“These Sons [and Daughters] of Freedom”

By James Diedrick
Posted April 4, 2022
(photos on this page © by James Diedrick)

The eastern part, which is chiefly in wood, is inhabited by about 2000 natives, who owe their origin (truly poetical) to a ship freighted with Negroes, from Africa to Barbadoes, and wrecked on these coasts. . . . Thus descended, and by Providence thus chartered, these Sons of Freedom are armed for their defence, and grown tenacious and jealous of their liberties. 

–Sir William Young, Some Observations; which May Contribute to Afford a Just Idea of the Nature, Importance, and Settlement, of Our New West-India Colonies (London: 1764).

This is a description of those inhabitants of St. Vincent island in the Caribbean then known as “Black Caribs” (now known as Garifuna or Garinagu)–a people of mixed African and indigenous ancestry who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the 18th century by the British and who subsequently moved to Honduras and Belize. Their African ancestors escaped two ship-wrecked Spanish slave ships in 1635, freeing themselves before they could be enslaved, so their history is one of fierce independence and opposition to colonial oppression. (For more on their history and culture, see Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa by  Paul C. Johnson, UC Berkeley Press, 2007).

Which of course put the Garifuna at odds with the British in Belize, who claimed the country as their colony in 1862 (which they named “British Honduras”). Thanks to a British strategy, it also placed them in conflict with those Afro-Caribbeans who were brought to the country by their British enslavers to work as log-cutters serving the European logwood and mahogany trade. As Melissa A. Johnson notes in her essay “The Making of Race and Place in Nineteenth-Century British Honduras” (Environmental History 8.4 (October 2003), the British colonizers were determined to demonize the Garifuna as a way of protecting the system of chattel slavery their lumber industry depended on. This can be seen in the 1830 Honduras Almanack, for the Year of our Lord, which both embodies and illustrates the racist categories that slavery in Belize depended on:

Though there are many free blacks, yet for the most part they children of slaves or have been slaves themselves; and few of them entirely exempt from those low propensities which are exhibited barbarism …. They, however, possess upon the whole, but little dullness of comprehension, and the difficulty of picturing on the the ideas present in their own, are at once remarkable and distressing. to perform everything they take in hand, less mechanically in their movements than in their notions; and generally contrive to effect their objects with as much instinct as of reason (qtd. in Johnson 604)

As Johnson writes, “the Almanack clearly suggested that African elements of the population were worthy to the future of the settlement only if they were yoked, or enslaved.” But they were not “yoked,” and their spirit of independence and resourcefulness persists to the present day in Belize, as a group of Agnes Scott College students and staff discovered during a March 7 2022 visit to the Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco-Cultural & Fishing Institute.

               Uwahnie Martinez, Director of the Palmento Grove Garifuna Center
Here we met with Uwahnie Martinez, who worked as a banker in Belize for 14 years until she was told to stop speaking to customers in her Garifuna language–even though the community served by the bank is largely Garifuna. This kind of discrimination against her community, which now makes up just 5% of the population of Belize, comes from and continues what Martinez calls a history of Garifuna being oppressed in the country and the region. As Martinez explains, “this is what gave rise to a lot of people moving out of Central America into the diaspora, into [for instance] the United States.”

“I was no different,” she told us; “I had observed all of this happening to my people; . . . having to work for others, we had to continue to work under oppression. For me I was determined to make some changes to that . . . so I started my way to own my own business, as an avenue to liberation for me and for my people as well. . . . The bank refusing to allow me to speak my own language was the impetus for me to start my own business, and to promote cultural preservation. This is why I am able to be here today. . . .”

In her conversation with us about her history and culture, Ms. Martinez demonstrated that she is a true daughter of freedom, in the tradition of the Afro-Caribbeans on St. Vincent Island that William Young described some 250 years earlier. This spirit of freedom rang out when she described the process whereby her ancestors we exiled by the British to Honduras in 1796. In her own words:

The British decided “we will finally get rid of these people.” So they brought along 10 ships, boarded the Garifuna on the ships, and headed for the Bay Islands of Honduras, the only British territory in the Honduras, which was otherwise a Spanish territory. . . . again, we were a free people; we love freedom, and we love to fight for it too. . . . And hence the British and the Europeans really don’t like the Garifuna people, because as slaves would flee away from their sugar plantations, they would find their way into the Garifuna population, that would then give them some kind of semblance of peace and safety. . . . 

In response to a student question about Garifuna religion, Ms. Martinez said her ancestors “weren’t religious; we were spiritual.” While many who practice a specific religion would say they are also spiritual, her statement is another aspect of the Garifuna determination to be free–in this case from the Catholicism imposed on much of Central America by the Spanish in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then the Protestantism imposed by the British during their occupation of Belize. She described Garifuna spirituality this way:

Our spirituality has two dimensions. First, we live together, as a community. “I for you. You for me.” We take care of each other. We live communally; we have relatives, friends; their children are our children. And vice versa. . . . And then the second aspect of our spirituality is the idea that we say our ancestral spirits, those who have passed, they have just transitioned. So while they are not here with us in flesh, they are here with us in spirit. So often they come to us like a voice in our head, guiding us, showing us the way.  . . . We keep in communion with them. We also have spiritual healers, . . . . different ranks in the spiritual community; the high priest, the Buyei [shaman] that could be a male or female; they would translate messages from those in the spiritual world in Belize to those who are living. So, it’s reciprocal; we take care of the souls of those who have passed, and they take care of us. . . . These are instructions they can give us by way of dreams, by way of just a voice coming to you.

Admittedly, the spiritual practices of the Garifuna reflect the complexities of the African diaspora–especially the ways in which contact with European religions left their mark. As Paul C. Johnson has written,

We can characterize nineteenth-century Black Carib religion as composed of elements of folk Catholicism—the appeal to diverse saints in the form of miniature icons and the attention to godparenthood and baptism, but rarely to rituals of marriage or the Eucharist— embedded within and intertwined with indigenous practices focused on singing, dancing and feasting with ancestors who proffered powers of protection, cure, success, and fecundity. To these were assimilated possible new influences from the Haitians in Trujillo . . . and from anglophone blacks of the British Caribbean, like the practice of Obeah. (p. 85)

But Ms. Martinez emphasized that “religion,” specifically forms of Christianity imposed by European colonizers, has tried to eradicate Garifuna forms of spiritual practice. She noted that British colonizers taught Garifuna not to listen to such spirit voices, to interpret them as a symptom of mental illness, or as evil:

Because many times, because of religion, we have not known how to deal with [spirit voices], and as such we have been misinterpreted as being crazy. But if you know how to deal with it, you can get much more . . . out of it. . . . But again, having been  miseducated, having adopted Catholicism and religion, it has taught us that much of what has to do with our spirituality is demonic. So many have abandoned our spirituality. But when you do [embrace spirituality], you get to realize it is your strength. . . . and the reason it has been demonized.”

As all of her remarks made clear, Ms. Martinez is channeling the voice of her ancestors–carrying on a spirit of anti-colonial resistance that has characterized the Garifuna people ever since they declared themselves free on the shores of St. Vincent Island.