BYREA, St. Vincent -- The 360-foot, weather-beaten tunnel, carved out of volcanic rock and leading to the rough surf of the Atlantic, remains one of the few remnants of this eastern Caribbean island’s vexing past.
Constructed by shackled black hands in the early 19th century, it served as a pivotal route to ferry sugar to waiting ships.
But what Black Point Tunnel, 20 miles north of the capital, doesn’t reveal is the massacre, forced exile and stealing of the native Caribbean people’s lands by colonists to produce the sugar that fueled Britain’s development and wealth.
“We were chased off our lands,” said lawyer Zoila Ellis, a descendant of St. Vincent’s native population — known as the Kalinago, Garifuna or Carib people for whom the region is named. “But it is only part of our story; we still don’t know all of it.”
Until recently, much of the focus around a plan by Caribbean leaders — many of them descendants of enslaved Africans — to pursue reparations from formerly slave-holding Europe has centered on the enduring legacy of 300 years of plantation slavery.
Little has been said about the Caribs’ resistance or the genocide that preceded the arrival of Africans who were trafficked across the Atlantic in crammed ships to work at the sugar plantations.
“The demographic research we have available to us suggests there were some three million … indigenous people before the colonial encounter,” said Hilary Beckles, the Barbadian historian who chairs the reparations task force for Caribbean governments and whose scholarly work on slavery has become the blueprint for leaders’ reparations strategy. “We [now] have less than 30,000.”
In a two-day meeting here last week, governments of the mostly English-speaking Caribbean outlined a 10-point “Reparatory Justice Program” for pursuing compensation.
Leaders not only want a “full formal apology” from Europe but assistance with getting debt cancellation from global financial institutions and money for cultural institutions, illiteracy eradication and development programs for the indigenous population.
By including indigenous people on the list of demands, regional leaders acknowledged a little-known chapter in Caribbean history, one that still reverberates in this string of islands where Carib resistance delayed Britain’s colonization efforts and turned St. Vincent’s mountainous terrain into a refuge for runaway and shipwrecked slaves. By the time Britain abolished slavery in its territories in 1833, the brutal system had been not just a late entry here, but a short-lived reality.
“The slaves knew that once they would be able to get to St. Vincent, they would be given refuge by the Caribs because the Caribs were fighting against the British, and they were escaping from the British,” said Adrian Fraser, a historian and retired head of the University of the West Indies Open Campus in St. Vincent.
But by 1797, the Caribs would lose their fight to retain control of the island.
Thousands were banished to Balliceaux, a nearby, barren island in the northern Grenadines. Those who didn’t die from malnutrition and disease were exiled to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. From there, they gave birth to the present-day Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
In an ironic twist not lost on descendants whose ancestors intermarried with runaway slaves to give rise to the Black Caribs, those who left maintained their culture and some form of the language.
“Those who remained here were isolated because they were still fearful of what the authorities would do,” Fraser said. “When they went to school, the history books were telling them they were cannibals, and that their fore-parents were primitive so that being Carib was not something they wanted to be.”
Then came the 1992 quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival, and descendants began researching their roots.
Garifuna communities, in search of their beginnings, came seeking a connection. Then the government named Carib Chief Joseph Chatoyer, who died in battle fighting the British, as the country’s sole national hero.
“Part of the legacy of colonialism is the whole myth, the negativity that has been passed down,” said Ellis, who last week joined other native descendants in a reparations discussion at a Garifuna Heritage conference in Kingstown. “There is a serious amount of work that needs to be done; we need to continue to break down the perceptions.”
Even in a post-emancipated Caribbean, the indigenous population continued to suffer, and sometimes at the hands of blacks, who accepted the history books and “developed this kind of prejudice against the Caribs,” Fraser said.
Still, opinions are divided on the question of reparations here and across the region where past efforts by activists and academics haven’t yielded much.
“Foolishness!” said Michael Chastanet, one of the most successful businessmen in nearby St. Lucia. “They will get nothing. Europe has no money to give anybody; they are broke themselves.”
For others, it’s not so black-and-white even when they share Chastanet’s doubts.
“I think they should pursue it,” said Caius Pascal, a St. Lucian taxi driver and fisherman. “But I doubt that they’re going to pay us.”
Even in St. Vincent, where hundreds come monthly to walk through Black Point Tunnel, park manager Jeffrey Hopson, 53, isn’t convinced that leaders, who also are seeking a meeting with their European counterparts while threatening litigation, are pursuing the right path.
“The set of people who should be compensated are the people of Africa, who were robbed,” Hopson said. “I can’t see myself fighting for reparations.”
But when you consider “the hard work black people did during that time,” reparations only seem right, countered park visitor and self-employed Vincentian Leroi John, 29.
“In some parts of the world, black people are still suffering from the repercussions,” John said, marveling at the craftsmanship of the tunnel, considered an engineering feat when it was built in 1815.
NOT JUST A HANDOUT
Beckles said reparations isn’t about standing on a street corner and handing victims a check.
It’s about the legal and moral obligations of Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands, which benefited from slavery and colonization, to “return and participate in the upliftment and development of this region.”
“The governments of Europe have a responsibility to put to an end the continuing harm and suffering resulting from the genocides from the indigenous peoples, the chattel enslavement of African peoples and the apartheid which was put in place in the century after emancipation,” he said.
As an example, Beckles said, the survivors of the genocide, “are the most marginalized people in Caribbean societies. They are the most disenfranchised people in the Caribbean largely because they are seeking to rebuild their societies.”
Beckles said the reparations commissions — 14 of the 15 member countries have them, with Britain-dependent Montserrat waiting it out for now — have chosen to focus on the European governments because they “were also owners of slaves and also involved in the trading of slaves.”
“The governments were the ones who gave instructions for the actions that led to the genocidal effects upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean,” he said. “The Caribbean governments entering into the period of independence have inherited a legacy of slavery, colonization and apartheid that have undermined their best efforts at development.”
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office said there has been no formal request from the Caribbean to discuss the issue.
“We do not see reparations as the answer. Instead, we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st century,” the statement said.
Fraser, the historian, says he, too, has doubts about whether regional leaders, who until recently have been reluctant to confront their past, will succeed.
Still, as a proponent of righting wrongs committed against the indigenous population in St. Vincent, Fraser sees the Caribbean’s quest as a starting point for a long-overdue conversation.
“Today, as we talk about sustainability, it isn’t they the Caribs, and us,” Fraser said, referring to historic tensions between Caribs and blacks. “It is all of us who struggled through the darkest days of colonialism.”