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Garífuna History

By Susie Post Rust

Fishing villages along Central America’s coast pulse with the joyous rhythms of this Afro-Caribbean people.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Herded aboard slave ships in West Africa, a group of Garífuna forebears were likely destined for New World mines and plantations when they wrecked off St. Vincent in 1635. They found refuge with the island’s Carib Indians, immigrants from South America.

The two peoples blended through marriage, creating the Garífuna culture—Caribbean fishing and farming traditions with a mixture of South American and African music, dance, and spirituality.

The Garífuna prospered and coexisted peacefully with French settlers who came later in the 17th century. Tensions arose when English colonists began to arrive and demand land. Those tensions eventually turned to war. Hopelessly outnumbered by British troops, the Garífuna and their French supporters surrendered in 1796. The victors exiled the Garífuna to the island of Baliceaux.

Imprisoned there in appalling conditions, more than half died. The following year survivors were shipped to Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. According to legend, the Garífuna hid cassava, a mainstay of their diet, inside their clothes, where it stayed alive watered by the sweat of the tightly packed captives. They planted the cassava on Roatán, where it grew abundantly. Soon the Garífuna established fishing villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. Each year in Belize, when locals reenact the arrival in that land, they slip out to sea in boats, then ride the surf onto shore, waving palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors. This ritual, rich in music and dance, helps sustain Garífuna culture.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine .

Voices resonate over the rhythmic pulse of drums in this sampling of Garífuna music.
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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did you know that human cultures can be given the same endangered status and protection as land, animals, and plants? This year, for the first time, the United Nations gave to a group of endangered cultures the title Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (referred to in the article as World Heritage cultures). Included are the Garífuna of Central America, whose uniquely fused African and South American ancestry and culture gave rise to new traditions. Inhabiting coastal regions along the Caribbean, the Garífuna can be found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

The Garífuna were selected because of the vibrancy of their language, music, and dance. One tradition that incorporates all of these aspects is the dügü, a dance which Garífuna use to summon the spirits of their ancestors in an effort to resolve problems in their communities. This passionate ritual, which may last uninterrupted for three days and requires the attendance of every family member, even those who live outside Central America, promotes unity and peace among the Garífuna.

But the survival of this culture is at risk due to discriminatory land measures, the failure of local school systems to acknowledge the language and culture, and lack of government and financial support. “Our language, music, and dance are to be considered part of our collective heritage as human beings, so we all need to work to protect these important elements of Garífuna culture,” says Roy Cayetano, president of the National Garífuna Council in Belize. “This declaration is of benefit to all countries where Garífuna people live, but it also implies a responsibility.” To see a list of all the endangered cultures named this year, go to the UNESCO website at www.unesco.org/opi/ intangible_heritage .

—Nora Gallagher

Check out the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s website, and learn more about what it means to be declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Please note that this website may not contain current Garífuna statistics.

The Dügü
Learn more about the Garífuna’s dügü ritual, also called “feasting the dead.” This site tells you about the reasons and preparations for this fervent ceremony and explains each important aspect.

Afro Tropical
Listen to the drum beats and lyrics of the Turtle Shell Band’s “Punta Huyama” and Parranda Music’s “Busigan.”

This website provides an overview and interesting details of the unique fusion that gave rise to the Garífuna culture.

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Gonzalez, Nancie L. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna. University of Illinois Press, 1988.

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Garrett, Wilbur E. “Troubled Times for Central America,” National Geographic (July 1981), 58-61.

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Starbird, Ethel A. “Taking It as It Comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada,” National Geographic (September 1979), 398-425.

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