History Of The Garifuna People

Garifuna Drummers Dangriga Town, Belize.
Garifuna Drummers Dangriga Town, Belize.

The story of the Garinagu or Garinagou (plural of Garifuna) begins almost 400 years ago, when South American Carib Indians migrated to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in order to subdue and discipline the native Arawak Indian islanders.

The Garífuna history has been one of constant migration and intermarriage. Oral history records that the Garífuna ancestors, the Arawak Indians, migrated from Guyana, Surinam and Venezuela around long before the arrival of the Europeans to the New World and settled in the Greater Antilles Islands in the Caribbean. A second ancestor, the Carib Indians, also migrated from their settlements in the Orinoco Delta in 1220 A.D. and seized the Lesser Antilles. The Carib and Arawak then intermarried and engendered the Island Carib, who settled predominantly on Saint Vincent Island.

Then in 1635, when two Spanish ships shipwrecked in the area, carrying hundreds of indentured Nigerians, many of the surviving slaves were able to seek refuge on the island among the Carib-Arawak population. This event further added to the genetic mergence of St. Vincent’s ethnic population.

Anthropologists recognise the Garifuna as a product of ‘voluntary assimilation’, which indicates the peaceful creation of this new ethnic group, but the ensuing years of searching for a homeland saw very little peace for the Garifuna. The music of the Garifuna is a unique and emblematic treasure of their culture.

Garifuna girl Dangriga Belize
Garifuna girl southern Belize. Image copyright M.A. Romero & Belize.com

In 1660, a British peace treaty guaranteed the “perpetual possession” of the island to the Garifuna, but less than a decade later, the British broke the treaty and re-claimed the island as a colonial possession. However, by the mid 1700s (following several generations of prolific reproducing by the Garifuna), it became increasingly aware that the Garifuna were such a demographic force on St. Vincent, that they threatened to jeopardise the inherent success of a colonial mission, and the British sent more and more representatives to the island to subdue the native Garifuna.

In 1796 as the Garifuna desperately sought a solution to their imminent enslavement, an intended raid became a defeat for the Garifuna, and the minority of survivors were deported to the Honduran island of Roatán.

The Garifuna flourished and multiplied, and thus when they were again forced to flee following republican revolt in Honduras, they continued their epic exodus in even greater numbers. In 1832, led by the charismatic and ambitious Alejo Beni, a group of Garifuna arrived on the southern Belizean coastline. It is this miraculous marine arrival that is celebrated every November in various Garifuna areas, including Dangriga, Seine Bight, Hopkins in the Stann Creek district, and Punta Gorda in the Toledo district.

What should be remembered of this era is that, for centuries, the Garifuna people had faced persecution, injustice and demoralization, and yet they still arrived in Belize with an optimistic ambition to serve their ‘new’ homeland and to develop their ‘new’ nation. Today, this magnificent culture is but a short aircraft ride from any part of Belize. Both Dangriga and nearby Placencia have well-maintained municipal airstrips.

In 2001, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the Garifuna culture a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” – in much the same way as various local marine areas (including several ranges of Cayes) were latterly classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Garifuna Settlement Day Queens in southern Belize wearing traditional Garifuna color dress.
Garifuna Settlement Day Queens in southern Belize wearing traditional Garifuna color dress.

Thomas Vincent Ramos

Thomas Vincent Ramos was born on 17th September, 1887 at Tulin, Puerto Cortes in the Republic of Honduras. Ramos married Elisa Marian Fuentes in 1914 and they migrated permanently to Dangriga, Belize around 1920. While in Belize, Ramos became a school teacher but he was also a visionary leader. He founded the famous Carib Development and Sick Aid Society (C.D.S) and later Carib International Society (C.I.S).

Both spread and were established in all Garifuna communities throughout Belize, and the C.I.S had affiliations as well in Guatemala and Honduras. Thomas Vincent Ramos had serious concerns about the systematic neglect and the need for improvement of the health facilities for Garinagu in Dangriga. Up to that time, there was not a single Garifuna nurse working in the entire Stann Creek District. So Ramos lobbied and agitated that Dangriga get its native nurses to serve its citizens in the Dangriga hospital. The colonial authorities finally capitulated and granted the request.

But T.V Ramos was also concerned with the promotion and preservation of the Garifuna cultural heritage. To that end, he dedicated his talent, time and effort so that in 1940, as leader and spokesman, along with Pantaleon Hernandez and Domingo Ventura, T.V Ramos petitioned the British Governor of the colony and requested the establishment of a Public and Bank Holiday in observance of the Garifuna arrival to Belize on November 19th.

The request was granted and official celebration of the 19th November as a public and bank holiday began in Stann creek district on November 19th, 1941. Two years later in 1943, Punta Gorda, in the Toledo District, was given the Holiday, and in 1977, Garifuna Settlement Day became officially a Public and Bank Holiday throughout Belize. Picture Below: Garifuna Settlement Day Mass in Dangriga, Stann Creek District Belize. The mass follows immediately after the early-morning re-enactment of the arrival of the Gariganu in Belize. The mass is held at the Roman Catholic Church and is celebrated in the Garifuna language with traditional Garifuna Music, drums, and dress.

The founder of Garifuna Settlement Day In Belize, Thomas Vincent Ramos.
The founder of Garifuna Settlement Day In Belize, Thomas Vincent Ramos.

Thomas Vincent Ramos was born on 17th September, 1887 at Tulin, Puerto Cortes in the Republic of Honduras.

In 1917 he married Elisa Marian Fuentes.

In 1923 he arrived in Belize and resided in Dangriga.

Thomas Vincent Ramos will be remembered as a voluntary Social worker.

In 1924 he founded the Carib Development Society; one of the aims of the society is to help those who are sick and to assist those who need financial assistance to bury their dead.

The Carib Development Society own 800 acres of land at Sarawee in the Stann Creek valley. This portion of land was called Carib Reserve.

On the 24th January, 1926 he was registered as a member of the Arrival Fund Committee which was founded for the benefit of all Caribs in Central America. He founded two other societies for the benefit of Caribs.

He started the celebration of Carib Settlement Day in Stann Creek in 1941, and this was extended to the Caribs in Toledo in 1943.

Thomas Vincent Ramos died at the age of 68 on 13th November 1955.

Each year since 1956 a torch light parade is held in his honour.

He was buried on 14th November, 1955.

Contributed by Adele O. Ramos & E. Pridgeon. Adele is a Belize-based writer and granddaughter of T.V. Ramos.