feature: the garinagu – 218 years of ongoing resistance

July 21, 2015
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The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) are an Afro-indigenous group from St. Vincent who were exiled to Central America in the 18th century and presently face a second exile from their ancestral communities there. Three popular narratives have arisen to explain the genesis of the Garinagu:1) The intermarriage of the African explorers with Amerindian women, circa 900-1200; 2) The shipwreck of a Spanish/Dutch vessel off the coast of St. Vincent in 1635/1675 3) Escaped captives, or “maroons,” from neighboring Lesser Antilles islands intermarrying with indigenous women in the 1700’s.

By DJ Pwhyte, AFROPUNK Contributor



The African-Indigenous Intermarriage Narrative

Scholar Ivan van Sertima and Islamic scholars thoroughly documented African explorers who traded with the native population of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean prior to the Christopher Columbus’s voyages. This information can also be found in the works of Egyptian scholar Ibn Fadi al-Umari, who wrote about two major transatlantic expeditions in 1342.


During the time of the Empire of Mali, Mansa (King) Abu Bakari sent an initial expedition of 200 ships across the Atlantic. All but one vessel returned to Africa. Abu Bakari subsequently abdicated his throne and lead an expedition of 2000 ships, 1000 with his finest men as crew and 1000 more laden with supplies and food to last two years.


French missionary Father Raymond Breton produced in 1665 what is known as the Dictionnaire Français-Caraïbe, proof that the Garifuna language was fully developed by the 1600s. The Garifuna language is a member of the of Maipurean family of languages, the history of which can be traced to what has been described as the Circum-Caribbean region of the Western Hemisphere.



The Shipwreck Narrative

According to the British Calendar of State Papers, 1661-1668 St. Vincent was inhabited by “…all Indians and some negroes from the loss of two Spanish ships in 1635.” Over one hundred years later, in 1795, then-governor of St. Vincent Sir William Young published An Account of the Black Charaibs in the Island of St. Vincent’s, about a shipwreck, but he claims that the wreck happened in 1675. No eyewitness accounts of these events are known to exist. Charles Shepherd in An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent was also promotes the shipwreck theory as the reason phenotypically African people were on the island. Chris Taylor in Black Carib Wars states that this claim was made merely to justify British colonial expansion into St. Vincent to establish sugar plantations.


Many scholars do not support the shipwreck narrative because of the lack of data in the French, Dutch, and Spanish archives to support this theory espoused by the colonizers of St. Vincent, Sir William Young and Charles Shepherd. No archaeological proof exists to date of such an occurrence.



The Maroon Narrative

Runaway captives from the neighboring islands of St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Grenada, and Barbados, known in the English Caribbean as “maroons,” made their way to Yurumein at the height of slavery, circa 1600s. Logs by European missionaries La Paix, Lebreton, and Labat indicate that in Dominica and St Vincent two groups exist, Blacks and Indians. Lord Willoughby indicates that St Vincent is covered with, “woods, indians, and blacks.” Philip Warner posits that there were “3000 negroes and no other island as many indians.” Paul Christopher Johnson in Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and Recovery of Africa writes of Africans reaching Yurumein from Kalinago/Carib raids on Puerto Rico in the 1600s.

Due to the complex nature and development of the Garinagu culture, the narrative that fits our existence is the first one. Garinagu people, then, are descendants of West African explorer Mansa Abu Bakari’s fellow expeditioners and of indigenous Amerindian people in the Circum-Caribbean archipelago. This peaceful union, born of trade, eventually led to intermarriage in Dominica, Grenada, and the final stronghold of Yurumein (the Garifuna name for the island of Saint Vincent).

Garifuna is the only original Caribbean-based language with native speakers in the Americas. The culture runs on the rails of the language. We still practice Garinagu oral tradition handed down to us from Yurumein (now St. Vincent), along with cultural customs, spirituality, and language. Yurumein is what the Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) people called the island nation state renamed by the British crown St. Vincent. After resisting colonization for nearly 200 years, The Garifuna Nation was exiled in 1797 to Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras, Central America. It has preserved its culture in its communities along the Atlantic Coast of Honduras and Central America.

Honduras at the time of the Garinagu arrival was still a colony of the Spanish crown. Garinagu played a major role in the independence of the nation. Juan “Walumagu” Bulnes, also know as “John Bull,” was a great Garifuna chief who survived the exile from St. Vincent after fighting alongside Paramount Garifuna Chief Joseph Chatoyer. Walumugu went on to become a general in the Honduran army, fighting along Francisco Morazán. After helping defeating the Spanish crown Juan was awarded land for his bravery and military intelligence prowess. There is a county named after him in Honduras today, Municipio Juan Bulnes in the department of Gracias a Dios.

Subsequent to the September 21, 1821 declaration of independence from the Spanish crown and the creation of the nation-state of Honduras, Garifuna people established communities along the Caribbean Coast. In Central America the culture continued to flourish, and currently consists of 57 communities in Honduras, 5 in Nicaragua, 2 in Guatemala, and 7 in Belize.

After 218 years of somewhat autonomous rule in Honduras, Garinagu today face eviction from their ancestral lands in Honduras. This social engineering scheme is happening as a result of Garinagu lands being targeted for tourism, agricultural expansion for bio-fuels, mining, narco-trafficking, and legal maneuvers by the state government to change the identity of Garifuna people to the non-descript term of “afro-descendientes.” This latter point has major consequences for continued Garifuna people existence in Honduras.

Residents of Barra Vieja were evicted in August 2014. This eviction was made possible by the nearby Indura Beach Resort. The government of Honduras plans to create charter/model cities along the Caribbean coast of Honduras. If the plan is approved, inhabitants of the approximately 50 Garifuna communities will be eventually evicted.

Honduras is violating several international laws treaties it has ratifie, including International Labour Organization  Convention No. 169 which states the rights of indigenous groups such as the Garinagu. Garifuna language, dance, and music  is recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The Garinagu community would not have survived in Honduras without their complex spiritual belief system, the dügü. This belief system has been preserved since Yurumein (St. Vincent). It revolves around paying homage to the ancestors via a variety of ceremonies that culminate in the dügü high ceremony. View footage of a dügü ceremony here.

The culture runs on matrilineal rails and is kept alive by Garinagu women in the communities in Honduras and the United States. The socially engineered removal of women and children by the state of Honduras poses a major threat. A community does not exist without the main ingredients: women and children. The state prohibits fisherman in several Garinagu communities from fishing. If they’re caught fishing a fine and/or summons is imposed. All these tactics are created to disrupt the traditional order of Garifuna life, leaving the inhabitants no other choice but to immigrate to United States or another country.  The issues are multivariable and require a complex solution which must be initiated by the current generation of Garinagu in the Diaspora.

Pablo Blanco and Hector Zapata, currently engaged in studying the Garinagu community, are among those leading a resurgence with the initiative of founding a Garinagu think tank as an organized body to address Garinagu issues and provide the best solutions to problems. Both agree that the solution must be based on Garinagu spirituality and traditional customs preserved for centuries in Honduras and thousands of years in Yurumein. A Garinagu Renaissance is currently occurring in the community. Social media has facilitated communication between many Garinagu to discuss issues that affect the community. The most pressing issues in Honduras are the vicious land grab and migration.

Music has played a vital role in the continual resistance and existence of the Garinagu. Many traditional songs have been preserved since the exile from Yurumein. One artist in particular, the late Andy Palacio, captivated the soul and essence of Garinagu music and exposed Garifuna music to an international audience through production work and supreme bandleader skills. He produced the critically acclaimed album Watina, winner of a WOMEX award.

Rolando “Chi Chi” Sosa and his band Garifuna Paranda Jazz Band are working hard to preserve the rich Garifuna musical heritage by exploring the other rhythms of the Garifuna music spectrum such as hüngüngü, bánguidy, and gunchey. Chi Chi has a residency at Silvana and Shrine in Harlem, NYC, his next performance will be at Silvana on August 1st from 10pm to midnight. See footage of Chi Chi’s last performance below: 



Follow Chi Chi and Garifuna Paranda Jazz Band here for upcoming performances:




Stay abreast of the latest developments on the Garinagu community’s ongoing campaign of resistance in Honduras on www.facebook.com/glm.eci


To learn of upcoming Garinagu cultural events in NYC: www.facebook.com/elitecarib

Banner photo credit: Griselda San Martin