The Garífuna journey to Central America had begun long before our days—and was far from joyous. Herded aboard slave ships in West Africa, a group of Garífuna forebears were likely destined for New World mines and plantations when they wrecked off St. Vincent in 1635. They found refuge with the island's Carib Indians, immigrants from South America. The two peoples blended through marriage, creating the Garífuna culture—Caribbean fishing and farming traditions with a mixture of South American and African music, dance, and spirituality. The Garífuna prospered and coexisted peacefully with French settlers who came later in the 17th century. Tensions arose when English colonists began to arrive and demand land. Those tensions eventually turned to war. Hopelessly outnumbered by British troops, the Garífuna and their French supporters surrendered in 1796.
The victors exiled the Garífuna to the island of Baliceaux. Imprisoned there in appalling conditions, more than half died. The following year survivors were shipped to Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. According to legend, the Garífuna hid cassava, a mainstay of their diet, inside their clothes, where it stayed alive watered by the sweat of the tightly packed captives. They planted the cassava on Roatán, where it grew abundantly. Soon the Garífuna established fishing villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. Each year in Belize, when locals reenact the arrival in that land, they slip out to sea in boats, then ride the surf onto shore, waving palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors. This ritual, rich in music and dance, helps sustain Garífuna culture.