The government recognizes the Garifuna people as an integral part of Guatemala

The Garifuna people of Guatemala embody a blend of Africa and America

Although the overwhelming majority of Guatemalans are mestizo or Mayan, the country also has an ethnic group with mixed African and Native American ancestry.  These people, known as the Garifuna, are Guatemala’s fourth-largest population.  (The Xinca indigenous people are the third-largest-group.) 

5 December 2020

The story of the Garifuna people goes back to the 1600s, when the New World was being transformed by the arrival of newcomers.  A slave ship wrecked near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, creating an unexpected opportunity for a few hundred African slaves to avoid a life of servitude.  

The survivors managed to establish themselves on this island, which still had not been settled by any European power.  Interbreeding with the Arawak native Americans of St. Vincent, they merged cultures, chromosomes, and languages.

A Garifuna musical band.  Livingston, Guatemala

Over the coming generations, the French and the British fought for control of the island, with much fighting coinciding with wider struggles, namely the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution.

Garifuna people celebrate Carnival.  Street parade near Livingston, Guatemala.

However, like runaway communities in Jamaica, the Garifuna refused to accept passively the loss of their freedom.  They fought a guerrilla war against the British on the island, but unlike the Maroons of Jamaica, the Garifuna did not have access to a vast mountainous interior.

In 1797, after defeating the tribe, the British transported them to exile on the island of Roatán, part of present-day Honduras. 

Why did the British exile the Garifuna people instead of brutally re-imposing slavery on them?  For one thing, British attitudes were changing.  Since 1787, abolitionist organizations had been active in England.  Exile to another Caribbean island was considered the humanitarian option.  

Furthermore, a proud and independent people do not easily integrate into a slave economy.  Knowing the island and having excellent survival skills, the Garifuna could have spread discontent among slaves.

After their arrival on Roatán island, the Garifuna outcasts realized that their new home had relatively little fresh water and arable land.  Thus, in the coming years, they left the island and spread out across the entire coastline of the Gulf of Honduras.

Multiplying dramatically over the generations, the Garifuna people now live in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  In Guatemala, they mostly live on the Caribbean coastline around the town of Livingston.

A Garifuna woman at the beach near Livingston, Guatemala.

The Garifuna language is the only surviving offshoot of the languages spoken by the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean.

Today, the Garifuna people are integrated into all aspects of life in Guatemala.  They serve in the military and in Congress.  Several of them have obtained international renown for contributions to the arts and sciences.

International visitors interested in Garifuna culture frequently visit the town of Livingston and the country’s Caribbean coastline.  This safe and scenic area offers the perfect combination of cultural and natural attractions.

Brian Luedke

Brian Luedke