When the Garifuna first arrived along Belize’s shore, they found themselves surrounded by empty land ostensibly ruled by the Spanish but mostly occupied by English buccaneers. But with the English situated largely in Belize Town to the north, the Garifuna seemed to have a place they could call their own. It had been a long time coming. The descendants of the Garifuna had been enslaved West Africans who had earned freedom when their ship crashed and joined with indigenous Caribbean people. Their existence had found themselves often in conflict with English, French, and Spanish colonizers and were exiled from their island of St. Vincent before finally finding their way to Belize.
November 19th, 1802, was a momentous day for the Garifuna people, because it was a homecoming. But it was a momentous day for Belize as well. When the Garifuna arrived, Belize was still technically a Spanish colony, and the Spanish had given Garifuna permission to settle in their colonies. Once British Honduras was formed in 1862, the British treated Garifuna as squatters. By this point, the town of Stann Creek was already a thriving fishing town, and other Garifuna settlements had begun to form up and down the coast.
The Garifuna may have been largely exempt from enslavement by the English, but that didn’t make them exempt from discrimination. Nor did the abolition of slavery in 1838 improve their conditions. As white interests in Belize turned towards sugarcane plantations that were deeper in the jungle and could largely be staffed with immigrant labor from China, Garifuna along the coast were left to their own devices.
By the time activist and teacher Thomas Vincent Ramos arrived in Belize in the early 20th century, Dangriga and other towns had little access to basic infrastructure and fundamental education or medical care while the rest of the country grew around them. He envisioned Garifuna Settlement Day as a reminder of the important role that the Garifuna people play in the history of Belize. When the Belize government agreed to make Garifuna Settlement Day a holiday in 1941, it didn’t change everything. But it did represent an important step in recognizing the important relationship between the Garifuna and Belize at large.
Today, Dangriga Town is considered the cultural capital of Belize — and the culture of the Garifuna has influenced everything from cuisine to music. From punta rock to hearty sere (a fish soup), Placencia Village sees Garifuna Settlement Day as an excuse to celebrate every joyous part of Belize’s most unique culture. And the private island resort of Ray Caye — just off of the coast of the Placencia Peninsula — is the perfect way to appreciate it.
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