The Caribs (and the Garifunas)
St.Vincent and the Grenadines today has a mixed population which can be clearly seen in the picture below. There are individuals of African, Asian, European and Native American heritage, and many have multiple ancestries. However, before the coming of the Europeans and the other groups, St.Vincent was settled by the Ciboney and then the Caribs, as well as, subsequently, the “Black” Caribs (known as the Garifunas). The descendants of these peoples live today on the Windward coast of St.Vincent (from Sandy Bay to Fancy) and at Greiggs (see map on our web site). The island today has very few pure Caribs, with most having intermarried with other groups, primarily, the descendant of the Africans who make up the majority of the population.
The first settlers of these islands were a group of hunter-gatherers, the Ciboneys, who explored and lived on the islands eating fruit and berries, seashells and the pink conch more than 5000 years ago.
More than 200 years before Christ, another culture traveling in 50 foot dugout canoes arrived in these islands. The Arawaks carried fire-burners, animals and plants. During a 1500 year period the Caribbean islands were peaceful.
Sometime in the around the period after 1000 AD, the peaceful Arawaks were invaded by a wandering culture from South America known then as the Kalinga and named the Caribs by later Europeans. The Arawaks of most of the small, southern Caribbean islands did not survive the invasion of the Caribs who killed the men and carried off the women. The Caribs were fierce fighters and strong swimmers. Captured Arawak women refused to speak the Carib language, but eventually the Tupi-Arawakian language died out along with the beautiful pottery created by these women.
Today, we know very little about these early settlements other than some petroglyps left on rocks and some pottery and tools found at archeological sites.
In St.Vincent and in other Antillean islands the Caribs lived on the coast. They preferred living near the sea because they relied mainly on fishing, and the sea also was their key means of communication with the Caribs on other islands. Living on the coast meant that it was usually easy to see an an oncoming attack from their enemies. They may have also avoided settlement on the larger islands because of the difficulty in penetrating the densely forested interiors and because they did not need vast amount of lands for farming.
Inter-island warfare seems to have been a large part of significant portions of Carib history. The windward side of many islands was developed so as to guard against attacks. The windward side of most Caribbean islands often has the roughest waters therefore it would have been difficult for an enemy to sneak up to Carib villages by means of the sea unless the coast was well known. The Caribs life was thus heavily influenced by war, and they made success in battle a key part for manhood initiation and respect. The early Caribs’ fighting equipment was rather simple—were made from wood, bone and stone. They had war clubs, bows and arrows that were poisoned so that even a scratch was fatal, fire arrows, wooden swords and knives made of sharp rock.
The Ubutu, the Carib's war leader, decided the day that the attack was to be made. Each Carib man would collect a stick and make notches in it to count the days until the attack. Their attacks were made under the cover of night. On the eve of battle the Caribs painted and armed themselves and then set out in their canoes or piragas. These canoes held up to fifty men and in fact, many battles actually occurred at sea. Attacks always attempted to catch the enemy off guard. They often started with a shower of fire arrows that immediately set fire to the thatched roofs of the enemy village. The surprised enemies would then attempt to exit their houses to meet the Caribs who meanwhile would have had their clubs and arrows at the ready. They kept no order when they fought. When the fighting was over, if victorious, the Caribs often piled the bodies of any dead warriors into the piragas because they refused to leave their dead and wounded behind. In the canoes were also the men and women they had taken for prisoners. They often sang songs of triumph as they sailed back home. Select warriors were awarded medals for special courage in battle. These medals were called caracolis, and were crescent shaped copper pendants to be worn around the neck.