Settlement Day on November 19th is the celebration of the ethnic group’s arrival to Belize, memorializing the larger of two migrations from Honduras that took place in 1823. But it was borne out of a bitter day in March, 1797, when more than 2 thousand of the original Black Caribs, defeated in a battle with the British and numbers depleted due to starvation, were loaded on the ship HMS Experiment from Baliceaux, near their home of St. Vincent, and exiled to Roatan, Honduras. From there they spread out to the Central American coast, first landing in Belize by 1802 – and the rest, as they say, is history. Educator, linguist and Garifuna elder Roy Cayetano speaks about why that history is important and its ties to the old Belize settlement:
Roy Cayetano, Garifuna Elder and Educator: Now if you put yourself in the place of those ancestors, you can begin to appreciate the difficulty. This is not the time of the year when you start to make plantation. There was no UNHCR in those days. There was no International Organizations that they could call upon to come and ease the situation. So eventually they were left to fend for themselves and so started their dispersal. The people at the settlement at the mouth of the Belize River, their settlers knew of the happenings in St. Vincent, and they had deep respect for the military prowess of the Garifuna People hence the hope that in the face of the threat of an invasion from Spain that these people who did not have other recourse and they had to do what they had to do to survive, would have offered themselves as mercenaries in the defense of the settlement. And so they were disappointed, the settlers were disappointed when, according to them, the Caribs had defected to the Spaniards in Trujillo. Now it wasn’t that the Garifuna people, the Caribs were joining the Spaniards, they were seeing what they could do, where they could go in order to survive.
Cayetano later told us that there was little to choose for his ancestors between the hated English that chased the Garinagu to modern-day Dangriga and points south, and the Spanish that still held sway in what was then the United Provinces of Central America:
Roy Cayetano, Garifuna Elder and Educator: Now having arrived they had to make do with what they had, make the best of what they had and the best of the situation, work on survival to the best of their abilities. The situation in Rottana, the time was not conducive, besides this isn’t the time to start clearing land to plant. What seeds do yu have? You arrive in a place, you can’t begin to make life. You have to hustle to see how you can survive the best way you can, and so what were the options available to them? Clearly there had to be more options on the mainland, and so a lot of them moved to the mainland and some remained in Punta Gorda in Rottana and then it’s amazing I think, and then it’s a testament to the resilience of our people that within five years, there was evidence of their presence here. They came to Belize, which means that they had carved out their canoes, rigged them up, explored the area and were able to come establish but it was not just to Belize they came when we established our settlements, we established our settlements south of the Sibun River which at that time was the southern boundary of the settlement.
Cayetano, who described the British actions in St. Vincent as “genocide”, questions more recent events in Belize as possibly contributing to a latent racist attitude against his people that once was thought to be part of the past. This is in reference to Evangelical Christian teachings about “ “conjuring of spirits”, “casting of spells” and “ancestral spiritism” which are as old as Deuteronomy 18:10-12 which states….”. “There shall not be found among you anyone… who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD.” It is a verse from the Bible taught in almost all evangelical churches across the nation of Belize and around the world and has been that way long before the caucasian pastor, Scott Stirm, was even born. However, when Pastor Stirm recounted a story told to him by a Garifuna woman who aligns herself with Evangelical teachings, all hell and fury were targeted at Pastor Scott Stirm as the National GArifuna Council says it was offended and demanded an apology from Strim for comments he repeated regarding their traditional spiritual practices . Stirm apologized while the National Evangelical Association of Belize stepped in with a statement saying that , “…as Evangelicals it is our strongest belief and conviction that any and all practices, spiritism, ancestral worship, traditions etc. that contradict the Biblical teachings of Jesus Christ and Scripture, those practices and observances must be forsaken and surrendered at the foot of the Cross, in submission to the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is one of the foundational beliefs and convictions of Evangelical Christianity.” Today, Cayetano said that at this point, Stirm is irrelevant as the Garifuna people need to take greater control of their education of their children:
Roy Cayetano, Garifuna Elder and Educator: If I may, my own thinking is that the gentleman is irrelevant. My thinking, and his marshalling Garifuna people to speak against their own people is evidence of a serious weakness in the socialization of our people and the schooling that our people get. Whoever reported to him was lying and he perpetuated the lies. I will not characterize it in any other way, but we have to look at the education of our people and make sure that action is taken to fill in some serious gaps that exist. I am one of those who believe that we have to take greater control of the education of our people. Our people, our culture, our language, our culture has been engaged, we can say, in an unfair competition with the knowledge and languages, knowledge and skills of the west. From the time the colonizers came, they established schools and they established religion and those were tools that they used to manipulate the minds, the thinking of the people and make them compliant. We have been victims of that
President Robert Mariano said that the National Garifuna council has not as yet made an official statement in response to the letter by Pastor Stirm offering his explanation and apology.