Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Got the 'ump

"At eleven o'clock we came in sight of Puenta Gorda, a settlement of Carib Indians, about a hundred and fifty miles down the coast , and the first place at which I had directed the Captain to stop. As we approached we saw an opening on the water's edge, with a range of low houses, reminding me of a clearing in our forests at home. It was but a speck on the great line of coast; on both sides were primeval trees. Behind towered an extraordinary mountain, apparently broken in two, like the back of a two-humped camel..."
John L. Stephens
, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841).

A settlement of Carib Indians....

That these people are what we know today as Garifuna is made clear later when Stephens recounts a meeting with an extremely old lady in Punta Gorda who hailed originally, he notes, from the island of St Vincent.

However, at no point does Stephens suggest that these people might have mixed their blood with former African slaves or even that they bore any resemblance to the creoles and mulattoes he had come across on his previous stop in Belize City. This is interesting, because these days the differences between the Garifuna and the creoles in the rest of the country would appear to be largely cultural - any indigenous ancestry is pretty hard to pick out.

Just after I made my own recent stop in Punta Gorda I was reading Peter Chapman's Jungle Capitalists and it became clear that the United Fruit Company under Minor Keith had imported thousands of Jamaican labourers to precisely this area of the Bay of Amatique.

Therefore, it might well be the case that the communities living along this stretch of coastline today have more Jamaican blood than anything else, but have managed to retain more of the cultural inheritance of the Black Caribs of St Vincent. This makes sense- come to think of it - because, as Garifuna mythology relates, the original African element to their heritage derived from a single slave ship which floundered off the coast of St Vincent.

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