An op-ed piece by Wellington C. Ramos for Caribbean News Now.
Centuries before the Europeans and the British came to this part of the world our Garifuna people had their own nation by the name of “Yurumein”, now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines. We had a government that was headed by a paramount chief and other chiefs that had jurisdiction over their local regional areas. There was a treaty among all the Galinagu and Kalingu people that if any of their territory was attacked they would all come together and fight against that foreign nation.
The Spanish under the leadership of Christopher Columbus were the first Europeans to attempt to take over the island of St Vincent in the 1400s but our people fought back and defended our territory. Columbus and his crew left the island and warned all European countries from making the same mistake. He referred to our people as cannibals because he and his men were used to meeting and engaging the peaceful Arawak Indians.
After Columbus left, about 200 years later, around 1640, the French came with the intention to do the same thing. They started by taking over our people’s lands in Martinique then they went to Dominica, killing all of our people who fought in defence of their homeland. On their arrival in St Vincent they met the real fighting force and were defeated so they had to ask for a ceasefire. They signed a peace treaty with our people in which they acknowledged our rights to all of our lands.
Yet, they were still trying to devise ways and means to take our land from us through religious and other acculturative measures. The French went to war against the British afterwards and they were defeated by them. Surprisingly, they had the nerve to cede St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Treaty of Paris despite the fact that they had already signed a treaty with us acknowledging our rights to our lands.
The British then came to exercise their rights to our lands that they obtained from the French unlawfully. We resisted the British takeover of our lands from the time they landed on our shores in the 1700s. On March 11, 1796, after a series of battles with the British, we lost the war. Some of our freedom fighters were killed, some surrendered and others escaped into the jungles of St Vincent and the Grenadines and were never captured. Those who surrendered and captured were taken to Dorchester Hill, where they were imprisoned and tortured.
They were later taken to the island of Baliceaux as prisoners of war, where the torturing continued while they were awaiting further instructions from King George III as to what to do with them. Many of our Garifuna people died on this island and their skeletal remains are still there up to this day, left unattended. The British Crown made a decision to remove the survivors permanently from their homeland and in 1797 about 5,000 of the Garifuna who survived were placed on some ships and sent to Roatan, a British colony which is now a part of Honduras.
In 1801, about 100 of the Garifuna people left Roatan due to the conditions on the island, to settle in Dangriga, Belize, where their descendants live currently. Some migrated to the mainland of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. Due to a civil war in Honduras in 1832 in which some Garifuna people fought with the Spanish Crown, many of them were killed and as a result of the massacre some of them migrated to Belize in large numbers. Later on some migrated to the United States of America, which now has the second largest population to Honduras. It is estimated that there are about 600,000 Garinagu people in the world.
Reasons why we should oppose the sale of Baliceaux
1. “Yurumein” now known as St Vincent and the Grenadines is our ancestral homeland.
2. The French and British committed an act of genocide against us by waging an unjustifiable war against us for our territory, then subsequently removing us from our homeland permanently.
3. Any land or lands obtained by a person or a group of persons through unlawful means cannot lead to the person or persons acquiring “clear title” to that land or those lands. Such is the case in the way Baliceaux and all the lands were acquired in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Crown lands were even given to the British soldiers who invaded the nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines and committed atrocities against our people.
4. The nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines was colonized by the British for hundreds of years until it achieved independence in 1979. Upon the people and nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines acquiring their independence from Great Britain, they were supposed to make it clear to the British and the world that all the descendants of the Garifuna people who were removed from St Vincent and the Grenadines in 1797 are entitled to become citizens of the nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines by “descent”.
5. The Garifuna people living in St Vincent and the Grenadines and the diaspora countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, the United States and elsewhere need to come together and make this justifiable demand.
6. Baliceaux should be used as a national memorial and cultural reconnection site for the Garifuna people in St Vincent and their brothers and sisters in the diaspora to reconnect, heal their wounds and pay tribute to their dead ancestors whose remains lie beneath the ground. Public accommodations for guests, a museum and other habitable structures should be built on the island for Garifuna people, Vincentians, tourists and people from the entire world to come and witness the Garifuna people and their culture first hand. This will bring revenues to the people and nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines for generations to come.
7. We are a nation of people living in several nations in the world and it is the responsibility of the people and nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines to seek justice on behalf of the great-grandchildren of their nation “Yurumein’s” citizens who were removed. Failure to act is in violation of the constitution of the nation they swear to defend and carry out.
8. If the people and nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines fail to act in our best interest as our “Motherland”, then we the Garifuna people in the diaspora countries, have no other choice but to bring a legal action against all the people and nations that have and continue to commit gross human rights violations against our people to seek justice. Now is the time to see how many of us can stand up like the way our ancestors stood up and shed their blood and died in the past for us to be alive and maintain our Garifuna culture.
It is for these reasons why I vehemently oppose the sale of Baliceaux. We will be far better off if the people and government of St Vincent and the Grenadines were to make the island a “national landmark and burial memorial” for the atrocities, sufferings and killings that our ancestors endured on the island before the survivors were removed and sent to a distant isolated island. Also, to have an ongoing cultural exchange program between the Garifuna people of St Vincent and the Grenadines and their brothers and sisters who live in the diaspora countries to reconnect and regain their religion, language and culture.