Celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize

November 19th is Garifuna Settlement Day – the only Belize National Holiday dedicated to celebrating the history and legacy of a specific cultural group: the Garinagu (“Garinagu” is the correct way to refer to Garifuna people while the culture and language are "Garifuna"). Though the Garinagu comprise a relatively small portion of Belize’s population (percentage wise) their presence in a Belize is a source of national pride and the Garifuna history is honoured every year on “Settlement Day”. The Garinagu began arriving in Belize in the early 1800's, with the largest single group coming to Dangriga in 1832 on November 19th. Settlement Day is greatly celebrated in all Garifuna villages and towns throughout Belize with re-enactments of the arrival, parades, and all night parties with live drumming and Garifuna singing.

The Garinagu, originally come from the island of St.Vincent, where Nigerian slaves took refuge among the Carib Indians after the shipwreck of two Spanish slave carriers in 1635. These cultures intermixed and by the middle of the 18th century the Garinagu, known then as Black Caribs, had become the dominant culture of St.Vincent. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of British settlers arrived on the island establishing slave dependent plantations and tensions with the Garinagu escalated, culminating in a battle after which the British shipped 2000 Black Caribs off St.Vincent to the island of Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras. From here the Garifuna scattered along the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, establishing new communities where their canoes came ashore.

I was fortunate to experience Settlement Day in Dangriga in 2003, before David and I had moved here full time. We were traveling in Belize at the time and made it a point to be in Dangriga so that we could see what this unique cultural holiday was all about. It was truly unforgettable: the streets filled with drumming groups, chanters, dancers, and revellers from the afternoon of the 18th and the celebrations intensified as the night wore on. We made our way from group to group, trying not to intrude on this special cultural event, but we were drawn into the heart of the celebrations by the locals, who encouraged us to celebrate with them and even taught us some dance moves. Dawn found us much more exhausted than the local revellers after partying all night, but I will never forget the sight of the canoes re-enacting the first landing: they appeared gradually out of grey sheets of pouring rain as they approached the shore and made their way up the muddy Stann Creek River. Hundreds of people cheered and greeted the boats, welcoming the people home.

Happy Garifuna Settlement Day Belize!