In 1635, two Spanish slave ships shipwrecked off the coast of St. Vincent, a Caribbean island just north of South America. The slaves who survived the disaster—mostly from West Africa—took refuge on the island, and over the years intermarried with the native Arawak and Carib Indians. What resulted was a unique new ethnic group and culture unlike anything else in Latin America: the Garifuna.
Known also as the Garinagu, today the Garifuna live mostly in Central America. Forced to flee St. Vincent in 1796 after a failed uprising against the British colonists resulted in the deaths of hundreds of their people, the Garifuna fled by boat to Central America, where they took refuge in countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. In 1802, A group of Garifuna, escaping civil war in Honduras, arrived in Belize under the leadership of Alejo Beni, and settled along the coast of what was then known as British Honduras. November 19th is now celebrated as a Belizean National Holiday, marking the day that the Garifuna first arrived on Belize’s shores. For over 200 years their descendants have since called Belize home. Within Belize, the Garifuna live mostly in an around Dangriga, the largest settlement in the country’s south, and in small minorities in Belize City and other parts of the country. One of the country’s smallest ethnic groups, today only 15,000 Garifuna live in Belize (out of a total national population of just over 300,000).
Speaking a unique Arawak native language with words borrowed from African dialects, the Garifuna are known for blending both African and Native American traditions into songs and dances that tell of the long history of the Garifuna people. The Garifuna language is also unique in that it uses gendered words: a man and a woman talking about the same thing will use a completely different set of vocabulary to describe it.
Although most Garifuna are Catholic, they incorporate beliefs from several West African and Native American religions into Christianity, including the belief that departed ancestors can serve as mediators between individuals and the supernatural world. Spiritual leaders serve as intermediaries between the Garifuna and their ancestors, and are believed to be able to connect the living to the deceased through ceremonies that involves drumming, dancing, and a feast of seafood and cassava.
Drums also hold a significant place in Garifuna culture. Garifuna drums are made from hollowed tree trunks covered with antelope hide, are always played by hand, and can sometimes be accompanied by maracas or guitars. With origins rooted in the Garifuna’s African roots, drums are incorporated into almost all the Garifuna’s music. In these performances, two drummers usually play together, with one drummer known as the segundo playing a constant rhythm, while another called the primero will layer a more intricate pattern on top of the segundo’s beats. In religious music, a larger third drum will often be added to create even more complex rhythms.
In 2001, the Garifuna were declared a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nation’s cultural organization UNESCO. Today, the Garifuna face an uncertain future across Central America. Some Garifuna experience racism and discrimination in their home countries by people who view them as rural and uneducated, and the absence of their language in local schools means that their way of speaking is at risk of slowly dying out. Finally, poor economic prospects have caused many Garifuna to emigrate to the United States, leaving behind lands that they have lived in for generations.
For More Information
- National Garifuna Council of Belize
- Belize Music – The Garifuna (Belize.com)
- Language, Dance and Music of the Garifuna (UNESCO)
- The Garifuna (SouthernBelize.com)
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- Garifuna drummer: By Roatanavi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Garifuna village: By Garcia.dennis (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a junior at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as well as articles on science and culture.