General

Garifuna settlement south of Sibun reinforces Belize’s claim

By Adele Ramos
Freelance Reporter

Reading through information published by Guatemalan authorities, in which they claim that the 1859 Treaty between that country and Britain was “land cession” in exchange for a roadway, I could not help but ask if the author of that document skipped over critical parts of that treaty.

I have repeatedly underscored that the 1859 Treaty did not in and of itself establish the borders that now separate Belize and Guatemala. In fact, the very document states that the borders that were being “described” had actually existed on and before January 1, 1850 – nearly a decade before that agreement was inked.

There were previous treaties that permitted the British to use portions of what was then known as the settlement in the Bay of Honduras; but the 1859 Treaty was penned with a major objective in mind – this according to the Guatemalan authorities – to stop the encroachment of the British on territory which they claimed they had inherited from Spain. So drawing the line at the Sarstoon, was a way to indicate to the British to stop their expansion at that said point.

Every “Tom, Dick and Harry” knows that the entire region known as Central America had no national borders at one point. These borders emerged when the colonial powers that then ruled – primarily the Spanish and British – dispossessed the indigenous people in this part of the world and imposed their rule over the territory, on the strength of the Papal Bull. That document was a decree from the Roman papacy, which purported to vest ultimate ownership in the hands of that state. It was under this ruthless regime that slavery, conquest, and colonization thrived.

Revolution led to the rise of independence in this region. Guatemala and the other Central American countries – Belize excluded – became independent on the 15 September, 1821; and on July 1823. The countries which had been under the Spanish crown formed a federation, under a unified constitutional rule. While that process was ongoing, the Garinagu who had been living in Honduras and who felt the need to escape what had been called “tyrannical rule” – began the process of seeking to establish new settlements in Belize.

Founder of Garifuna Settlement Day, T. V. Ramos, wrote on 19 November 1941, in a letter to the then District Commissioner of British Honduras, that the Garinagu were “disgusted with the tyrannical rule of the Honduranean Indians after acquiring their independence from Spain…” As such, they came to Belize’s shores seeking liberty and security. Had the area been under the rule of the Central American Federation, the Garinagu would not have settled here.

As far back as 1802, Garinagu had begun to settle in the Old Capital, in what was known as Yarborough. Their numbers grew from 150 to 375 over two decades, when new settlements also emerged south of the Sibun River, under the administration of the British crown.
On March 31, Alejo Beni, Romauldo Lewis, Elias Martinez, Alejo Lambey and Beni’s cousin, Benito Beni, their interpreter, approached Superintendent Major-General Edward Codd (1823-1829) for permission for Garinagu to migrate from Honduras.

Then, on Wednesday, 19 November 1823, a total of 500 Garinagu settled in various parts of what is now known as Belize. They settled Stann Creek Town (now Dangriga), Punta Gorda (Toledo), Seine Bight, Jonathon Point and Newtown – settlements which span the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts today.

The annual reenactment of the Yurumein, in celebration of Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize, cements the fact that the British—and not the Spanish rulers of this sub-region—were the ones administering the lands now known as Belize, even before the 1859 Treaty between Britain and Guatemala, despite Guatemala’s hard-line stance.

Garifuna historian E. Roy Cayetano said at a press conference back in April 2016 that, “When we established our settlements, we established our settlements south of the Sibun River, which at that time was the southern boundary of the settlement. …We were already established, you check it out! All the Garifuna communities – traditional Garifuna communities – are established south of the Sibun River.”

Guatemala wants to file a claim against Belize in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which it intends to call upon the court to determine the respective land masses of Belize and Guatemala, and to indicate where the borders of each country should lie. It cannot go to the court for a final and binding decision without a “yes” vote in a national referendum. That vote is slated for this April.

Belize’s official position continues to be that which is set out in the 1859 Treaty, which it maintains was never a treaty of land cession. The timeline of Garifuna history supports this national stance.

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