Recovering the Garifuna of Youroumayn


Simon Lee reviews Christopher Taylor’s The Black Carib Wars for Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian.

VS Naipaul’s infamous comment that “Nothing ever happened in the West Indies” succinctly summarises a Eurocentric reading of Caribbean historiography, which has launched a thousand and some controversies. Yet even before the publication of Naipaul’s The Middle Passage, his dim view was contested by CLR James’ history of the Haitian Revolution The Black Jacobins (1938) and Eric William’s Capitalism and Slavery.  Over the last 40 years Caribbean historiography has been de- and then re-constructed, from multiple Creole perspectives.

However, while we now have a much clearer picture of most of the post-Columbian arrivants, the story of a unique Creole people exiled from their island homeland over two centuries ago, might well have been lost to all but a small coterie of anthropologists, were it not for the research of Englishman Christopher Taylor and his recently published The Black Carib Wars.

The Garifuna diaspora in Central and North America now numbers more than 250,000, descendants of the surviving 2,026 Black Caribs exiled by the British in 1797 from St Vincent and deposited on the Honduran island of Roatan. That the Garifuna survived, is testament to their fiercely independent spirit and their skills as continual adaptive migrants. That the book got published, is due to the inspiration stimulated in the author on hearing Watina, an album of traditional Garifuna songs, given modern arrangements, delivered by the multi-generational Garifuna Collective band, fronted by Belize-born Andy Palacio, and voted the Best Ever World Music Album in 2007.

The story of the Garifuna is one of the earliest exercises in Marronage, Creolization and colonization.  The oral tradition, rather than documented history, suggests that in 1635, or possibly as late as 1675, a slave ship foundered off the coast of Bequia in the Grenadines; some of slaves-to-be swimming to safety on the shores of Yurmein (St Vincent), where they intermingled with the indigenous Caribs.

Like the Bush Negroes of Suriname and the Palenqueros of Colombia’s Caribbean coast the Garifuna were never enslaved. It was their determination to resist slavery, colonization or any form of imposed control which accounted both for their survival in St Vincent (long after the defeat of their yellow cousins in the other islands of the Lesser Antilles) and for their ultimate demise. As Taylor notes in his introduction; ‘St Vincent was the site of the last battle of people living a traditional lifestyle against the European colonialists any where in the islands. It was here that the Caribbean saw its Little Big Horn and its Wounded Knee.’

The story of the Garifuna also epitomises the clash between the Old and New Worlds, the “primitive” and the “civilized;” the Noble Savage and the expediency of ignobly savage nascent Capitalism. Following the first English settlement in St Kitts in 1623, the die was cast: the combined English/French massacre of Tegremon’s camp was the first of a series of culls intended to clear new lands of Caribs, just as the Tainos of the Greater Antilles had been so effectively removed by the Spanish.

Although both Dominica and St Vincent were initially left as neutral territories, due to their precipitous and largely inaccessible volcanic terrain, as the soil of the earliest established British sugar colonies in Jamaica and Barbados became exhausted, greedy eyes turned to St Vincent, which by the turn of the 18th century had become the headquarters of the Caribs. If any justification was needed for the impending land grab, there was always the authority of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia 1516: “They consider it a most just cause for war when a people which does not use its soil but keeps it idle and waste nevertheless forbids the use and possession of it by others who by rule of nature ought to be maintained by it.’

Besides the supposed “waste” of land (which in fact the Caribs deliberately left uncultivated, apart from their provision gardens, as hunting grounds) the British rejected  territorial claims by the Black Caribs, who had settled separately from the original Yellow or Red  Caribs on the fertile north west of the island. They dismissed them as “mere runaway slaves, who had no right to freedom let alone the land they lived on.”

When the Treaty of Paris eventually ended St Vincent’s neutrality in 1763, ceding the island to England, the Black Caribs mounted a slow guerrilla resistance, led by war chief Joseph Chatoyer: ‘They act with great caution, and the woods are so thick, that they knock our men down, with the greatest security to themselves, as it is impossible we can see them.’ In 1768 Chatoyer successfully blocked the construction of a road into Black Carib territory, realizing this would be a fatal bridgehead capable of delivering British troops and supplies.

Conciliatory negotiations were used by the Black Caribs as delaying tactics, in the hope their French allies would come to their aid. The British Lt Governor Fitzmaurice correctly concluded in 1771 that: “We are now convinced all treaty and negotiation will be fruitless…we conceive it impossible that so small an island can long continue divided between a civilised people and savages, who are bound by no ties of law or religion.”

The inevitable took another 26 years. The First Carib War ended in 1773 with the Black Caribs forfeiting some 4,000 acres of prime land.  In the détente that followed the war, land commissioner Sir William Young attempted to draw the Black Caribs into the colonial economic system arguing that: “Money civilizes in the first instance as it corrupts in the last; the savage labouring for himself, soon ceases to be a savage; the slave to money becomes a subject to government, and he becomes a useful subject.”

The détente could not survive the fallout of the 1789 French Revolution and the renewed war between France and England. The Black Caribs, naturally disposed to such revolutionary concepts as liberty and equality threw in their lot with revolutionary agent Victor Hugues against the British and might have continued waging guerrilla warfare indefinitely but for the catastrophic death in battle of Chatoyer in 1795. After this and the arrival of Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1796, with the mission of recovering Britain’s West Indian possessions, banishment and exile were the cruel coda for the Black Caribs.

Taylor’s voluminous research of archives has rescued another lost chapter of previously unwritten Caribbean history. Chatoyer belongs along with Hatuey and Toussaint in the pantheon of Creole heroes. Although UNESCO declared the Black Carib culture (song, dance and language) part of humanity’s heritage back in 2001, until now the Garifuna have remained largely invisible in the islands. The Black Carib Wars, restores them both to their rightful place in Youroumayn and the wider Caribbean.

For the original report go to

One thought on “Recovering the Garifuna of Youroumayn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s