From Yurumein to Honduras
Celebrating 211 years of Garifuna presence

May 1st, 2008
by Marcella Perdomo

[private] v6-5-Feature-Celebrating 211 yearsOn the afternoon of April 12th 1797, two British ships coming from Saint-Vincent approached our Bay Islands for the first time. On board were travelling around 2000 Garinagu, better known as the Garifuna. Saint-Vincent or Yurumein, situated on the north of Venezuela’s coast, was the first homeland of this community that, until today, has transcended the borders of any national political ideology. From Belize to Nicaragua, the Garifuna have founded more than sixty communities scattered on the Atlantic shores. They have lived for almost 200 years in a perpetual dialogue between an exotic cosmology and Central America’s eagerness to contemplate the ideas of a modern world. Thus, this community’s identity, while “traditional”, also presents the most unedited cultural features of our times.

The Garinagu’s long journey began in the Orinoco area, the coastal region of north-western Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana. This was the home of the Carib Indians, whose real name was actually the Callinagu (a derivation of the root word Callina, the name of their language). According to most historical accounts, the Carib Indians had arrived on the Lesser Antilles a century before Christopher Columbus’ discovery. They conquered most of these islands, exterminating almost all of their native male inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, while keeping most of the women for their own convenience. The bonding of these two indigenous groups (Carib-Arawak) gave birth to a new society known as the “Red Caribs” or “Island Caribs,” a name given to them in order to differentiate them from the mainland natives. As time went by, they denominated themselves the Calipona Indians.

The majority of the Calipona lived on Dominica and Saint-Vincent Islands. However, their isolated lives soon came to an end when for the first time in history, the unexpected meeting of three distinct civilizations, America, Europe and Africa, took place. Despite the fact that in the early seventeenth century colonial and slavery regimens were at their height, Saint Vincent Island was kept aside from the strategic route undertaken by European colonial forces due to its undesirable geographical conditions for commercial intentions. As a result, Saint Vincent turned out to be the shelter of African fugitive slaves, who established the early start of a new society known from this time as the Garifuna.

There is no doubt that the historical reports related to this new group’s genesis are far from convincing. Many unfilled areas and unanswered questions still hinder apprehending the whole story. However, experts base their statements on colonial files that seem to point out the loss of two Spanish vessels which brought large sums of African slaves. Hence, the origins of the Garifuna society are placed around 1635, not only due to the fugitive’s arrival but also to these vessels’ wreck near Saint Vincent Island.

During this time, the Calipona Indians were in the middle of a quite hostile relationship with the Europeans who had finally decided to invade them. The Indians retaliated by stealing their slaves and by successfully reducing their troops. They voluntarily integrated the African newcomers in order to form a group based on solidarity and opposition to their European enemies.

In order to escape slavery, the Africans apparently showed an outstanding interest not only in establishing friendly relations with their new hosts but also in adopting their language and lifestyle. For example, they inherited their agricultural knowledge as well as one of their most fundamental technologies, the preparation of cassava bread (ereba). In fact, the modern Garifuna utensils involved in making cassava differ little if at all from those used by the Island Carib of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They also adopted the fishing techniques of their hosts, since the greater part of the native’s non-vegetarian diet came from the sea. Even though some African traditions were introduced to the Indians, scientific study suggests that Garifuna culture possesses essentially an Amerindian social structure with few West African cultural features. In fact, this is one of the many paradigms concerning the exact origins of the Garinagu, especially as we observe that their main physical appearance is rather African, not Amerindian. Yet, it has been quite difficult to detect African cultural patterns within their language or among any other cultural aspects.

During the last decade of the 17th century, the island of Saint Vincent changed drastically. The new “Black Carib” society grew quite rapidly, giving birth to what has been called the “Golden Age” of Garifuna history. Nostalgia for these times still lives in many Garifuna songs and ritual traditions. It was also during this period that legendary personalities emerged for the Garinagu, such as Chatoyer, the commander and chief of Yurumein, who fought with such braveness to defend his people against European hostilities. By the early 18th century, although conflict had increased between Garinagu and colonists, quite friendly relations were established between the Garifuna and French Christian missionaries. Many traces of their exchanges still remain, such as many French words incorporated into the Garifuna language.

Many years later, colonial forces vying for control of the rest of the Caribbean islands drew Saint Vincent Island into their violent conflicts. By 1795 a terrible war took place between the Garifuna and the British, both now obstinate to conquer their island. The battles, from the British perspective, were out of hand and not according to expectations, which led to a decision by the British Crown that remains quite mysterious to this day: After realizing that the Garifuna were tough warriors, they reinforced their troops not to commit a complete extermination but to carefully plan and deport all of the remaining inhabitants to one of their colonial possessions located on the other side of the Caribbean: the Bay Islands.

Historical accounts suggest that there were a total of 5,040 individuals travelling on board the British ships from the Lesser Antilles all the way to our Honduran islands. The rough journey and severe conditions caused the death of more than half of the people on board. But at last, after a long year sailing across the ocean, on the afternoon of April 12, 1797, the English vessels finally arrived at Port Royal on the east side of Roatan Island. During that night, the British disembarked more than 2,000 Garinagu who had miraculously survived the long journey. From this moment on, a new chapter began for the Saint Vincent newcomers.

v6-5-Feature-garifuna-3After arriving, the Garifuna founded their first town on the northeast of Roatan, now known as Punta Gorda. Soon, they scattered all along the Central American shores, giving birth to new generations that would become a new part of our national identity. Although the Garifuna have lived somewhat separated from the rest of the national contexts, they sure have known how to maintain a dialectic relation between two totally different worlds: On one hand, they have always promoted an authentic cultural background, which makes them so unique, not only on a Central American level but on a continental level as well. At the same time, they have also known how to integrate into the larger dominant societies, even standing out in the political, artistic and sports fields. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Garinagu are mostly known for their exotic dances, for their Caribbean cuisine, or for their excellent athletes, this is only a reduced image of their culture which ignores the most significant aspects of their identity.

Garifuna mythology is essentially based on syncretism reflecting both the sacred and profane traditions. Messages are sent through the rhythms of a wide musical repertoire and through the movements of an original choreography. Sometimes, during warm sunsets on the beach one could hear the tune of the Parrandas, or the Garifuna “blues.” These songs, often sung with guitar or maraca accompaniment, cover the entire range of emotions and concerns of daily life. Today we can also listen to them beyond our political boundaries, interpreted by talented artists such as Aurelio Martínez, Paul Nabor or Andy Palacio. The ideal time to listen to Parranda music is certainly during the Christmas period, when they mix to the rhythm of Punta, which is definitely the most popular Garifuna dance of all. It is the first rhythm that young children learn how to sing and dance. Punta is so enjoyed that once somebody starts to sing the first line of a song, everybody in the audience joins in the singing to the end. The famous dance of punta is not just a popular tradition. Originally, punta was an ancient fertility dance linked to a person’s death. They are usually sung by women and danced by improvised couples during the belurias (velorios), the cabo de año (novenarios) or during moments such as birthdays and funerals.

A procession of the Garifuna mainlanders carrying a Garifuna flag.

A procession of the Garifuna mainlanders carrying a Garifuna flag.

Less popular is the Wanaragua dance, also known as the Yankunu or the John Canoe, whose roots are simultaneously African, Carib Indian and European. Though we know little of the original meaning of the Wanaragua, it seems to show a tribute to an African prince or hero, a drill of a tactic war based on a travesty outfit, the prelude to a combat, or even sarcastic imitations of ancient British gestures.

The Garinagu celebrate traditional festivities that point out every period of the year and sacred ceremonies continue to play a central role in the Garinagu’s lives. During these occasions, daily life scenes become part of a symbolic world. This is how behind the walls of the Dabuyaba, the temple dedicated to the ancestors, religious rituals are celebrated, gathering family and friends together for a very special moment. This is the case of the dügü , a ritual celebrated in order to calm the gubida ancestors that have been offended due to inappropriate behaviors coming from their descendants. The ancestors appear in their dreams asking to be relieved. Then for endless nights, the dead sing and dance the Amalihani through the bodies of the living until peace is restored again among the community.

There is no doubt that religious rituals play an important role in the Garifuna social life. Their spirituality reflects quite perfectly the mixture of their different origins, a harmonic world vision that includes the Gubida ancestors, the Carib Indian myths, the Catholic saints and other forms of religions. Unfortunately, Garinagu’s religious beliefs as well as their ritual practices have not always been well understood nor tolerated by the political authorities and by society in general. For instance, the ancestral dügü rite has been qualified as a “dark cult” contrary to the dominant religions of the area. Something similar happened to the Haitian voodoo, which suffered so long from a negative reputation, mostly due to intolerance to other ways of believing and conceiving the spiritual world. But Garifuna dügü, Haitian voodoo, Cuban santería or Brazilian condomblé are unique, legitimate religious forms containing African, American and European beliefs.

The Garinagu’s identity, because of its unusual origins and particular journey, has not always been completely integrated into the Honduran society, which has created problems for the Garinagu. Their ancestral land, for example, has been repeatedly threatened by government authorities more concerned with multiplying economic investments rather than with the Garifuna people. Due to difficult situations such as this one, the Garinagu have been obliged to emigrate out of our country looking for better opportunities. More than one hundred thousand Garifuna have immigrated to the United States since the early days. Nowadays, we can find important Garifuna communities in large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami.

The Garifuna Diaspora in the United States certainly opened a whole new chapter in the Garinagu’s life journey. They have extended their roots and founded new communities despite the fact that challenges in our modern world are complex. Throughout their existence, the Garinagu have bravely survived colonial wars, exile, and so many other threatening situations which could have already brought them apart. Even though social problems are truly present in today’s Garifuna communities, their cultural evolution does not seem to be in crisis. On the contrary, they are both sustaining and adapting their culture to the new contexts and situations they face. [/private]

Today, we not only celebrate 211 years of Garifuna life on our Bay Islands, but we also commemorate over 300 years of a strong culture’s survival.

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