Black Caribs

views updated

Black Caribs

The biological and cultural origins of the Black Caribs are traced to the encounter of Carib Indians and Africans on the island of St. Vincent during the seventeenth century. Ancestors of the Carib Indians had migrated from South America, settling in St. Vincent and some other islands in the eastern Caribbean centuries before Europeans entered the region in the 1490s. By the seventeenth century the growth of sugar plantations and the slave trade brought increasing numbers of Africans to the Caribbean. The African ancestors of the Black Caribs arrived during this period. According to some accounts, all written long after the events took place and thus open to question, a ship carrying enslaved Africans to Barbados was blown off course and sank near St. Vincent. Some of the Africans reached shore, where they encountered Carib Indians. While accounts vary as to whether or not the Indians welcomed the survivors, a European visitor to St. Vincent in the 1670s reported seeing hundreds of armed men of African ancestry alongside nine hundred Carib warriors.

The Africans adopted the Carib language and many of the Indians' cultural practices, but by 1700 two politically separate groups occupied the island. The Indians, whom the Europeans called the Red Caribs or Yellow Caribs, lived on the leeward side of the island. The Black Caribs, or les Caraïbes Noirs, as they were known to the French, claimed the less accessible windward side of St. Vincent. It was said that the Black Caribs had chosen that name for themselves in their dealings with Europeans. The British often referred to them by other names, including Wild Negroes, suggesting that they regarded these black Indians as Maroons.

The Black Carib population grew rapidly during the eighteenth century, not only because of natural increase but reputedly because they also took Red Carib women captive and harbored fugitive slaves. In 1763, when the British gained formal control of St. Vincent from the French, the Black Caribs numbered two thousand and the Red Caribs only some hundreds.

The British made plans to colonize the island, but the Black Caribs refused to surrender their land and maintained an alliance with the French that strengthened their position. After three decades of uneasy peace punctuated by broken treaties and resistance, the Black Caribs finally revolted against the British in 1795. In 1796, following a decisive victory, the British proceeded with plans to deport the Black Caribs thousands of miles away from St. Vincent. A few evaded deportation and remained in St. Vincent, but thousands did not. Many of them died of disease before arriving at the intended destination, the island of Roatán. From there the survivors soon spread to the nearby eastern coast of Central America.

Today their settlements lie along a narrow strip of shoreline from Belize to Nicaragua. Their language and their origins in Yurúmai (St. Vincent) remain central to their ethnic identity. Since the late twentieth century they have increasingly used the names Garífuna and Garinagu rather than Black Carib to identify themselves.

See also Identity and Race in the United States; Migration


Craton, Michael. "The Black Caribs of St. Vincent: A Reevalution." In The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion, edited by R. L. Paquette and S. L. Engerman. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996.

Fabel, Robin F. A. Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 17591775. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

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

Kerns, Virginia. Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual, 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

virginia kerns (2005)