Early Peoples of St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
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.
The Making of the Garifuna
Recent research indicates that Africans probably came even before Columbus and settled in St. Vincent. The Caribs of St. Vincent were joined by Caribs fleeing Europeans attacks on other islands, and also by runaway African slaves and slaves who survived shipwrecks in the area. In the year 1635 two Spanish ships carrying African captives, believed to be Nigerian, were shipwrecked off the island of St. Vincent. At first, the Africans and Caribs fought one another but eventually intermarried.
News of the free men on St. Vincent spread throughout the islands. By 1676, it is estimated that 30% of the population of St. Vincent consisted of formerly enslaved Africans who had escaped. Women were scarce and the African men were fierce competition for the Caribs.
A new group of African and Carib heritage developed and became known as the "Black Caribs" or “Garifuna” as the subsequently named themselves—the word "Garifuna" means "cassava eating people." Eventually the Garifuna outnumbered the original inhabitants, the "Yellow Caribs." The Garifuna’s population growth created political tensions with the outnumbered “Yellow Caribs” and so that at one point the Yellow Caribs even negotiated with French wanderers to settle on the islands in 1719—hoping to shift power away from the Black Caribs.
Social Structure, Religion and Culture
We don’t have any real written record of very early Carib society, but by looking a their descendants in South America and from records made by early historians (mainly priests) we can infer a number of probabilities. The Caribs social structure was mobile. The social caste of the Carib community was:
- The war leader or Ubutu
2. Priests and elders
3. Warriors and hunters
All decisions for running the community was made by the men, therefore only men held the ruling positions. The Ubutu was always a male whose position was not hereditary. He was chosen by the elders of his village. He had to have been a good warrior, proved that he was physically strong, brave and highly skilled in battle. When he was chosen, he had to carry out a raid, if the raid was successful his positioned was permanent. The Ubutu had to do many things, including:
- He was the leader for any raid.
- He planned and decided when to carry out raids and which village or enemy it should be.
- He distributed the medals and the loot from the raid.
- He chose the commanders of the piragas.
In times of peace each district was ruled by a headman called a Tiubutuli Hauthe. The headman supervised the fishing and the cultivation of crops, beyond this he had a very little authority.
Most boys were trained to be warriors. The warriors were the ones who fought first in line, they were also the hunters for the villages. They were the common villagers. A small percentage of the boys were trained to be priests or Boyez.
The elders of the villages were well respected. They were taken care of by their families and their relatives. The elders were all ex-warriors. They were the ones who trained the warriors and looked for the qualities in the Ubutu since they were experienced.
The Carib males practiced polygamy. Marriages were arranged and girls married at an early age around sixteen to eighteen years. The husband provided a hut and furniture for each of his wives at the time of their marriage.
If the wife committed adultery it was punishable by death. It was a custom for an unmarried woman to wear a garter on her right leg, at the time of marriage the garter was removed.
They did not have a family unit but a communal way of living, they were separated based on their sex. The men lived separately in their carbets or houses and the women lived in huts. Boys at the age of four were taken away from their mothers and placed in the carbets, because the men thought that if the boys stayed with their mother too long he would become weak. The women were expected to bear a number of children. If she was barren she was considered a disgrace.
The Carib houses were rectangular shape. The houses were large about 40ft x 20ft. The furniture in the house was rather sparse. There were hammocks, amais, stools and tables. Outside the house there was a storeroom in which household utensils, weapons, tools and extra hammocks and beds were kept. The Caribs slept on hammocks. The hammocks had a small packet of ash placed at the ends that were thought to make it last longer. The stools were made from red or yellow polished wood. The tables were made from rushes. At nights the huts were lighted with candles that were made with a sweet, smelling gum.
The women and the men had different roles in the society. Men were supposed to be the warriors, priests, leaders, builders of houses and boats, craftsmen and hunters. The women were supposed to do the domestic chores, bring up the children, collecting firewood, bartering produce, weaving, hammock making and cultivating the land.
The Caribs believed in life after death, but they had no wish for dying. They preferred to stay on earth to enjoy the materialistic pleasures. They ate healthily and took their medicines regularly. When a Carib died, he/she was examined to see if they’d been the victim of sorcery. The body was then washed carefully and painted red. The hair was oiled and combed. The grave for the body was on the floor of he/she house. The grave was round. It was about four feet wide and six feet deep. The body was placed on a stool in the grave, for ten days relatives brought food and water at the grave and a fire was lit around it in order to prevent the body from being cold. At the end of the ten days the hole was filled. There was a ceremony in which, the Caribs danced over the hole. As a sign of mourning relatives cut off their hair. The dead person's possession was burnt. Later a feast was held over the grave, and after which the person's house was burnt.