An Incredible History
A Frightening Future

May 1st, 2010
by Benjamin Roberts

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Traditional Garifuna-style dance was shared during the 213th anniversary of their landing at Punta Gorda on April 12th.

Traditional Garifuna-style dance was shared during the 213th anniversary of their landing at Punta Gorda on April 12th.

On April 12th, 1797, around 2,000 Garifuna tribesmen and women landed on Roatan Island after losing a century-long war with the British army. The once native people to the region of Lesser Antilles had been living amongst (but segregated from) the Amerindian tribes that occupied that region and others like San Vincente. The British army, which was also receiving funding from the French, distinguished that it was the “Black Carib’s” that had to vacate, and not those who belonged to the “Red or Yellow Carib’s.” Around 5,000 Garifuna were packed into a series of ships and sent to the island of Roatan, with only half surviving the journey. Landing on a region of the island named Punta Gorda, a large majority of “Islanders” live there now, however their Diaspora reaches to almost every end of Roatan and the smaller islands of Utila, Guanaja, Cayos Cochinos and many other areas around and along the Caribbean coastline and even as far as Guatemala and Nicaragua.

This day is Roatan’s Independence Day. But the connotations of “blaze and glory” we associate with our Fourth of July isn’t exactly a shared sentiment amongst the islands majority. What they celebrate is the preservation and the general adoration for their ancestors. Their legends are full of myth, lore, and mysticisms that. An oral history of ghosts and tokens remain vibrant to this day. The celebration is small in nature but was fascinating to witness the traditional dances along with the inherent garb. Garifuna-style food is made (many dishes include iguana), and children commandeer their parents dory’s once the landing has commenced. A cultural event like this is may be rare to the Western eye. With our own Black heritage in the U.S., little if anything is taught about the Garifuna or Black Carib’s in Western schools. Many of Roatan’s very own residents, with family ties spanning to the very beginning, are unaware of their own heritage. Some are not even sure of their direct ancestry, grandparents or great grandparents seemingly lost in the vapor of poor record keeping, if any was done at all. Some locals joke that (they’re) all related, so there is no need.

Children play one the shallow banks, paddling around Punta Gorda small coastline.

Children play one the shallow banks, paddling around Punta Gorda small coastline.

The citizens of Roatan need to remember their heritage. This issue has succeeded in some aspects with the Heritage Center in Punta Gorda, as well as tourism based businesses such as YUBU. These groups are a good start, but as Roatan’s natural resources are slowly chipped away with each new resort and hotel, so is its heritage. There is no doubt that the island is suffering from an identity crisis. The descriptions of the Bay Islands no more than ten years ago make it sounds as if it was another world, and perhaps it indeed was. Some argue this change is good for the island and the people on it; however the changes have not come from the hands of those who inherited this island over 200 years ago, but by those who have come to tap into the natural beauty and passive temperament of those who reside here. It seems as though the gap between past and present tense, in this case at least, should be measured in light years. [/private]

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