Britain has much to learn from historic links to the Caribbean islands
Chatoyer the Chief of the Black Charaibes in St Vincent with his five Wives, by Agostino Brunias, 1796 | (Alamy)
Islands are pieces of land completely surrounded by water, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Isolated, if you will. Or are they?
For the Caribbean there are many connections between these beautiful islands and other parts of the world, fabricated through a dynamic, if challenging, history. In this, St Vincent is both typical and unique, being the home of the Garinagu tribe, commonly known as the Black Caribs, whose existence has forged links between this diminutive nation and Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, the United States and the United Kingdom alike. Theirs is a story of victory over colonialism and attempted genocide played out in the First and Second Carib Wars of 1773 and 1795.
Theirs is a story of victory over colonialism and attempted genocide
Elegantly captured by the artist Agostino Brunias, whose work is featured in the Tate and other discerning collections, the demands of colonialism led to an unlikely coupling of the old and new worlds, giving birth to a mix of African and Carib blood and cultures generating a unique language and culture which are now protected by UNESCO. The progeny included Joseph Chatoyer who is venerated today as the national hero of St Vincent due to his military prowess in the First Carib War. At the signing of its peace treaty, the great warrior presented the British with a highly decorated drinking vessel as a tribute. This became part of a military collection and was gifted to the West India Committee more than a century ago. Today we embark on a heritage project, for which we continue to seek support, to research this unique survivor of Garifunan culture that features designs found on the Benin Bronzes, reflecting the tribe’s Nigerian origins. It is our intent to return the artefact to the people of St Vincent, whilst sharing our learning amongst the tribe’s 400,000 strong global diaspora from High Wycombe, Bucks, to the Bronx, New York, members of which have ventured to the West India Committee Rooms in Whitehall where its UNESCO inscribed library and collection are open to the public.
St Vincent remains a British Realm that has recently welcomed HM King Charles III as its new monarch.
The 18th century peace treaties signed by the Garinagu people obliged Caribbean men to protect the British crown, a duty common to the region, that saw 16,000 Caribbean volunteers loyally fight in the First World War, giving them their first experience of life in the UK where they trained. These veterans experienced a war fraught with prejudice but nonetheless inspired what is now called the “Windrush Generation” to return to the UK, at its invitation, to help rebuild the Mother Country in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Despite dedication and commitment, islands such as St Vincent were to experience some of the worse examples of the flawed immigration policies of progressive governments of every political persuasion since 1948 in the treatment of that generation and its descendants – a situation that is being addressed in earnest by the Home Office and the myriad of community groups with which it collaborates in resolving this notoriously poor example of policy evolution with evident progress.
The English-speaking Caribbean islands are members of the Commonwealth that actively maintain links with the UK, and continue to support services pivotal to Britain’s prosperity, whether in the NHS, education, transport or the military.
However many remain relatively unknown or understood in the UK. Cultural exchange is a means of identifying mutual heritage that is, of itself, a bridge upon which constructive relations may be built, endorsing the old adage: “no man is an island”. What would Chatoyer have thought?
Blondel Cluff is chief executive of the West India Committee.
To learn more about the work of the West India Committee go to: www.westindiacommittee.org.uk
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