By LENNOX FARRELL
Joseph Chatoyer, like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L’Ouverture, ranks in the pantheon of Black immortals worthy of our admiration, gratitude and commemorations.
In the same way that Toussaint is associated with the epic slave revolution in 18th century Haiti, so is Garifuna Paramount Chief, Joseph Chatoyer, associated with the Three Carib Wars against Britain in 18th century St. Vincent. Today, St. Vincent is, since 1979, the independent country of Saint Vincent & the Grenadines. Chatoyer also achieved over the British something that Toussaint could not with the French.
Before Chatoyer, some introductory information on St. Vincent & the Grenadines could be had via a brief description of the geography of the Caribbean Basin. The Caribbean Basin encompasses the Caribbean Sea – second largest in the world – located between North and South America. Bound by Central America to the west, this area, 1.5 million square miles in size, extends from the southern flank of Florida in the north, to the northern fringe of Venezuela in the south.
The region is also divided into three chains, or archipelagos, of islands. Due south of Florida is the Lucayan chain. It includes the Bahamas, the Turks & Caicos islands, etc. Further south is the Greater Antilles. It includes Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico. Even further south is the third section: the Lesser Antilles.
This section, sub-divided into the Windward and the Leeward Islands, forms a semi-circle, a curved bow bent at full arch. Strung taut, it aims an imaginary shaft eastward at the Atlantic Ocean. Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, sited dead centre in the semi-circle, is the arrowhead of the Lesser Antilles…with good reason. It was the last Caribbean fortress to fall to Europe.
And who is Joseph Chatoyer? For what did he and his Carib guerrillas fight from their inaccessible mountain bases in a verdant, fertile and European contested St. Vincent?
His wars of resistance, waged from 1771 to 1795, were pitted against the global scorched-earth rivalries of Europe. These European world wars, begun in the 15th century, were for control of overseas empires. Centuries-long – and setting the 20th century conditions for World War I and World War II – they reveal the significance of the Caribbean to Europe.
Today, Canadians still hear echoes of these rivalries when a Francophone premier in Quebec refuses to fly the Canadian flag, considered Anglophone.
Back then, battling for prized colonial territories as St. Vincent, it was only in the late 1700s that the British finally defeated the French. France, for two centuries earlier, had failed fighting the Caribs. Now, the lush lands of the indigenous Caribs would belong to the new Europeans…or so Britannia thought. But the same Carib determination, resilience and force-multiplier strategies that had ravaged the French, now outflanked the British. Thus was begun the first Anglo-Carib War, waged between 1771 and 1773.
Unable to defeat the Caribs, “Perfidious Albion” sought a treaty, something unique, because the British were now “forced to sign an accord with an indigenous population in the Americas”. And who had forced Great Britain to sue for peace? The Paramount Carib Chief, Joseph Chatoyer.
It is no overstatement pointing out that not even Irish Catholics, fighting similar wars against occupying, scorched-earth British forces in Ireland, could achieve this; at least, not until their first Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921.
Chatoyer was also unique in that the first play ever written by an African-American, The Drama of King Shotaway, was based on his life. He was, moreover, a Garifuna, a Black Carib; the Paramount Chief who for a quarter century had led coalitions of Caribs in three wars against Britannia. Today, in St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Belize and elsewhere, he is a national hero, his memory annually commemorated on March 14.
As a scholar from Saint Vincent & the Grenadines succinctly stated:
“Until the 18th century, all attempts to settle on the island made by European nations had failed. The Caribs, as the Haitians, had beaten back the British, French, Spanish and Dutch; the four empire states of the time and the ones with some of the most sophisticated weapons and armies in existence.”
Furthermore, of Chief Joseph Chatoyer’s Caribs, as with Toussaint’s fighting forces of ex-slaves, it is truly said:
“If anyone needs an example of the sheer determination and ferocity of the great Carib tribes, St. Vincent & the Grenadines is the best place to look.”
Of course, Britain, at the first opportunity, violated the terms of their treaty, renewing the hostilities. In the last of these wars, this heroic son of Caribbean soil died on March 14, 1795. Surrender, imprisonment, banishment and impoverishment stalked the Black Caribs. The victorious British, in “divide and rule tactics”, had used the terms Black Caribs and Garifuna to split Chatoyer’s forces from the Yellow and Red Caribs; those among the Amerindian population who had not intermarried with Africans. These Amerindians are still living in the Lesser Antilles, Dominica, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, etc.
The Garifuna, a new people; descendants of Caribs, Arawaks and West Africans now languish primarily in Central America, along the Caribbean coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, etc. Other diaspora communities live in the U.S. and Canada; one proud, multilingual family, a block away from us.
A fitting tribute to the contributions of Paramount Black Carib Chief, Joseph Chatoyer, to Saint Vincent & the Grenadines and to humanity can be found by Abeni on her blog, And Still I Rise.
“Immortality is found in living a life worth living,” wrote Abeni, a resident of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.