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These indomitable people maintained a stronghold of liberty on St. Vincent, despite waves of colonial oppression

Like so much else, it was Columbus's fault; he dislodged the pebble that set off the avalanche of demographic upheaval that first flung three races together--and at each other's throats--in the West Indies.

The Indians were already there, by turns peacefully or bloodily minding their own business. Then the Europeans arrived to decimate them and usurp their land and with them came a trickle of kidnapped Africans that became a torrent as the century wore on. The elements assembled, Euro, Afro, and Indio, were smelted into uniquely American alloys in a Caribbean furnace stoked to the melting point by monumental injustice.

Yet out of this bitter history came transcendent stories of freedom--such as that of the Black Caribs of Saint Vincent. Their tiny nation, an amalgam of Afro-Carib half breeds with runaways from plantation slavery and castaways from wrecked slave ships, was a beacon of liberty in a sea of slavery for nearly three hundred years. Against mounting odds they played their hand out with finesse, to the last card. And the ultimate twist to their fate holds out hope that all may yet be well in human affairs if might and greed can, in the end, be so side stepped.

From the first, many Africans who found themselves enslaved on a New World plantation, looked long and hard at the surrounding wilderness from which it had been cut and simply walked off the job--into the jungle, free once again. Although survival in the wild was anything but simple, nonetheless wherever the slaves had sufficient mountains and forests to escape to, there were Maroons--runaways living in the bush. Brazil, with its vast forests, had the largest Maroon nation, the Republic of Palmares, which spanned almost a hundred years and counted a population of twenty thousand. The Bush Negroes of Suriname re-created West African villages deep in the limitless interior of the Guianas. And in Jamaica the "cockpit country" gave the Maroons ideal terrain for successful guerrilla warfare.

But in the limited areas of the Lesser Antilles, runaways existed in perpetual apprehension of recapture--and never was the hypocrisy of the "civilizing mission" of Christian Europe laid more bare than in the satanic punishments it meted out to a recaptured Maroon--the pious Spaniards tied him to a stake in the town plaza and castrated him before a crowd of his peers, the refined French slow roasted him, the liberal Dutch hung him from a shark hook through the ribs, the scrupulous Danes pinched him with red hot tongs and lopped off a leg for good measure, the legalistic English broke his bones on a wheel. Despite such measures, marronage occurred everywhere; but in the Lesser Antilles, only the Black Caribs of Saint Vincent succeeded in making good their freedom.

Little is certain about the origin of the Black Caribs, but the first Africans in the Windward Islands--that we know about--were captives taken by the Caribs in raids upon the early Spanish settlements.

The Spaniards and the Caribs deserved each other. The Spaniards had exterminated, almost inadvertently, the peaceful Arawaks of Hispaniola and the Bahamas within thirty years after their arrival. The Caribs, however, were the original "warlike cannibals." From their strongholds in Saint Vincent and Dominica, the Carib warriors issued forth in their giant war dugouts eager for battle, women, and loot-just like the conquistadors (though the Caribs had the grace not to preach religion to those they were raping and robbing).

For 150 years after Columbus, the Caribs raided Spanish towns and plantations in the eastern Caribbean, then terrorized the English, Dutch, and French settlements. Their homeward-bound dugouts included captured African slaves. How many it is hard to say, but the presence of three hundred blacks on Dominica was reported by the governor of Puerto Rico in 1588 who had it from an eyewitness. It can be presumed that Saint Vincent would have had at least as many or more.

The Carib men fathered children with their African captives and set the African men at liberty, giving them Indian women. Such was the origin of the Black Caribs. The Caribs' motives can only be guessed at, but perhaps it was as simple as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The Africans, familiar with European defenses, language, and mentality, would have sharpened the Carib war effort. And since the Spaniards automatically enslaved any Carib they caught, there was a natural empathy for fellow victims.

This ready reception of Africans may also have had deep, pre-Columbian roots. Eighteenth-century missionary Abbe Raynal declared that when the first slave ship wrecked near Saint Vincent the survivors were received as "brethren." Given the prevailing drifts of wind and current, Saint Vincent, at thirteen degrees north latitude, would have been a likely landfall for trading and fishing dugouts from the great river deltas of West Africa that must have occasionally been disabled and blown across the Atlantic in the centuries before the Discovery. With no way home they would have intermarried with the Caribs--themselves great voyagers--thereby laying the groundwork for a future perception of kinship.

Castaways from the wrecks of slave ships boosted the Afro-Vincentian ranks at least twice that we know mishap of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since nautical charts were incomplete, navigators unable to obtain longitude, their square-rigged vessels unable to work against the wind.

An important entrance to the southern Caribbean lies between Trinidad and Grenada. The passage is wide and deep, but should a vessel miss it and make landfall to the north it had to weave its way through the Grenadines, an archipelago of reefs, cays, and islets bounded to the north by Saint Vincent. Father Vasquez Espinosa, writing in the 1620s, mentioned the presence of five hundred Africans castaway on one of the Grenadines from a Portuguese slaver, "which for its misfortune blundered on that island ahead of its schedule. And they murdered the Portuguese."

Runaways became an important source of the Black Carib population after the mid 1620s, when the French and English began settling the Lesser Antilles, eventually forcing the Caribs back to their strongholds in Saint Vincent and Dominica. Sugar and slavery rapidly dominated the new colonies, particularly Barbados, whose level terrain was soon covered with verdant cane fields cultivated by a heavy population of Africans.

Barbados happened to be up wind and current from Saint Vincent. It didn't take long for the slaves to realize that a calabash raft, log, or stolen skiff set adrift off Barbados would generally fetch up on a windward beach in Saint Vincent within a couple of days; and that if they took that chance and won, they would stagger up the beach free.

Saint Vincent's windward side became a magnet for runaway slaves. They streamed there from neighboring Barbados and Martinique and the other islands all the way up the chain. By 1672 the English governor estimated there were six hundred runaway slaves with Caribs on Saint Vincent and Dominica. A few years later he reckoned that the two islands of Montserrat and Antigua had in two years alone lost thirteen hundred slaves to "either the French or the Caribs."

Besides the runaways/Maroons and a mixed group of Afro-Caribs from over a century's intermingling, the Caribs also held an increasing number of Africans as slaves. At first when the numbers were small, it posed no contradiction since even the Maroons held some bondsmen. The Caribs' own wives were like slaves, so many of them having originally been captured from the Arawaks. Nevertheless, as in the surrounding white man's islands, the existence of a large body of slaves proved to be destabilizing. The enslaved grew restive; the Maroons needed females held by the Caribs. A nation was striving to be born.

The balance tipped in 1675 when another slave ship wrecked, on Bequia, an island eight miles south of Saint Vincent. The survivors were from a notoriously warlike tribe known as the Mocos and soon proved to be proud and refractory slaves. With their unwieldy addition the Caribs began to lose control over the minority group they had fostered in their midst. So they decided upon King Herod's strategy--putting to death all African males at birth, sparing the females.

This cruelty brought things to a head. The Africans rose in rebellion, killed the Caribs at hand, and fled to mountain fastnesses to join the free Maroons. Once established there, it was beyond the power of the Caribs to rout them out. From this time on the Black Caribs grew stronger while the Caribs grew weaker. Eventually they joined the general Carib exodus back to their ancestral homeland in Venezuela.

The Black Caribs, with no place else to go and surrounded by enemies, nevertheless flourished. They inhabited the windward side, wild and impenetrable, where the early runaways had fixed their redoubt, but also laced with rivers and fertile valleys. They hunted, fished, raised what crops they needed in the rich volcanic soils, and traded in their dugouts with the French islands.

They retained a great deal of Carib culture, partly the natural result of their Carib heritage, partly to separate themselves from slaves being brought into the island by French planters who bought land from the Indians. They called themselves Caribs, spoke Carib, flattened the foreheads of their infants as the Caribs did, and buried their dead sitting up in the grave according to Indian custom. Like the Caribs, they were excellent swimmers and divers. Also like the Indians, they were a democratic society, without rank or hierarchy, every man the equal of the next, but with leadership implicitly accorded to exceptional men.

Unlike the Caribs, and more typically West African, they spoke other languages with facility, and besides Carib and Arawak and a wide range of African tongues, knew French fluently, as well as English, Spanish, and Dutch in consequence of having been enslaved by Europeans.

They also won widespread respect as skillful, tough fighters who handled firearms expertly and excelled at hand-to-hand combat. Their life in the mountains and on the sea, its egalitarian stimulus, their hard-won independence from whites and reds, all made them vigorous and self-reliant. Tough and wily, they trusted no one but themselves and with their backs to the wall they defended their land, their families, and their freedom.

They were put to the test in 1719 when a French plot was hatched to invade Saint Vincent to reduce the Black Caribs to their "original state of slavery." The backers of this scheme would gain vast plantations and slaves to work them through a swift stroke of violence and treachery. The governor of Martinique approved, and a private army of four hundred adventurers set sail for Saint Vincent to get rich quick.

It should have been a cue to the French that although the red Caribs were invited to join the expedition, they politely declined and stood on the sidelines; but no, inflamed with the prospect of easy pickings, the whites disembarked and marched off into the bush hot on the trail of the Black Caribs. Thereby they made a mistake subsequently made by others-assuming that a ragtag bunch of illiterate Negroes wouldn't pose much opposition to well-armed and trained Europeans.

The Black Caribs lured them to a spot particularly suited for ambush and loosed a devastating volley of musketry and arrows. The leader of the expedition fell dead to the ground, along with many of his men. The survivors did an immediate about face and beat it back to the ships, thence to Martinique, without further encounters. The Black Caribs were apparently content to make their point and drop the matter. The French hushed up the incident.

Despite the attack, the Black Caribs rather liked the French, carrying on a brisk trade with them; many of them spoke French and adopted French names. French priests brought the Catholic faith to a receptive people. But they burned down any building near their boundaries and allowed no white man into their territory without special permission. They also demanded from the French settlers payment for the lands they had occupied on the Caribs' half of the island. When the colonists exclaimed they had already paid the Caribs for them, and waved a deed to prove it, the Black Caribs waved in reply an arrow. In the words of Abbe Raynal, "In this manner did a people who had not learnt to read, argue with those who had derived such consequence from knowing how to write. They made use of the right of force, with as much assurance, and as little remorse, as if they had been acquainted with divine, political, and civil right."

In 1763 the English finally annexed Saint Vincent by agreement with France, and the island saw an influx of English colonists eager to buy land and plant sugarcane. Needless to say, the Black Caribs' interests were diametrically opposed to those of the English. The latter wanted to clear-cut the primeval forest and plant money-making crops on plantations, all connected by good roads upon which cannon could be wheeled.

This same forest was the Black Caribs' security. For hundreds of years their tribe's origin and tradition was rooted in the dense foliage. They held the land in common and only cultivated small portions of it-leaving the virgin forest mostly intact. This was anathema to the English. They made sententiously hypocritical pronouncements about "obligations to cultivate the earth" and that a people had "no right to appropriate more than they could cultivate." They wound up proposing that the Black Caribs should leave their lands and take up residence elsewhere. They would be compensated monetarily for the lands they left, and the English officials promised them "every proper indulgence." The Black Caribs response was to suggest it would be safer for the speaker if he left their sight and their lands immediately.

Trying to appear reasonable as they gave these savages the shaft, the English came back with a pronouncement that, like it or not, the Black Caribs would have to accept their sovereignty and agree to a series of restrictions. It was clear that the whites were setting the stage for the use of force, so the Black Caribs adopted a delaying measure. Half of the nation, led by the paramount chief, Chatoyer, told the commissioners that they were willing to abide by the proclamation, but that others of their people were still opposed to the idea. According to Sir William Young's account, "appearing divided amongst themselves was a settled design of the Charaibs; and it was the most artful that could be devised," since it gave their opposition hope that the rest would follow suit, given enough time. But as the negotiations with the reluctant ones dragged on, the English sent in surveyors to mark out the route for a road. The Black Caribs allowed them to proceed until they reached the boundary of their land, where it was made clear to the English that to proceed further would require the assistance of soldiery. And the one who delivered this menacing ultimatum was the very Chatoyer who had previously been the most amenable to the English proposals.

The English waited awhile and then sent the surveyors back, this time with forty soldiers. The Caribs, three hundred strong and well armed, surrounded the hill where the soldiers were posted, and cut them off, even from water. They then made the offer to liberate the detachment on condition that the English commissioners give up any plans to interfere within their country, including the making of roads. The commissioners, fearing a massacre of their troops, agreed--with no intention of abiding by their promise--received the forty soldiers, and wrote an urgent letter to England.

While a reply was awaited, the Black Caribs procured arms and munitions from the French islands. The English, becoming aware of this, sent an armed cutter to patrol the channel. One August day in mid channel between Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent, the cutter bore down on four large canoes, each with about twenty men and loaded with kegs of gunpowder. When ordered to approach the cutter one at a time, they rushed it simultaneously. The cutter fired a warning shot, which was answered by a volley of musketry. The cannon then splintered the leading dugout but its crew, undeterred, clenched cutlasses between their teeth and started swimming toward the cutter. One after another the dugouts were disabled, but the Black Caribs kept coming. Suddenly aware that his cutter was in danger of being boarded and his crew overwhelmed, the captain sailed the cutter off, leaving close to eighty Caribs in the sea, claiming in his report that they all must have drowned. Considering that the dugouts still floated, being all wood, and that the Caribs swam like seals, one has cause to doubt. After all, a log in the sea had been a traditional conveyance of runaways to Saint Vincent in the first place.

Eventually, Saint Vincent's white population did get its military force and the Black Caribs were forced to accede in 1773 to England's sovereignty and to a network of roads and military posts in their territory. But when war broke out between France and England, the Caribs rose and fought alongside the French and took the island in 1779. A few years later the French gave it and the Black Caribs once again had to abide under the rule of the English.

Another war with the French loomed up at the end of the eighteenth century, and suspecting that they would attempt the island, various individuals were sent to sound out the Black Caribs' intentions. According to Charles Shepherd:

"The utmost astonishment was expressed by the Caribs at the suspicions entertained against them. They said `they had been once already deceived by the French, and their misconduct during the late war had been generously canceled, and since the peace the utmost kindness and humanity had been displayed towards them; no possible advantage could arise by their making war against the English, and no pardon could be expected, should they attempt it.'"

Yet, on Tuesday following, these very men were foremost in attacking, plundering, and demolishing the very plantations where they had with the greatest apparent sincerity made these professions.

This second alliance with the French in twenty-five years, and the obvious hatred that the Black Caribs bore the English proved, to be the last straw. Orders to remove the Black Caribs to British Honduras on the opposite side of the Caribbean were carried out.

It may have seemed a defeat, but in retrospect it was a victory--the best they could hope for. They escaped slavery, and, aside from casualties in the war, they lost few of their number. They lost their land, but they were given other lands, where, as time went on, they prospered. Hardworking, determined to acquire an education, they pulled themselves up into solid middle-class status and provided many of the educated professionals for British Honduras, now called Belize. And they had congenial neighbors not far down the coast.

Balboa, en route to verify the existence of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, was forced to detour around the territory of a tribe of blacks who had shipwrecked on the Darien Peninsula. Evidently one of the first slave ships to the New World missed its destination. How refreshing it is--how restorative of one's faith in God, man, history, and fate--to consider that among the first fruits of the infamous slave trade was the creation of a fanatically free people who drove an intractable thorn into the side of those who had presumed to be their masters--for these must have been the ancestors of the Cimarrons, who gave crucial assistance to Sir Francis Drake's spectacular ambush of the Spanish silver train in 1575, and whose descendants, intermarried with the Indians, inhabit the Mosquito Coast to this day.

The Black Caribs must have felt right at home.

Peter T. Muilenburg is a professional sailor and writer who has previously contributed to Americas. Illustrations are from Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day, Peter Hulme and Neil Whitehead, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), except the drawing on page 19, which is from Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763, by Philip P. Boucher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
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Author:Muilenburg, Peter T.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:5STVI
Date:May 1, 1999
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