Clash of Cultures: Carib and Garifuna Resistance to European Invasion

In 1498 on his third voyage, Christopher Columbus sighted a new island. Hairoun, the Indian name for the island, "was a land blessed with rainbows, mist, fertile valleys and sun." Columbus named the island "St. Vincent" after the Spanish saint. But, the Caribs were a formidable force and the reefs of the Grenadines so treacherous that the Spanish avoided them altogether.


In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh visited St. Vincent briefly and came away with the impression that the island was too much trouble. The Caribs of St. Vincent, taking advantage of the densely forested, mountainous interior (see picture below), were able to resist European settlement for nearly 200 years, longer than any other island in the Caribbean.

Some researchers speculate that the Caribs originate from the Kalipuna tribe of mainland South America moving up the island chain until they invaded St. Vincent and conquered the Arawaks. Kalipuna warriors took Arawak women as wives producing the union of the two groups. The Spanish called these people "Caribes" (Caribs) which means cannibals and that is the word from which "Caribbean" is descended.

Recent  research indicates that other Africans came even before Columbus and settled in St. Vincent. The Caribs of St. Vincent were joined by Caribs fleeing the Europeans on other islands, and also by runaway African slaves and slaves who survived shipwrecks in the area. In the year 1635 two Spanish ships carrying African captives, believed to be Nigerian, were shipwrecked off the island of St. Vincent. At first, the Africans and Caribs fought one another but eventually intermarried.

News of the free men on St. Vincent spread throughout the islands. By 1676, it is estimated that 30% of the population of St. Vincent consisted of formerly enslaved Africans who had escaped. Women were scarce and the African men were fierce competition for the Caribs.

A new group of African and Carib heritage developed and became known as the "Black Caribs" or “Garifuna” as the subsequently named themselves—the word "Garifuna" means "cassava eating people."  Eventually the Garifuna outnumbered the original inhabitants, the "Yellow Caribs." The Garifuna’s population growth created political tensions with the outnumbered “Yellow Caribs” so that at one point the Yellow Caribs even negotiated with French wanderers to settle on the islands in 1719—hoping to shift power away from the Black Caribs.

Meanwhile, in England, in 1627, St Vincent had been granted to Britain's Lord Carlisle as an island inhabited only by savages. By the 1760s, the British had invaded, pushed the French out and begun settlement which brought them into direct conflict with all the Carib groups. From 1772-73 the first Carib-Garifuna/British war occurred and ended when it became the first time an indigenous Caribbean people forced the British to sign a treaty. Forts like the one seen here are a legacy of the conflicts the the British had with the French and then the Caribs.
A British fort facing out too sea. Most forst faced out to sea because that's where the British expected any French attacks to come from. Britain at one point was involve in what is known as the Thirty Years Way" with France. It was the treaty signed at the end of that war that said Britain controlled St. Vincent. Of course, no one asked the Caribs and Garifunas living there how they felt about that!

In 1795 –96 a second Carib-Garifuna/British war erupted in response to British failure to honor the treaties. However, On March 14, 1795, Garifuna paramount chief Joseph Chatoyer is killed in battle and by 1796 the Caribs had to negotiate a peace.

The majority of Caribs were then sent to small island of Balliceaux in the Grenadines and later to Bequia. On the 25th of February, 1797, some 5000 Caribs (mostly Garifunas) were loaded on the H.M.S. Experiment and then transported to the island of Raotan off the coast of Honduras—stripped out of their homeland.


A few Caribs (mostly Yellow Caribs) remained, and dwelled to the north of the island in the reservation area called Carib Country, extending from Black point near Georgetown (see map) to the most northern part of St.Vincent. Sandy Bay and Morne Ronde were the more populated villages. The Caribs tried to eke out a subsistence existence in the rugged and poor soils that existed along the coast. Many Garifunas who had hidden away to avoid deportation ended up living in the location of the present village of Greiggs.

The main Garifuna population did not remain confined to Raotan for long as it was quite inhospitable. From there they migrated to the coastal areas of Honduras. In 1832, many Garifuna left Honduras after a civil war there. On 19 November 1832 they landed in Belize, led by Alejo Beni. To commemorate their arrival, the Garifuna in Belize now celebrate this day as "Garifuna Settlement Day," a national holiday.

Garifuna-S. America

The Garifuna who were forced to migrate have never forgotten St. Vincent as their homeland however. Their oral history has many stories of the "homeland" and today, many Garifuna are beginning to travel back to St. Vincent on visits to pay homage to the land of thier origin. The present day Garifuna people of Sout America and present day descendants living in St. Vincent also show many similarities in culture and dress.