Who are the Garifuna People?

Most people outside of Central America have never heard about the Garifuna People. Who exactly are they? Why are they so important? What did they do to deserve having their culture declared heritage of humanity?

The Garifuna People are a Unique Ethnic Group with Their Own Culture!

For the un-observing traveler, the Garifuna people may seem just like any other African American culture. The truth is that they are different! The story of the Garifuna people goes back to the West Coast of Africa. European slave runners would organize slave runs in Africa. They would capture the natives, pull them from their homeland. They would then ship them across the Atlantic Ocean to the “New World”

There, they were auctioned and sold to the highest bidder. They would spend the rest of their lives as slaves in the European colonies in the Caribbean and America. The trip was hazardous, and the poor captured Africans were herded into the holds of the ships that would bring them across the Atlantic. The trip took a month or two, and many of them died of malnutrition. Others died from different infectious diseases as a result of the unsanitary conditions of the trip.

It All Began in St. Vincent in the Grenadines…

Garifuna People
Garifuna Lady in Sambo Creek

One ship loaded with slaves ran aground and was shipwrecked in the island of Saint Vincent. Miraculously, many of the slaves survived and made it to safety to the island. There they escaped to the far side of the island that was home to the local carib Indians. Necessity made these two completely different ethnic groups mix. They had a common enemy to fight…  the Brits. This unlikely alliance resulted in a new ethnic group: the Black Caribs or Garifuna people. Thus, Saint Vincent in the Caribbean is the cradle of the Garifuna Culture.

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Over the years, the Brits decided they needed to expand their control of the island. They started closing in on the Garifuna People. The Garifuna, under the leadership of Joseph Chatoyer  repelled the Brits. Chatoyer became the first Garifuna hero, and is known to the Honduras Garifuna as “Satuye”.

The Garifuna People Arrive in Honduras

Honduras so much to see
The Garifuna Village at Chachahuate, Cayos Cochinos, Part of Honduras’ Caribbean Paradise! Photo by Peter A Hughes

Eventually, the British rounded up most of Garifuna people. They were then transferred them to the Island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras in 1797. The oldest Garifuna settlement in Honduras is Punta Gorda in Roatan. At the time, the Spanish and Brits where fighting over the control of the Bay Islands. The Spaniards saw the relocation as an effort to establish control of the islands. Thus, they helped the Garifuna People to move to the Caribbean Coast of Honduras.  Finally, the Garifuna had a place they could call home!

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Garifuna People
Garifuna man with his lobster trap at Chachahuate Cay, Cayos Cochinos. Photo courtesy of Visit Atlantida

The Garifuna are seafaring people. They manage their daily subsistence by fishing. But they also know the art of agriculture.

You will always find a patch with yucca or casaba in the back yard of a Garifuna family.  Plantains and bananas are also part of their daily meal. Most of the Garifuna people converted to Catholicism. Yet many aspects of their culture remain intact. They have a unique gastronomy. Dishes like tapado and machuca being some of the most famous. They also prepare a concoction of roots and herbs that they mix with rum. They call this concoction “Guiffity” and claim that it has medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.

Garifuna people in Honduras speak Spanish. Still, most use their native Garifuna Language when they talk between themselves. This language has a mixture of their original African language, plus many elements of the Carib language. It has also integrated elements from English, French and Spanish.

Garifuna People
Garifuna Women during the Carnival at La Ceiba

It is well known that music runs through the blood of the Garifuna people. They have a unique ability to pick up a drum and play a tune, and if it comes to dancing, they are awesome! When you visit a Garifuna community, you will find that young kids will pick up an empty can, turn it around and turn it into a drum. While a couple of kids play the drum, the others will dance to the rhythm they are playing. Other kids will pick up a sea conch and use it as an air instrument, blowing into it to produce a sound.

The Garifuna have several different traditional dances. Many of them are to say farewell to their dead. As such, you will see them dancing away during the funerals and wakes. The Yankunu and Punta are some of the more famous dances. They tend to be erotic, as they move their hips with rhythm to the sounds of the drums.

The Garifuna People Today.

Today, the largest Garifuna population in Central America lives along the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua also have a few communities. There is a large population of Garifuna people in the United States. Most are in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Things to do in Tela
The Garifuna Village of Miami is a far cry from the XXIst Century. Photo: Antonio Vinciguerra

It is easy to visit a Garifuna Community in Honduras. There are communities all along the Caribbean coast. Most are accessible from Puerto Cortes, Tela, La Ceiba and Trujillo. There are two picturesque Garifuna communities in Honduras. The first is Chachahuate, which is in Cayos Cochinos, the other is Miami, in the Bay of Tela. It is easy to visit them both.

I hope I have helped you understand more about the Garifuna people. They have played an important role in creating the modern state of Honduras.

You will be happy to know that it is very easy to visit a Garifuna Community in Honduras. The Garifuna are friendly people that are proud of the culture. They are great fishermen and have a lot of knowledge about the sea. Visit a Garifuna village and have an outstanding Garifuna meal. Try their guifiti and find out if it is really an aphrodisiac!