Garifuna Ambassador and Community Leader, Cynthia Ellis-Topsey thinks that the topic of Baliceaux being up for grabs is “very disrespectful and dishonourable even as a conversation”.
Ellis-Topsey, who was part of a delegation of Garifuna in St Vincent and the Grenadines for National Heroes Day and pre-March 14 commemorative activities, made her views and the views of her people known during a pilgrimage to the uninhabited island.
Baliceaux is a small, barren island that is littered with the bones of thousands of Garifuna people who were exiled in July 1796 after Paramount Chief, Joseph Chatoyer was killed on March 14, 1795.
In less than a year, more than half of the people taken to the island were already dead, and the rest were exiled to Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.
However, despite the richness of the history that is embedded within the soils of the island, many now believe that the integrity of the land is being violated after the announcement that Baliceaux has being placed for sale on the international market for US$30 million.
Ellis-Topsey, who was one of the 61 members of the Garifuna community on the pilgrimage to Baliceaux on Sunday, March 12 told SEARCHLIGHT that despite her disapproval of the sale of the island she sees the announcement of the sale as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.
“…rather than looking at it from a reactive point of view, I look at it from a proactive opportunity where it is an opportunity for us to hold strong. It gives us a good rallying point as Garifuna from all over the world to make sure that we preserve, and cherish, and protect this and so it is an opportunity also to set an example to other people [and] other cultures of the sacredness of life, of the sacredness of being, and of the sacredness of substance.”
Ellis-Topsey said many descendants of the exiles sing about Baliceaux from a place of grief and trauma, but she sees the island as more than that.
“I see it from a place of celebration…in the sense that since we went through this horror this kept us together, it kept us unified. It’s a common ground for all of us and therefore it is a reference point that can unify our Garifuna, not the world humanity, because we have been declared by the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2001, ‘A masterpiece culture for the world.’”
She outlined that Baliceaux is important because every Garifuna knows about the island, even those who don’t live physically in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
“I say physically because even though we are not physically here, we are spiritually here. It’s in our songs, it’s in our stories, it’s in our music, it’s in our way of being, and so the importance for preservation of Baliceaux, first of all is to acknowledge and have the background of our history about Baliceaux.”
Ellis-Topsey also said it is a part of the campaign to make Garifuna a part of the curriculum “…not just for schools but for life, for our pilgrimage, for our journey, so that it is an example of how we are over comers, not just survivors because we more than survived. Survive sound like you went through something terrible, and you get over it but this journey is about never giving up”.
Honorary Consul General in Los Angeles, USA, Dr Cadrin Gill who was also on the pilgrimage to Baliceaux told SEARCHLIGHT that he is also aware of the island being up for sale and hopes that it remains sacred no matter what the outcome.
“My fervent hope, if- and I hope not- this island is sold, that it would still remain a very sacred island for our… [Garifuna people] to visit and make a pilgrimage every year, and I fervently hope [that] this sale would not be implemented.
“ I hope that we can garner our forces, whatever forces that we have, and campaign that this sacred soil should not be sold to anyone.”
Gill added that 226 years ago, when the Garifuna people were exiled to Baliceaux, their descendents have returned on a sacred pilgrimage to resume the culture, the language, and to teach it to the world.
“This soil is very sacred and it should not be violated, and we are hoping that this sacred soil would be a UNESCO sacred site as other parts of the world have been.
“ For example, there is an island off the coast of Africa in Senegal…called Gory Island, where it’s called the place of no return, where our African ancestors were shipped to a little island and they were transhipped to a new world…so we are hoping that this particular island would be as such, to be a place of no return of Garifuna brothers and sisters who were exiled 226 years ago, and I hope that this pilgrimage would be a template for other pilgrimages to come. “