The Garifuna live in Central America along the coast of the Caribbean sea. Their territory spreads across the borders of four different nations—Belize (formerly British Honduras), Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They are descendants of the Caribs, a people of the island chain known as the Lesser Antilles. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Caribs on the island of St. Vincent intermarried with captured or escaped African slaves.
These people tried to prevent Great Britain from colonizing the island of St. Vincent, but they failed. The Garifuna were deported to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras in 1797. The deportees, about one-fourth of the total Garifuna population, survived and rebuilt their culture in this unfamiliar place. They eventually returned to Central America. They settled mainly in the coastal lowlands of the area that would become the four present nations.
Over the next two centuries, Garifuna population and territory increased greatly. Garifuna formed a major part of the work force on the Central American coast for over a hundred years. In 1823, additional Garifuna migrated to Belize, fleeing a civil war in Honduras. In spite of moving to new places and taking in other peoples, the Garifuna have preserved their cultural identity. They have kept their language and many of the customs, beliefs, and ceremonies of their island ancestors.
The Garifuna live in a chain of villages and towns along the eastern coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. These Caribbean lowlands have a varied terrain. It includes mangrove swamps, tropical rain forests, river valleys, coastal plains, and grassy plains with some pines and palm trees. Many Garifuna have moved to large cities in Central America and the United States. Those in the United States live in communities in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. There are also small groups of Garifuna on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad, Dominica, and St. Vincent.
Because of their migrations to other countries, it is impossible to arrive at exact population figures for the Garifuna. (In addition, only Belize counts them as a distinct ethnic group.) Their total numbers have been estimated between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand. Some estimates figure the Garifuna in the United States alone at around one hundred thousand.
Spanish is the official language of most of the countries in which the Garifuna live. In Belize and the United States, the main language is, of course, English. The native language of the Garifuna (called Garifuna or Garinagu ) comes from the Arawak and Carib languages of their island ancestors.