Satuyé and the Rebellion that Gave Rise to a People

Sep 30, 2015
4:29 pm
Portrait of Satuyé by Calvert Jones

Portrait of Satuyé by Calvert Jones

The chief lay bleeding, shot by a British officer while leading a rebellion against colonizers in St. Vincent. The Caribbean island was his ancestral homeland, for he could trace his lineage back to the indigenous Arawak people who had inhabited the region at the time of the European invasion, though he also descended from the fugitive Africans who later sought refuge there. Now that same blood was soaking into the soil as Satuyé exhaled for the last time.

The Caribs on St. Vincent had resisted conquest for nearly two centuries, in part due to their reputation as cannibals among the Europeans. (The word cannibal comes from a corruption of the Carib word for “person,” and while there is no evidence suggesting they actually ate people, imposing the cannibal label on natives gave Europeans the religious authority to enslave them.) Beginning in the 17th century, however, both the French and the British would lay claim to St. Vincent, with the French being the first to actually occupy a small corner of it in 1719. Runaway African slaves from the surrounding islands began to arrive in the mid-1600s, mixing with the Caribs and creating a new ethnic group which the British called Black Carib.

The French were forced to surrender their claim over the island to Britain in 1763, and the Brits’ subsequent treatment of the Black Caribs led to the First Carib War. Under Satuyé’s leadership, the Black Caribs used guerrilla tactics in a fierce defense of their lands — which they refused to sell — forcing the British to sign their very first treaty with Caribbean natives in 1773. Satuyé and his people later sided with a French invasion in 1779, but the island was returned to the British under the 1783 treaty that ended the American Revolutionary War. The Black Caribs would maintain their resentment toward the colonizers living on the other half to the island, just as the British themselves resented not being able to take possession of the fertile lands that were rightfully inhabited by the natives.

Then, in a preemptive strike encouraged by the French based in nearby Martinique, Satuyé and the Black Caribs rose up in 1795 and waged a campaign to expel the British from St. Vincent once and for all. Together with his brother Duvalle, who led a separate force on the eastern side of the island, Satuyé advanced down the western coast and met with French revolutionaries before marching on Kingstown, where he was kept from taking control of the British stronghold by the timely arrival of colonial reinforcements. Satuyé chose a hill as the site from which he would attack the town below. But the ferocity of his troops was not enough to defeat the Brits led by Ralph Abercromby, and it was a bullet from one of Abercromby’s officers that stole the life of the Black Caribs’ brave leader on March 14, 1795.

Duvalle would lead the Black Caribs after his brother’s death, but General Abercromby was able to crush them in 1797, a few months before Abercromby’s failed invasion of Puerto Rico. Of the 5,000 Black Caribs whom were banished to the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras, only half survived the voyage. The survivors would form a community at Punta Gorda and begin calling themselves Garífuna. Later they received permission from the Spanish crown to settle the coastal mainland from Belize to Nicaragua. Today there are over half a million Garinagu living in places as scattered as Puerto Rico, Central America and the United States, all of whom trace their histories to the men and women who fought under Satuyé.

The Drama of King Shotaway, an 1823 play considered the first to be written by an African American, is based on the life and death of Satuyé.

Unfortunately, the Garífuna continue to face threats against their way of life — especially in Honduras, home to the largest Garífuna community, where the law often sides with land-grabbing elites working in favor of U.S. business interests. Founded in 1978, the goal of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) is to “represent and defend the interests of the Afro-Caribbean Garífuna minority in Honduras with a mandate to protect the capacities of the Garífuna community and their self-determination through programs promoting political, social, economic, and cultural development.” The Garífuna radio station Faluma Bimetu (“Sweet Coconut”) was burnt to the ground in 2010, and one of OFRANEH’s leaders was murdered in 1997, while another survived an assassination attempt in 2005.

Remembering Satuyé — and the ongoing assault on Afro-Latino culture throughout the Americas — is how we celebrate our heritage.