers and doctors. We will accommodate and change what is necessary for us to survive without sacrificing our culture.”
Even though they were accepted into Belize, the Garifuna faced discrimination after their arrival (Credit: Danita Delimont/Alamy)
Today, the global population of Garifuna is about 300,000, with many found in Belize and Honduras as well as parts of Guatemala and Nicaragua. According to a 2010 census report published by The Statistical Institute of Belize, of the county’s total population of around 324,500, an estimated 6.1% are Garifuna. Today, the Garifuna are accepted and celebrated in Belize and are involved in every aspect of life, serving as teachers, doctors, government officials and business owners. The first official celebration of Settlement Day was in 1941 in the Stann Creek district, according to Swaso. Two years later, in 1943, Punta Gorda, located 167km south, was also granted the holiday. And in 1977, Garifuna Settlement Day officially became a public holiday throughout Belize. Honduras has a similar celebration that is celebrated on 12 April, the date the Garifuna were marooned on Roatán.
On this day in Belize, Swaso explained that the re-enactment of the boat landing is followed by a special mass attended only by the Garifuna and high-ranking government officials.