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Commentary: The Garifuna people are building nationhood beyond borders
Published on March 19, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Wellington C. Ramos

From the time the British Crown forcefully removed the Garifuna people from their native homeland “Yurumei”, now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines, in 1796, life has not been the same for them in all the countries where they live. Today in St Vincent, the few that are left have lost most of their culture due to the decrees passed and enforced by the British, which prohibited them from practicing their culture.

Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History
They were removed from their fertile land and then forced to live in about 150 acres of non- fertile land. About 2,500 acres of their fertile land was given to the British officers and their elite families for winning the wars against them. Nothing significant has been done by the past governments of St Vincent to improve our people’s living conditions or to help them retrieve their cultural values.

It took a Garifuna Activist from Belize James Lovell and another from St Vincent Trish Hill, to start a Cultural Retrieval Program in the country. For years now, the children of St Vincent are being taught several aspects of the Garifuna culture, which include the language, dance, drumming and other important customs and traditions without any contribution from the government of St Vincent.

On April 12, 1796, the Garifuna people were taken to a distant place colonized by the British called Roatan. At the time of their landing in this distant and remote island, only the British knew what they intended to do with these people they considered a public nuisance. They did not care whether these people died or lived, as the evidence suggested. From an estimated number of about 10,000 people they removed from their homeland, only about 2,000 arrived on this new island. The conditions on this island were terrible for the Garifuna people and they begged the British to move them somewhere else.

There is evidence discovered by a famous anthropologist Nancy Gonzalez that the British were planning to use the Garifuna people to fight on their behalf in defence of Belize against the Spanish in 1798, one year after they arrived in the region. The conditions were so bad in Rotan that some Garifuna people migrated to Belize in 1801. Others began to move along the coast of Honduras, some went to Nicaragua and Guatemala where they live up until today.

When the colonies of Spain broke away in 1821, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica formed one nation known as United Provinces of Central American Republic. A sixth state was later added called Los Altos which was between Guatemala and Mexico in the Chiapas Province area. The capital of this new nation was in Antigua, Guatemala. Due to misunderstandings among themselves, this union broke up in 1841 and they all became separate nations. The problem with these new countries was whether to accept slaves or black people into their countries.

The British removed the Garifuna people from St Vincent because they wanted to take over all the Leeward islands and could not do it without defeating the Garifuna people. The Kalinagu and the Garifuna people fought against the Spanish and French for years but they were unable to defeat them. The French also tried to convert them into Christianity by making them Catholics but when they found out that this was only a French tactic to take over their lands and lose their culture they forced them out of Yurumei.

Not only were the Garifuna people fighting against these European countries but they would also go to their occupied islands steal their slaves and bring them to live on their island with them. This cultural acculturation led to the birth of a new ethnic group labelled Black Caribs by the French and the British now known as “Garifuna” people.

In “Yurumei”, now known as St Vincent, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize the Garifuna people are not seen and treated the way the other citizens are treated. Why? Because there were laws in these countries to restrict them from being citizens and their movements were limited to specific areas of the country. In Belize, St Vincent and parts of Nicaragua, which the British controlled at one time, they had slaves and wanted no alliance between these two groups to avoid rebellions. In these countries there are still problems between the Creoles and the Garifuna people due to the British indoctrinating and brainwashing techniques used during slavery.

Garifuna people are citizens of these countries but they only have some citizen rights. Even though they were born in these countries, they face discrimination by other ethnic groups and the governments many times infringe on their land and human rights. Land and community autonomy was given to these people by the British and the Spanish Crown to manage their own affairs during the colonial era. It was done during that time to avoid interaction with the other ethnic groups. Now that the populations of these countries have increased along with the value of land, these governments want the lands back to sell and make money for themselves.

They forgot that treaties were signed by their colonial countries granting the Garifuna people these lands. Some are aware of the treaties but still ignore them to use force to get the lands. The issue of land has now become the major problem facing the Garifuna people worldwide. If the British had left the Garifuna people in their native homeland “Yurumei” alone to manage their own nation, we would not have this problem today.

The Garifuna people that live in the Diaspora have always been told by their ancestors that they only have one homeland and that is “Yurumei” now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines. Some even mentioned that the British had promised to take them back there if they did not like Roatan. I do not think that too many Garifuna people believed that false promise, knowing the British.

They said recently in regards to reparations that they will not apologize for their genocidal acts against the Garifuna people and the descendants of slaves. Plus, give no monetary compensation. The Garifuna people are still angry over the fact that the British removed them from their home. Most of their elders have always yearned for the day when the government of this country would grant them their duly deserved citizenship as descendants of “Yurumei”. In the Constitution of St Vincent one of the qualifications for citizenship is “citizenship by descent”. The prime minister and his government can act in accordance with the constitution by fulfilling this obligation to the Garifuna people who were removed from their native land.

Removing the Garifuna people from their homeland should not change their legitimate entitlement to citizenship. Nationhood exists with the Garifuna people beyond borders because they all see themselves as one people living in different countries on this planet earth, who were forcefully removed from their homeland. It is only in America where a majority of Garifuna people live that they have more freedom. Yet, most Garifuna people cannot live their culture the way they would like to because of the environment where they live. Land means a lot to the Garifuna people and, like most cultures, land and culture goes hand in hand.

Two bold and courageous Garifuna brothers, namely, Ruben Reyes and Jorge Castillo, have taken the lead to start the movement towards Garifuna nationhood. Since this movement started, it is moving like a shuttle heading into space. They are being joined by many other bold and courageous Garifuna individuals and organizations worldwide. When I asked many of these fellow Garifuna brothers, sisters and leaders of organizations, why now? There is only one answer: “Why not now when everything else has failed and our conditions have not improved while our people are worse off today than in the past.”

This feeling is catching and igniting. The organization is called “Garifuna Nation” and they are planning a summit for three days in the city of New York to forge their way forward. The Garifuna people have a fighting spirit and are resilient. They were about 2,000 when they landed in Roatan in 1797 but today their number is almost 400,000 people worldwide still maintaining their cultural values.

We will be looking forward to see all the Garifuna people at the summit on April 11, 12 and 13 of this year at “Casa Yurumei” on Prospect Avenue in Bronx, New York City. We have some of our people who believe that we are on an impossible mission. My answer to those few people is that we will have to start the journey to know if it is impossible.

The journey towards nationhood will be a difficult road to travel but with the wisdom, strength and courage of our leaders, coupled with the guidance of the spirit of our ancestors we will prevail. It is now the responsibility of each and every Garifuna individual to make sure that we accomplish this long everlasting dream by joining us.
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Marva Sealey:

Your prayers have been answered, the opposition leader of St Vincent has said he will make Garifunas honourary citizens of St Vincent when he take governance.


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