How Do I Find My Garifuna Ancestors?

Tracing Your Roots: Verifying ties to Afro-Caribbean people who settled in Latin America.

 
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Garifuna women perform in Honduras. (Orlando Sierra/Getty Images)

(The Root) --

"I am first-generation American born to fifth-generation Honduran parents. Specifically, we are Garifuna (labeled Black Caribs by the British). Before Garifuna settled into the Latin American country, they were in St. Vincent. The complex part is that we are mixed with African and Amerindian people. Still, I can't trace the lineage back before St. Vincent ... Some accounts, according to family elders, point to me having more Amerindian ancestry (some roots on my mother's side are Native Americans from Honduran groups). Most of Garifunas have various surnames that are French (such as mine, Rochez; as well as Thomas, Perry, Lambert), Spanish (Alvarez, Martinez, Aranda) and Portuguese (Moreira, Cabarello).

"I know some of the stories of my great-grandparents and how they heard about our ancestors landing in Honduras. I researched via St. Vincent Archives, and but at the end of day, what I know is mostly through words of the ancestors. Soon hopefully I will do the DNA testing. I'm sure there isn't an ounce of Spaniard Catalan blood in my veins, but I hold hope for African and Diasporan heritage (with some French -- it sounds classy for some reason). I would really love to hear your input. Thank you again for the inspiration." --Jennifer Rochez

You have your work cut out for you, but fortunately, there are plenty of records to consult. As you know, the history of the Garifuna is fascinating and dynamic. I thought so in devoting an entry to them in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, which was co-edited with Kwame Anthony Appiah. The largest populations making up the Garifuna are Arawak, Carib (both Amerindian groups) and West African.

According to historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood, the Garifuna were formed by various runaway and shipwrecked Africans (a local tradition has a shipwreck of the slave ship Palmira bound from the Bight of Benin in 1675) who came to St. Vincent. They were "Negroes were from the warlike Moco tribe," say the historians, citing William Young's 1795 report, An Account of the Black Charaibs on the Island of St. Vincent's. They intermarried with the local Carib Indians (aka the Kulinago) and produced a mixed group that were called Black Caribs.

At the time, St. Vincent was a "neutral island," meaning that neither the French nor English could claim it, but a lot of French settled there illegally. In 1763 the English claimed it and began settling it much to the discomfort of the Garifuna, who resisted, but eventually agreed to a treaty. There was enough bad blood, though, that during the French Revolutionary War, the Garifuna went with the French.

After a war, the English captured the island and in 1796 exiled the Black Caribs, who were led by Chatoyer, to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. They didn't stay there long, though. Within a few years most left the island and settled in Trujillo, Honduras. A group moved to Belize in 1802 to form one big nucleus. Another group settled in the Miskito Kingdom, a still-independent indigenous polity ruled by Zambos (another group formed by intermarriage between shipwrecked Africans and indigenous people). There is a third nucleus in Nicaragua. 

The Garifuna have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the various English-speaking West Indian immigrant groups, with the many people who came to work in the banana industry, mostly from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, for example, or with the Bay Islanders who have been part of Honduras since 1860 when the British withdrew their claims. Many Garifuna, however, speak English -- both as a result of their Miskito period and by interactions with the West Indians.

In order to learn more about your Garifuna ancestors, you can work your way backward through the generations by starting in Honduras. The Honduras civil registration records for 1841-1968 are available to browse (but not yet search) on FamilySearch.org. If your family remained in Trujillo, a municipality in the Colón section of Honduras, the births, marriages and deaths for that location are available online for 1906-1930.

The Garifuna in Honduras who assimilated into the local culture mostly became Catholic. The Family History Library holds digitized Catholic church records for the parish San Juan Bautista from Trujillo, Colón, Honduras dating back to 1797 and as recent as 1948. The records for this parish and others throughout Honduras will be in Spanish, but can be searched and browsed online.

As early as 1825, the Wesleyan Methodist church (from London) sent missionaries to Stann Creek in Belize, as well as Honduras. Since the original missions left from London, you may be interested in searching the Methodist Collections held by the University of Manchester Library. There were some sets of papers for people affiliated with the Honduras mission work.

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