Friday, February 18, 2005


Outline of Vincentian History

When we first came to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines there were two things that I noticed that surprised me. One was the relative lack of racism. This doesn't mean that there isn't a kind of snobism that ranks a lighter skin superior to a darker skin, but there isn't the blanket hostility by people of color toward the euroamerican minority that there is on some of the other islands.

I attributed that in part to the lack of an overpowering tourist industry with its requirement of servility and consequent resentment. But beyond that, the variety of color shades in the Vincentian complexion was comparable to French rather than former British islands. That meant that there had been friendlier relations in the past as well as the present.

The other thing that surprised me was the placement of guns in Fort Charlotte.

In most fortresses that overlook harbours, the guns point out to sea to aim at approaching ships. On St. Vincent the guns pointed inland to what was probably jungle or plantation when they were installed. Fort Charlotte was designed to defend against the islanders.

Finally, in January 2002, a talk by Prof. Hilary Beckles of UWI (Barbados) helped me to understand that these were two faces of the same phenomenon: the turbulent history of the island of St. Vincent and the Garifuna (or Black Carib) people. The following brief outline of St. Vincent and Garifuna history is based on Prof. Beckles' talk and several sources on the internet.

Early immigrants

After two migrations of pre-pottery people, there was a third migration of people who we call the Arawak, and who migrated from the areas now known as Guyana, Surinam and Venezuela around 160 CE and settled the Antilles. There were other movements around the Antilles and urbanization of the people on the bigger islands, but by 1300 or so St. Vincent was populated by a people who did subsistence farming and fished and spoke a language in the Arawak family and a trading pidgin we call Carib.

When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas in the early 1500s, they settled into the larger, urbanized islands like Cuba and Hispanola. In addition to mining and plantation agriculture they introduced foreign diseases and an oppressive system of forced labor that decimated local populations. African slaves were therefore imported into the New World beginning in 1517. By the 1600s slavery of Africans was fully established in the Caribbean.

Barbados is a flat island, well suited for the kinds of farming that can effectively utilize slave labor. But it is a relatively small island, so slaves who escaped from their plantations would be easily recovered unless they left the island on small boats. If they did they would tend to be blown to St. Vincent or the Grenadines. They and survivors of shipwrecks of slavers off the coast of Saint Vincent were taken in and assimilated into the Island Carib. Their descendants are called the Black Carib, known on the mainland as the Garifuna or Garinagu.


The Carib resistance, mountainous terrain and lack of open flat areas kept European colonists away from St. Vincent long after other Caribbean islands had well-established European settlements. The island remained a nominal Spanish possession until 1627, when it was granted by the British crown to Lord Carlisle. The Caribs had tolerated small farms operated by a few French settlers but were resistant to the British plan of large slave-powered plantations.

In 1667 a meeting was held between Calinago (Carib) chiefs and Gov Willoughby of Barbados. This was a unique example of negotiation between Europeans and local authorities. The Europeans usually just took what they wanted by force, but this didn't work on St. Vincent. The indigenes were too fierce and the countryside too wild.

The British were already crowded in Barbados and they wanted land and indigenous "Yellow" (or "Red") Caribs as workers. They also wanted the Black Caribs to be returned to slavery, as the British considered them to be escaped slaves.

The Chiefs said the British were free to travel to and trade in St. Vincent but would get neither lands nor labour. They also assumed that, in return, their people would have free access to trade in Barbados. Willoughby returned two months later with 54 men to start a settlement and the Calinago chiefs considered the agreement broken and declared war which, with pauses, effectively lasted for 150 years.

In December of 1675 a committee of the Merchants of London had met with the Colonial Office to ask the government to provide the resources that would allow Governor Willoughby to "destroy all of the savages of the Windward Islands". This policy of deliberate genocide explains what finally happened.

In 1730 the British and French made an agreement that neither was to settle St. Vincent in view of the Carib hostility. In 1762 British started settlements anyway, which explains why the cannons were pointed inland.

The Caribs continued hostilities and, with the aid of the French recaptured the island in 1779, but it was returned to British sovreignity in 1783 by the same Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution.

With the return of British troops and mercenaries from the American War, the scene was again set for open warfare. With the death of Principal Chief Chatoyer the British emerged as the victors in June of 1796. They then unleashed a massive man hunt, trapping and banishing 4,644 overly "rebellious" Black Carib to Baliceaux Island - where they were held on a 464 m. high cliff! Others manage to escape to South America and to the neighboring Antilles Islands.

Attempts at overwhelming the native Caribs having failed; the British deported most of them in 1797. Of those deported, the lighter-skinned "Yellow Caribs" were classified as "benign" and returned to St. Vincent. Today, many Creole-speakers on St. Vincent are descendants of the Yellow Carib. A number of Yellow Caribs were moved to a reservation at Sandy Bay, in the northeastern corner of St Vincent.

The remaining 2,026 captives were left on Honduras' Roatan Island with limited food and supplies on April 11, 1797. They were abandoned there because "not even an iguana could survive there", i.e. as a deliberate act of genocide. However Spaniards transported the Garifuna to the mainland. The Garifuna returned the favor, supplying food for the entire colony - which was dying of hunger because Spanish farming practices are not suited to the tropics.

The British abolished the trade in slaves in 1807 and abolished slavery in 1833. Thus the full application of the slave economy and the absence of free Black Caribs only had a life of 40 years on St. Vincent; while plantation slavery on, for instance, Cuba lasted from 1600 to 1880. Slavery therefore had less of a psychological impact in St. Vincent than it had on other Caribbean islands.

This was recognized in 2002 when the Unity Labor Party, having won the election of 2001, in parliament declared that the first National Hero of St. Vincent would be Chief Joseph Chatoyer, who led the guerilla war against the British Empire until his death in 1796.

It is the Yellow and Black Caribs of history, and the Garifuna of today, who provide a role model of strength and independence that allows the people of St. Vincent to have a self-image that requires no taint of inferiority no matter how dark (or light) their complexion.

It is that confidence in themselves that makes it possible for melanin-deficient people like Sally and me to be comfortable even as part of a tiny euroamerican minority.

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