The Garifuna People of Belize
The Garifuna people of Belize are a people descended from a mixture of African slaves imported into the Caribbean and indigenous people of the region. This unique blending of two different populations has given the Garifuna a truly unique culture. On one hand, the Garifuna have retained many influences from their African heritage, including their language and musical traditions. Likewise, their heritage inherited from the indigenous populations of the Caribbean play an important role in modern Garifuna culture.
During the height of the colonial era, millions of Africans were forcibly removed from their homes on the continent and transplanted to the Caribbean to work as slaves. The disparity in power and agency between the imported African slaves and surviving indigenous people compared to the minority Europeans had a long-lasting effect on the Garifuna people’s concept of themselves.
After several uprisings against their British overseers at the end of the 18th century, the Garifuna people were forced to flee their island home in St. Vincent for more remote areas in Central America. Arriving on the offshore island of Roatan in what is today Honduras in 1802, the Garifuna were forced to flee once again in 1823, ultimately making their way to what is now Belize. The Garifuna, now considered freedmen, struggled to integrate in a society that still had large numbers of enslaved people of African descent.
The Garifuna struggled for several decades as their presence was bitterly resented by the ruling elite. The Garifuna were largely prevented from intermingling with other populations of people of African heritage in Belize, the ancestors of today’s Creole (or Kriol) population. Local rules and ordinances were passed to prevent the Garifuna from participating in politics or selling agricultural products in the local markets.
Despite stiff resistance, the Garifuna managed to persevere, many of them adopting a form of Roman Catholic syncretism that preserved many of their African and Carib beliefs. One important byproduct of their long segregation from the rest of Belizean society was that many Garifuna become educators. In the modern era, Belizeans from all walks of life have had a teacher who was Garinagu.
Today, the government of Belize has embraced the enormous cultural contributions of the Garifuna to music, food, and the arts. There is now a national holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Garifuna. The Garifuna have successfully managed to preserve most of their traditional culture, officially recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations in 2001. The Garifuna contributions to education, the culinary arts, music, language, and dance continue to demonstrate the resilience of the Garifuna, a proud people with the skills and resolve to face every challenge with strength of conviction and artful expression.