The above citation is the most widely recognized account of Garífuna ethnogenesis,
understood as unquestionable fact by virtually all Garífuna individuals. This is
the creation narrative that dominates resources of Garífuna history on the internet.
The first time this story is put into print is by British major John Scott in 1667;
he reports to the British crown that St. Vincent was comprised of “…all Indians and
some negroes from the loss of two Spanish ships in 1635”. Over one hundred years
later in 1795, William Young, then governor of St. Vincent, also published information
about a shipwreck, but he claims that the wreck happened in 1675. No eye-witness
accounts of these events are known to exist.
The purpose of this page is not to refute the shipwreck legend, but rather to present
all views of Garífuna ethnogenesis.
Africans, either as escapees or stolen from European settlements, arrive in St. Vincent
at different times
Without a doubt, recorded history is clear that Black Africans were introduced into
the so-called New World as early as the 1500s as a result of European-induced slavery.
Whereas almost all of the Caribbean islands were claimed as European territories,
Dominica and St. Vincent had entered into a peace treaty in 1660 that gave the Indigenous
the right to live on the island – provided they stopped stealing African slaves and
other goods from European settlements. By this time the Spanish fleets had discarded
most of these territories as “islas inútiles” and they set off for Mexico, Central
America and South America in search of gold. This left the French, English and Dutch
to fight for control over the Caribbean islands. Despite the treaty, little by little,
Africans ended up on St. Vincent by two routes, either by appropriation at the hands
of the Indians, or by escape from other islands, especially Barbados. It seems that
at first escaped Africans lived in the mountains of these islands, and would come
down for sexual relations with women or to steal food. This is based on linguistic
evidence; the native peoples of this time had a word for ‘nappy’ or ‘kinky’ hair
(kilili-abali itibouri); this word was a harsh insult used against those who had
this type of hair, according to Raymond Breton. Breton not only composed a French-Carib
dictionary, but he also took copious ethnographic notes. Luisa Navarette, a free
Black woman on Puerto Rico, was captured by the Indians of Dominica where she stayed
for four years until her escape. She recounted how the Indians had made slaves not
only of the Africans, but of other Indians and captured Europeans as well. In 1658
Charles Cesar Rochefort, in his book about the Lesser Antilles, described seeing
Africans as slaves of the Indians. As the African population increased, group mixing
is to be expected, but just because a baby has African and indigenous blood does
not make him or her Garífuna. The Garífuna ethnic group emerges as a result of complete
cultural and linguistic assimilation of the indigenous group on St. Vincent. The
Africans and native peoples of St. Vincent were not two separate groups, but one
culturally unified group only distinguished by their phenotype.
In time, the Garínagu gained power and prestige over the native peoples and were
a threat to the British, who wanted to take over St. Vincent. The French, although
they had gone about seeking control of St. Vincent by befriending the Garínagu, tried
to support them in their struggle. William Young complained feverishly that the Garínagu
were living on the best lands and not even using all of it and besides – as Africans
they had no right to the land. After a bloody war, and an epidemic of disease that
reduced much of the Garífuna population, they were forcibly removed from the St.
Vincent and eventually settled in Central America.
In either 1635 or 1675, a slaving ship bound for the new World sank close to the
coast of St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean. The native Indians marveled at the
size and musculature of the black-skinned men bound in chains, prompting them to
kill the European crew and welcome the Africans into their society. These Africans
willingly learned the language and customs of the native St. Vincentians and were
gifted with Indian daughters to marry. From this union, a new ethnic group emerged
called the Black Carib, or Garífuna.
The Garínagu are an ethnic group that
emerged as a result of a 17th century shipwreck
Some sources cite a Spanish ship; some sources cite a Dutch ship. One must consider
the motives behind the authors of these accounts, namely the British (and the French)
who wanted complete administrative control of St. Vincent. The purpose of these
shipwreck reports (both written by Englishmen) was to prove to the British crown
that since the Black island dwellers were not indigenous, they had no right to be
on the island and consequently the British had every right to remove them. After
these reports were published, subsequent chroniclers simply copied this information
over and over again, until the event became well-known. However, in time the “shipwreck
story” faded from memory, and if you asked a Garífuna in the early 1800s where his
ancestors came from, he did not know. In the 20th century, Robert Anderson, “discovered”
these old accounts of the shipwreck and published them in his history book (1938),
making this story well-known once again. Some important considerations about the
shipwreck legend: (1) the area around St. Vincent was not a normal slaving route,
so a slave ship would not have been in that area, (2) Clive Frank, another St. Vincentian
author, wrote in 1976 that the ship was called “Palmira”. The Palmira was indeed
a slaving ship, but it did not sail during the 1600s around St. Vincent, it sailed
during the 1800s with a landing in Cuba. By this time, the Garífuna were already
in Central America, (3) there were careful records kept of all ships – those that
sailed successfully and those that crashed. Dozens of slaving ships crashed between
1630 and 1680, but none of these ships crashed closed to St. Vincent.
Africans arrived in the Caribbean centuries
before the Europeans, creating the first Garínagu
Building on the work of Leo Wiener (1920) and Alexander Van Wuthenau (1969), Ivan
Van Sertima (1970) contends that sea-faring African royalty were the first foreigners
to make contact with the indigenous of the so-called New World. Van Sertima presents
evidence from eleven different disciplines (including historical documents, botany,
linguistics, anthropology, sculpture, etc) to argue that Africans were well-known
traders throughout the oceans. Edgar Adams, a very well-known Garífuna historian,
has supported this theory in his books, suggesting that these early Africans and
native peoples produced the very first Garínagu. Although some scholars would say
that each of Van Sertima’s views have been thoroughly discredited, the possibility
of Africans in the Caribbean before the Europeans does exist if you rely on what
he asserts is “irrefutable evidence.” His arguments are quite convincing, exceptionally
meticulous and are taken seriously in the academic community even by those who do
not agree with him.
The Garínagu came from Atlantis
I have to admit that I have not given this theory too much attention, but each account
of Garífuna history is presented here for your examination. If you would like to
read more about this theory, please follow this link
Taylor, Douglas. (1977) The Black Carib of British Honduras
Anderson, Robert M. The Saint Vincent Handbook. Kingstown, St. Vincent
Gullick, C. J. M. R. Myths of a Minority : The Changing Traditions of the Vincentian
Caribs. Studies of Developing Countries, 30. Assen [Netherlands]: Van Gorcum, 1985.
Frank, Clive A. History of the Begos; the Grenadines from Columbus to Today. Christ
Church, Barbados: Consultants Sales and Marketing, 1976.
Wiener, Leo. Africa and the Discovery of America. Philadelphia, Pa.: Innes & Sons,
Von Wuthenau, Alexander. The Art of Terracotta Pottery: In Pre-Columbian Central
and South America. New York: Crown Publishers, 1969. Print.
Van Sertima, Ivan. They Came before Columbus: The African Presence in Early America.
New York: Random House, 1976.
Adams, Edgar. People on the Move: The Effects of Some Important Historical Events
on the People of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
R&M Adams Book Centre, National Treasures: Identifying the National Heritage and
Cultural Traditions of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. St. Vincent and Grenadines:
Edgar Adams, 2004; St. Vincent in the History of the Carib Nation, 1625-1797. St.
Breton, Raymond, and Jules Platzmann. Dictionaire Français-Caraibe. Leipzig, 1900.
Hulme, Peter, and Neil L. Whitehead, eds. Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from
Columbus to the Present Day. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Rochefort, Charles-César. Histoire Naturelle Et Morale Des Iles Antilles De L'amerique,
Enrichie De Plusieurs Belles Figures Des Raretez Les Plus Considerables Qui Y Sont
D'ecrites, Avec Vn Vocabulaire Caraïbe. A Roterdam: Chez Arnould Leers, 1658
Photos courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Media Library