The Garifuna People Of Belize | Garifuna Culture in Belize



garifuna people
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.

A History of the Garifuna People

One of the most fascinating aspects of vacationing in other countries is the opportunity to meet indigenous people whose lifestyles, cultural practices and even languages are diverse and fascinating, and Belize is no exception. Commonly known as Garifuna, the true name of these people are Garinagu, a name they have worn with pride since they first arrived on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent centuries ago. Their story is typical of a people striving to find a homeland who never gave up hope that this goal would someday be successful.

Centuries of turmoil and homelessness

Having escaped from two Spanish ships transporting Nigerian slaves in 1635 when the sailing vessels sank off the coast of St. Vincent, survivors swam ashore and found sanctuary among the island’s Caribbean Indians. Peaceful co-existence ensued, as all of these cultures intermixed, intermarried and eventually evolved into one merged people calling themselves Black Caribs or Garinagu. But that peace only lasted until 1773 when waves of Europeans brought not just their influence but their wars to Central America.Tenacious and independent, the residents of St. Vincent survived battles waged between the British and the French until June 10, 1796, when a final battle lead to British victory, whereupon the people of St. Vincent were exiled from their homeland, aided by the Brits who literally deposited the Caribs on the island of Roatan, Honduras. Unable to sustain the standard of living to which they had been accustomed, the Garinagu again sought refuge on the mainland where they once again became allied with another culture: Spanish settlers living in a town called Trujillo.

A homeland, at long last

Sadly, peace continued to elude the refugees. Once again, Caribs found themselves in the midst of a civil war and were again forced to flee to neighboring British Honduras. They could not have known it at the time, but this would be their final migration. Having arrived on November 19th, 1802, this date proved to be a fortuitous one that is celebrated as a national holiday annually by a people grateful to have a home at last.

Maintaining the integrity of their culture was a huge priority for people who had survived so much to find a place to call home, and as cultures do, the Garifuna settled in close proximity to each other to maintain their heritage. These days, you will find concentrations of Caribs in Punta Gorda (Toledo) and the villages of Barranco and Punta Negra. Maintaining a distinct cultural presence is important to members of this unique society. Garifuna are proud to continue to practice the folkways, rituals and practices of their Afro-Caribbean ancestors, even as the world continues to interject itself.

A melding of old and new

Although many members of this community converted to Catholicism, they have not necessarily abandoned “the old ways.” Rituals overseen by Buyei (shaman) call forth the spirits of ancestors revered for their wisdom. Families look forward to community and family Dugu celebrations that include feasting. Every aspect of this celebration delights attendees who spare no expense to prepare for this event. Dancing, drumming, spiritually communing with ancestors and even healing rituals take place during these festive occasions.

In addition to a vibrant history of faith and celebration, Garifuna contribute significantly to the musical arts, maintaining a unique artistic sensibility throughout this colorful society. Singing, dancing and making music are important parts of everyday life, which is why visiting a Garifuna hub usually includes visitors being invited to learn to do the Punta dance or getting in on holiday musical performances that serve as reminders of how far Garifuna have come since they first came to Belize as slaves and yearned to be free and autonomous.

One people; many cultural roots

What can you expect to see, taste and do when you visit Garifuna neighborhoods? Traditional foods featuring ingredients like coconut milk, banana, plantain and cassava, a potato-like tuber prepared to exacting directions in order to produce the local bread that is a culinary mainstay once it is prepared and baked. Art and artifacts for which the Garifuna are known include colorful clothing, hand-made wood crafts, dolls, paintings, crafts and musical instruments like maracas that are used to accompany everyone’s favorite activity: drum beating.

Visitors eager to find out how much fun (and stress relieving!) this practice can be are welcome to taking drumming lessons during their Belize visit. Filled with hope for the future while respectful of the past — even the worst aspects of the history on which the foundations of the Garifuna people were laid — have kept these people going through wars, occupations and moves. Because those roots are deep, the Garifuna remain a people of faith and hopefulness. No visit to Belize is complete without meeting some of these remarkable, friendly and welcoming people!

Get a copy of The Ultimate Belize Bucket List! Written by Larry Waight, a local with more than twenty years of experience in the travel industry, the book is packed with tips, information, and recommendations about all of the best things to see and do in Belize.


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