THE AL GILKES COLUMN: You live and you learn
My communications consultancy work has kept me off island quite a bit recently and allowed me to further come to grips with the old saying about the longer you live the more you learn.
I visited Central America years ago as a journalist on assignment in Spanish-speaking Guatemala but I only just got the opportunity to touch down in its English-speaking neighbour Belize, which also shares a border with Mexico.
Before I arrived there I had a vague idea of Belize bearing some similarity to Guyana in terms of size versus population. I also had a dim memory from some distant history lesson about a people called the Black Caribs, whose ancestors had originated in our neck of the Caribbean.
It, therefore, was an eye-opener to realise that although Belize is more than 50 times the size of Barbados, its population is but a few thousand more than ours. That country’s at July 2013 was a meagre 334 297 occupying 8 800 square miles of land. Ours was a huge 288 725 on a meagre 166 square miles.
My second last day in Belize saw my group covering more than 200 miles by road, which included a stop in a place called Barranco where I found a sign with the name St Vincent Street.
I was in the heart of the Black Carib country. Today they are more familiarly known as the Garifuna.
St Vincent Street was not so named by accident but is directly related to our own neighbouring St Vincent where, according to the history, in 1635 two Spanish ships with Nigerian slaves sank. The Africans who survived swam ashore and found shelter in the existing native Carib settlements.
Over the next century and a half, the Africans and the Caribs intermixed, intermarried and eventually fused into a single culture called the Black Caribs or Garinagu.
By 1773, they were the dominant population but, after a series of wars between the French and British, a final battle in St Vincent on June 10, 1796, ended with their French Allies and them being forced to surrender.
The British subsequently uprooted the Black Caribs and dumped them on the island of Roatan off the Central American mainland. However, they soon found their way to Honduras, where they allied themselves with the Spanish. Unfortunately, a brief civil war in 1832 again found them on the wrong side and being forced to flee to neighboring British Honduras, now Belize.
The first Garifuna arrived there on November 19, 1802, and that day is now a national holiday in Belize. Today, there is one Garifuna town, Punta Gorda, and two Garifuna villages, Barranco and Punta Negra.
The Garifuna have retained numerous traditions and rituals from their Afro-Caribbean heritage and maintain strong links with St Vincent. Their Punta is Belize’s most popular dance while the well known “John Canoe” is performed during the Christmas season.
I also learned, among other things, that Belize was the birthplace of chewing gum, made from a tree gum called chicle. Hence the brand name Chicklet.
Al Gilkes heads a public relations firm. Email [email protected]