The history of Central America and the Caribbean is not always a pleasant one, and that’s as true of Belize as it is for its fellow nations. The country spent centuries under the yoke of the United Kingdom — and slavery, racism, injustice, and income inequality are all a part of that legacy. But the country’s history also includes stories of hope — like the Garifuna people who arrived as desperate refugees in a foreign land and made a home for themselves. It’s the story of men like Thomas Vincent Ramos who fought to ensure that they received the respect — and the rights — that they deserved. Today, the Garifuna people are an integral component of Belize’s cultural tapestry. This is the story of Garifuna Settlement Day.
Emigration of the Garifuna to Belize
1802 saw the arrival of Garifuna in Belize — an ethnic group that had seen their entire ways of life uprooted by slavery. And their origins are as much a random act of circumstance as their arrival in Belize. When slave ships wrecked off the coast of Saint Vincent, the survivors intermarried with the local Kalinago-Taino population. But their population would continue to grow with the arrival of escaped slaves over the years. These Garifuna lived stubbornly outside the hierarchy of slave-driven imperialism and eventually came to develop a formidable armed resistance to the British. But the arrival of new advances in weaponry allowed the British to eventually suppress them, and they came to accept exile as a term of surrender in 1797.
5,000 Garifuna were shipped to a Honduran island, and many of these Afro-Caribbeans would end up on the mainland and in a partnership with the Spanish. But while they fought on the side of the Spanish, the Spanish held little allegiance to them. They found them increasingly marginalized rather than welcomed, and they would eventually be exiled from Honduras as well. In 1823 under the leadership of Alejo Beni, a group of Garifuna would arrive in what was then called Stann Creekand form their own community. More would come in the years that follow, and they would bring culture to the town along with a new name — Dangriga, or “Standing Waters”. More waves of Garifuna refugees would arrive throughout the years, typically in unison with periods of repression and violence committed by the Spanish Honduran government.
Thomas Vincent Ramos
Unfortunately, escape to Belize didn’t mean the Garifuna had found the freedom they deserved. It would be until 1833 that legislation was passed to ban slavery, but the laws wouldn’t fully go into effect until 15 years later. And while the Garifuna weren’t slaves under the jurisdiction of British rule, that doesn’t mean that they were free from persecution. Many took on artisan professions or worked as fishermen, but there was also plenty of work in the back-breaking mahogany industry. Fortunately, the Stann Creek District was relatively underdeveloped and of little interest to the British, so they were left to their own devices more than they might otherwise be.
Unfortunately, the abolition of slavery was intended largely as a measure to salvage the status quo as much as possible — and policies like company stores, crooked apprenticeships, and sharecropping left the former slaves in situations not much better than those they left behind. The Garifuna were not exempt from such practices — and the fact that they were isolated in a colonial backwater meant that they could count on little aid of any kind from the government.
Racial, cultural, and income inequality was still terribly pronounced when Thomas Vincent Ramos arrived in Dangriga in 1923. The Honduran was a polymath with occupations as wide-ranging as a boxing promoter, teacher, and candy maker. But his most influential vocation would be as an advocate for Garifuna’s rights. He may have not been native-born, but he took a genuine interest in the locals of Dangriga that was tempered by his sense of compassion as a devout Methodist.
His greatest concerns had to do with the public health in Garifuna communities. He also recognized how the lack of reputable financial institutions in Garifuna settlements perpetuated cycles of poverty. One of his earliest notable contributions as an activist was to form the Carib Development and Sick Aid Society, which was tasked with improving conditions for the community.
But tackling the major systemic issues facing Belize communities would require gaining the ear of the government and the public, and so Ramos turned his attention to the creation of a national holiday that would draw attention to the Garifuna. He also saw it as an opportunity to help the Garifuna celebrate their cultural excellence, a mission that was emphasized by Ramos’ American contemporary Marcus Garvey. The government would accept his request, and Garifuna Settlement Day would be celebrated for the first time in 1941. While it would initially be restricted to the Stann Creek District, it would eventually spread to other districts.
The Legacy of Garifuna Settlement Day
Ramos wouldn’t live to see it, but Garifuna Settlement Day would finally be accepted as a national holiday in 1977. Four years later, Belize would finally gain its independence as a self-governing nation. The history of persecution and discrimination still weighs heavily on Belize, but both the legacy of Vincent Ramos and the spirit of freedom that sent the Garifuna out in search of a homeland are both embodied through this holiday.
Today, six major Garifuna communities exist in Belize — and even as they’ve adopted some of the traditions of the Creole, they’ve managed to keep their culture intact and continue to play a prevalent role in the affairs of Belize. Dangriga is recognized today as both the Cultural Capital of Belize and Hopkins Village is often praised as the friendliest village in the country. Garifuna Settlement Day is a reminder of how important they are to the cultural makeup of the nation — and it continues to remind us that dedicated activists like Thomas Vincent Ramos can achieve lasting change for the better.