Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2023. 12:38 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: Earlier this month, descendants of the Garifuna from Central America, the United States, other parts of the Garifuna Diaspora, and St Vincent and the Grenadines paid homage to their ancestors with a pilgrimage to the 300-acre island of Baliceaux.
In July of 1796, British forces exiled most of the Garifuna population of modern-day St Vincent and the Grenadines, over 5,000, to Baliceaux after defeating Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer in battle and killing him on March 14, 1795.
Over 2,000 Garifuna perished on the dry, barren island in the year after exile until the British picked up the survivors and sent them on a long sea voyage to Roatan Island, Honduras, from which their numbers spread out along the Atlantic Caribbean coast from Nicaragua to Belize.
The Garifuna regard Yurumein (St Vincent) as their ancestral homeland and Baliceaux as a sacred place as first-time visitor Eleanor Castillo-Bullock, of Belizean descent but living in New Jersey, U.S.A., told St Vincent’s Searchlight News: “I’ve never been here; I’ve only heard about Baliceaux…That is why we get emotional because those are our ancestors that survived this barren land with no food. They were brought here with no food, no water, [the British] just threw them on this barren land called Baliceaux.”
Designated “Ambassador of the Garifuna Nation” Cynthia Ellis-Topsey noted that despite the island’s occupying a place of nightmares in the Garifuna origin story, there is an opportunity to reclaim the island for the exiled population: “Rather than look at it from a reactive point of view, I look at it as a proactive opportunity where it is an opportunity for us to hold strong. It gives us a good rallying point as Garifuna from all over the world to make sure that we preserve and cherish and protect this. It is an opportunity also to set an example for other cultures of the sacredness of life, the sacredness of being, the sacredness of substance.”
Ellis-Topsey added that the Garinagu have never left Baliceaux spiritually, that it remains in their memories and music and songs, but that it is a common ground and a place to celebrate.
The island is uninhabited and remains privately owned, but a campaign is underway to have UNESCO declare it a significant cultural landmark. The language, dance, and music of the Garifuna people have been recognized previously by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
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