Pilgrimage to Baliceaux – A Vincentian site of sacred memory and mass murder
Baliceaux, the site of Garifuna genocide.
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March 24, 2023

Pilgrimage to Baliceaux – A Vincentian site of sacred memory and mass murder

by Dr Garrey Michael Dennie

Baliceaux is a site of mass murder. Beneath its stony soils lie more than 2000 bodies of men, women, and children who fell to hunger, disease, and above all, the unfettered cruelty of British colonial officials and their Vincentian planter allies who, in 1797, violated European conventions of war and murdered their captured combatants.

This was deliberate slaughter, not accidental deaths. Hence, murder is the term that precisely captures the unforgivable criminal conduct of the British captors. This criminal charge against the British carries even greater force because long before 1797 the existing theory of Just War explicitly stipulated that prisoners of war were entitled to “benevolent quarantine,” a humane platform of rights that recognized the moral equality of opposing combatants.

But nothing about Garifuna imprisonment on Baliceaux was benevolent. Rather, the British ignored their obligations to the prisoners of war and instead, constructed a death camp. Indeed, in less than a year, the camp decimated the Garifuna, killing one out of every two prisoners.

This atrocity rested on a simple truth: without food and water, Baliceaux was inimical to human life. Concentration camps would become the most morally revolting atrocity of 20th century warfare. But Baliceaux’s transformation into a British death factory precedes the German death camps by 140 years.

In fact, over the next 200 years the British hid their crime against humanity. Time was a crucial accomplice in their effort to erase the Baliceaux Holocaust from the Vincentian historical memory. After all, people grow old. People die. And memories fade away into oblivion.

Time, however, was not the sole contributor to the destruction of the historical knowledge of the atrocities the British committed on Baliceaux. In fact, the British colonial state took active measures designed to sanitize the Garifuna Genocide. First, they transformed Baliceaux into a private island. The dreams of wealth helped to obscure the memory of Baliceaux as a site of mass burial. Thus, by the mid-20th century, these processes of historical erasure had wiped from the Vincentian collective memory the harsh truth of Baliceaux: that the bodies of Garifuna men, women, and children lay unmarked, un-mourned, and un-remembered beneath its stony soil.

In place of the truth that Baliceaux was a permanent monument to the mass murder, the colonial masters fed generations of Vincentians a tale of cannibalistic “Caribs,” docile “yellow Caribs,” and warlike “Black Caribs.” Modern historians and anthropologists have completely debunked these colonial categories that drew lines of division between indigenous Vincentians.

In fact, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the gene flow between African and South American peoples had begun as early as the 1500s. This escalated in the 1600s, and by the 1700s a newly dominant hybrid population had emerged with a distinct sense of themselves. They named themselves the Garifuna but the British would call them the Black Caribs. In the strictest sense, they were the genetic legacy of their Kalinago ancestors – the so called “yellow Caribs” and hence, the rightful owners of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Two momentous developments, however, would disrupt and destroy the British misrepresentations of the Garifuna. First, the Garifuna who survived the mass murder visited upon them in 1797 never forgot their tribulations. Neither did their children. And all the generations thereafter. Rather, they wove a new cosmology of belongingness centering St Vincent and the Grenadines as ancestral land to which they must return. And they transformed Baliceaux into a sacred space in which the dead must be venerated. The foundation stone for the Pilgrimage to Baliceaux was therefore born out of a trans generational mourning that has no parallel in the Caribbean.

This Sacred Journey, however, could not be fulfilled without a second development: the emergence of a new community of conscience in St Vincent and the Grenadines deeply mindful of the need to construct a new Vincentian history that was more than an apology for genocide, slavery, and colonial rule. This process had begun in the 1960’s during the Black Power era and accelerated after St Vincent became an independent country. By the 1990s it was now firmly rooted.

No one has epitomized the reclamation of the Garifuna into the Vincentian story better than Dr Ralph Gonsalves. In 20 years, he has marshalled the levers of state to elevate Chatoyer to the status of our national hero, facilitated the Garifuna return to their Yurumein, and accommodated the Pilgrimage to Baliceaux.

On March 12, 2023, I too, joined the solemn Pilgrimage to Baliceaux. I hold that unique within the Caribbean, Vincentians are custodians of a sacred trust: the preservation of Baliceaux as a site of sacred memory and monument to mass murder. Here, Vincentians and Garifuna must mourn together.